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Beyond Flint (Mich.)

Beyond Flint (Mich.)

International Business Times | Published January 25, 2016


NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — Elizer Lee Cruz will occasionally look out at English Station — the shuttered and corroding coal power plant sitting on an eight-acre island in the middle of Mill River — and marvel at its architecture. From Fair Haven, a neighborhood just east of the river comprising largely minority and working-poor people, Cruz and his neighbors can see the tops of four of the facility’s smokestacks that stopped billowing in 1992.

“The way the bricks are laid — little blocks of cement with a circle and a lightning bolt — it was a power plant that was built to the glory of God,” he says, describing what he can see from the riverbanks. But that awe is fleeting for Cruz, an environmental activist who last year fought a plan that would have reopened the plant .

English Station, though dormant for more than two decades, still casts a large shadow. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has condemned it as a brownfield site whose grounds are tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a contaminant that causes cancer. The energy company that once owned the facility sold it to another company, and a disagreement over who is responsible for the site’s neglect has delayed cleanup.

Meanwhile, Fair Haven’s Latino, black and immigrant residents cast fishing lines along the river adjacent to and downstream from the power plant, where some of the marine life is already contaminated with PCBs. City and state officials have discouraged consuming certain kinds of fish that come from the Mill River, but Cruz worries that stalled cleanup of English Station is endangering some immigrant families who sustain families with their catches.

“If there is anything known or unknown that is escaping into the water, they’re eating it,” says Cruz.

Because of New Haven’s own history of environmental problems, Cruz is watching the ongoing scandal over Flint, Michigan’s poisoned water supply with great interest. He and other community advocates are all too familiar with one of the hidden truths of American ecological injustice: People of color are disproportionately harmed by neglected environmental issues.

The Flint water crisis continues to generate headlines, but the negligence and mismanagement of public resources in largely minority communities reaches far beyond the borders of that central Michigan city. Across the country, blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to live dangerously close to environmental hazards.

Connecticut is among the states with the worst disparities, with a higher proportion of poor minorities living near facilities that use, store, process or emit harmful chemicals, according to the Center for Effective Government report released this month. The study suggests that, nationwide, proximity to such sites increases the risk of death, disease and other poor health outcomes in children and adults.

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Vanita Gupta, the DOJ's Civil Rights warrior

Vanita Gupta, the DOJ's Civil Rights warrior

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