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Visiting speaker: 'There are many Flints in this country'

Environmental racism expert to speak in Iowa City

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IOWA CITY — Environmental justice — or injustice — is not just a Flint, Mich. issue.

It’s a DeBerry, Texas issue. It’s a Dickson, Tenn. issue. And it can be an Iowa issue, too.

Robert D. Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, will be on the University of Iowa campus Tuesday to discuss environmental racism — specifically the recent water crisis in Flint and whether similar injustices could, or already do, exist here.

“(Flint) is not isolated,” Bullard said in an interview with The Gazette. “It’s not a fluke. It’s just pulled the scab off this sore called environmental injustice and environmental racism.”

Bullard, who has been described as the “father of environmental justice,” received his doctorate from Iowa State University in 1976 and went on to author 18 books covering topics like sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, climate justice, emergency response, smart growth, and regional equity.

He’s testified as an expert witness and served as a technical adviser for hundreds of civil rights lawsuits and public hearings over the past 30 years, and he’s documented — among many others — water-related injustices in both DeBerry, Texas, and Dickson, Tenn.

While in Iowa City Bullard will unpack recent events in Flint and consider possible parallels in Iowa during a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday talk at the Englert Theatre called, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: Flint Water Crisis.” The UI Lecture Committee is hosting Bullard, whose appearance is associated with the campus’ “Just Living Theme Semester” focused on social justice.

He also will host a student conversation earlier in the day, giving students an opportunity to ask questions and engage in debate.

Bullard told The Gazette his years of research and advocacy have revealed low-income families and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental threats than affluent and white populations. Those threats include lead in drinking water, chemical pollutants from farming runoff, pesticide exposure, and other industrial-related health hazards for poorly protected plant workers.

When it comes to the issue of pesticide exposure, Bullard said, migrant farmworkers and their families are most at risk.

“The most vulnerable in this case are Hispanic children whose parents are migrant farmworkers,” Bullard said.

When analyzing industrial facilities and related contaminants — another topic with Iowa relevance — Bullard said low-income and minority populations are more likely to live nearby and risk exposure. And, he said, an analysis of 413 hazardous waste facilities across the country revealed low-income and minority families more often reside with two miles.

“We know who is in the line of fire and who is in that hot zone,” he said.

Bullard also has assessed fallout and long-term health consequences from higher levels of hazardous exposure, finding increased rates of asthma, cancer, and other diseases.

“Life expectancy varies by 10 to 20 years,” he said. “You can live longer if you are in the Zip code across the river or the tracks.”

Flint’s recent crisis over lead in its drinking water — and the government response — turned a national spotlight on the issue of environmental discrimination, although Bullard stressed it’s not an isolated occurrence.

“It follows a pattern that I, along with a number of other researchers and scholars, have documented over decades,” he said. “Some communities are not created equal.”

In the Flint case, the community that once boasted the largest U.S. General Motors plant has a population of nearly 100,000, with about 42 percent living below the poverty line and about 57 percent identifying as African American.

The State of Michigan took over Flint’s finances in 2011, and it switched the city’s water sources in 2014 in hopes of reducing a shortfall in the water fund. After that switch, lead from aging service lines began leaching into the water supply — even as government officials ensured its safety.

As more concerns aired, government officials began using bottled water despite advising the public that tap water was safe for the general public. Last year, 18 months after switching to the Flint River, officials advised against the water’s consumption, having discovered the proportion of children with high lead levels in their blood had doubled.

Research findings since have emerged showing some Flint homes had water containing lead levels on par with toxic waste. Lead exposure in children can cause behavioral disorders, hearing problems, delayed puberty, and other types of impaired cognition.

“I think what the Flint water crisis really shows is that, in a lot of cases, the state environmental protection agency that’s charged with enforcing federal environmental laws oftentimes does a very poor job,” Bullard said.

He and his fellow advocates for years have complained that states have not been penalized for infractions. And that, in part, is the impetus for his advocacy.

“We need to go and less finger pointing and more looking at solutions and how do we not allow this kind of preventable catastrophe to occur again,” he said.

Bullard said he’s glad to finally have lots of eyes on these types of issues, as there are a lot of lessons to be learned and a lot of opportunities for improvement.

“There are many Flints across this country,” he said.

If you go:

What: Robert Bullard’s presentation, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: Flint Water Crisis”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 19

Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City

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