Groups Call on Feds to Investigate Possible Civil Rights Violations in Flint and Detroit

Federal agencies must require Michigan agencies to comply with federal civil rights laws


Keith Rushing, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5236, (757) 897-2147


Marianne Engelman Lado, Earthjustice, (212) 845-7393


Christine Ernst, Earthjustice, (212) 845-7385

Representatives from Flint and Detroit, as well as state-wide and national groups, are calling on federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to review whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) are violating civil rights laws that prohibit actions and policies that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or disability.

Location of Detroit and Flint, Michigan.

In a letter released this morning, the groups called on the EPA Office of Civil Rights and HHS Office for Civil Rights to review whether MDEQ and MDHHS are in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bar the use of federal funds for activities that have an unjustified, unequal impact on the basis of race, color, national origin or disability.

What You Need To Know About Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Randy Edwards / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Read the explainer

The letter asked federal agencies to require the Michigan state agencies to institute policies designed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The groups asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to coordinate the interagency investigation.

“The federal government, including the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, HHS and the DOJ, have a duty to ensure that Michigan comply with the law and stop taking actions that imperil the health and well-being of the state’s residents of color, immigrants and people with disabilities who have the same rights as other Michigan residents,” said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado, who helped draft the complaint letter on behalf of Flint and Detroit-based community organizations as well as state-wide and national groups and individuals.

In the letter the groups say MDHHS and MDEQ have been failing to comply with these federal civil rights laws. “The Flint water crisis is the tragic result of the chronic refusal of MDEQ and MDHHS to comply with their civil rights obligations,” the letter states.

Groups signing the letter include The ACLU of Michigan, Community Development Organization, Crossing Water, Food & Water Watch, Genessee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, IHM Justice, Jesus People Against Pollution, Michigan Voice, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Peace and Sustainability Office, Michigan Faith in Action, NRDC, Ocean Future, Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit, Sierra Club, St. Francis Prayer Center, Southeast Michigan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, Water You Fighting For, West End Revitalization Association, and Yemen American Benevolent Association.

The groups claim both agencies exacerbated the crisis in Flint.

“MDEQ demonstrated callous and unjustifiable indifference to the concerns of Flint’s residents—most of whom are African American—before, during and after the switch to Flint River water,” the letter states. “Despite noting the poor quality of water in the Flint River, MDEQ disregarded the complaints of residents and failed to take the most basic steps to protect their health.”

“I do think race is a factor,” said Nakiya Wakes, a Flint mother of two, who is among those supporting this effort.

“Flint is a majority black city. The two highest lead levels found were in majority African-American areas,” she added.

Wakes, who volunteers with Michigan Faith in Action and Flint Rising, said lead levels in her home were determined to be 1,100 parts per billion, which is more than 70 times EPA’s actionable standard when lead levels are considered to be unsafe.

Wakes had a miscarriage while she was pregnant with twins last year before news of the Flint water crisis broke, when she was unaware of the toxins in the water. Her two children, who had extremely high lead levels in their blood, have serious emotional difficulties and visit therapists. They’ve had problems in school and behavioral issues.

“I do believe lead contamination had something to do with the loss of my twins. The lead prevented them from forming,” said Wakes. I lost one at five weeks and the other once in the second trimester.”

Lead causes physical and mental impairment. It can cause miscarriages in expectant mothers and has been linked to ADHD and impulsivity.

San Juana “Juani” Olivares, president of Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, Inc., saw the disadvantages that people with limited English proficiency faced in Flint.

“Huge failures by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services led to the Flint Water Crisis but that crisis was compounded when access to help was not provided in languages that people can understand well,” Olivares said.

When public health advisories went out about water filters and bottled water, many people had no knowledge that such help was available and continued to consume toxic water. These state agencies are failing and causing disparities if they do not communicate to people who have limited English proficiency.”

Vincent Martin, an executive board member with Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit, said the complaint is necessary “to be protected from institutional racism.”

“The environmental decisions that are made nationally are targeted towards communities such as 48217 and Flint.”

Zip code 48217 is the most polluted zip code in Michigan and predominantly African American.

“When a majority white community has environmental issues, they are resolved with haste. For communities of color, decisions are delayed with excuses and finger pointing. Environmental racism has damaged communities of color for generations. Decisions made are killing off our population.”

The groups say the discriminatory origins of the crisis are clear. “MDEQ and MDHHS would never have treated a white, affluent city with the callousness that characterized their approach to Flint. This fundamental injustice has caused Flint residents, and especially Flint’s children, irreparable harm,” the groups state.

The groups argue that the federal agencies could help bring Michigan into compliance with federal civil rights laws, eliminate some of the systematic failures that led to the crisis, and help Michigan start on the road toward regaining the trust of its citizens.

David Holtz, the chair of Sierra Club Michigan, which also signed the letter, said the Flint Water Crisis is an issue of fairness and equity.

“Every family, regardless of skin color, has the right to expect that the air they breathe is clean, that the water they drink is safe, and that their government will treat them with fairness and equality,” Holtz said. “In Flint, that clearly wasn’t the case. There are serious questions about whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was following the law and it’s the federal government’s responsibility to find out.”

The groups offered numerous examples of MDEQ and MDHHS actions in Flint and Wayne County that have had a disparate impact on the basis of race, national origin and disability.

In Flint, the groups charge, MDHHS repeatedly failed to offer information about emergency services in languages other than English, which created a barrier to accessing services for those with limited English proficiency. Flint’s immigrant community experienced additional barriers to services when MDHHS announced that officials at water distribution centers would ask for a form of government-issued photo identification. An estimated 1,000 immigrants in Flint are undocumented and government-issued identification is not available to them. As a result, many continued to consume unsafe water.

The groups also state that the emergency response has failed people with disabilities that limit their ability to access centers where water and filters are provided. Because they were not provided with services in their homes, these individuals have been forced to either rely on the efforts of volunteers or continue to drink and use contaminated water.

The groups state that discriminatory practices at MDEQ are not confined to Flint. In Wayne County, Michigan, MDEQ has demonstrated a pattern and practice of ignoring the disproportionate burden of pollution borne by the local community when making permitting and enforcement decisions.

“MDEQ has recurrently granted emissions limit increases and other permit expansions in overburdened communities of color; entered weak enforcement actions when industrial sources repeatedly violated their permit limits; and ignored the communities’ health concerns, despite comments from community groups consistently raising concerns about the disproportionate health impacts on low-income immigrant communities and communities of color,” the letter states.

Some Facts About Disparate Environmental Impact in Michigan

  • A portion of Wayne County, zip code 48217, in Southwest Detroit, is 79.5 percent African-American (only 12 percent white) and University of Michigan scientists found it to be the most polluted zip code in the state.
  • Neighboring Dearborn is approximately half Arab American, eighty percent of Dearborn residents speak a language other than English, and 40 percent have incomes that fall below the poverty line
  • The Michigan Department of Community Health has referred to Detroit, a predominantly black city, “as the epicenter of the asthma burden in Michigan.”
  • That same agency found that the prevalence of asthma among adults was 50 percent higher than the statewide average.Ninety-two schools in Wayne County are in areas that violate federal environmental protection laws.The Flint crisis had numerous impacts including: an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that resulted in at least 10 deaths and lead exposure for an unknown number of the city’s children, who have now sustained permanent neurological damage.

The groups note that the disparities in health and environmental protections continue.

“Though disparities in environmental protection in Wayne County have not been the focus of national attention, children of color in Wayne County and across Michigan are saddled with health burdens at an early age because MDHHS and MDEQ similarly refuse to protect them,” the groups state.

The groups are asking the federal government to take the following actions, among others:

  • Conduct a thorough compliance review of MDEQ and MDHHS and, particularly, the actions, policies and practices that gave rise to the Flint Water Crisis and, also, the concentration of polluting sources in Wayne County.
  • Require MDEQ and MDHHS to evaluate, in consultation with affected populations, whether a decision will have a “disproportionately high and adverse effect” on the basis of race or national origin and, if so, create mechanisms to ensure that it will only be carried out if further mitigation measures or alternatives that would avoid, minimize, or mitigate the disproportionately high and adverse effect are not practicable.
Bottled water distribution by National Guard at Fire Station 6, in downtown Flint, Michigan, on January 23, 2016.
Bottled water distribution by National Guard at Fire Station 6, in downtown Flint, Michigan, on January 23, 2016. (Linda Parton / Shutterstock)

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