Campus News

‘DifCon’ wraps up with in-depth look at Flint water crisis

Flint water company

The water crisis in Flint was the starting point for discussion at the final "DifCon" event.


Published October 31, 2016

“We have a long history of lead poisoning, mainly through lead paint in [Buffalo’s] old housing stock.”
Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer

Lead poisoning has been a serious public health danger during the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And the issue is now of key interest locally, as recent tests have revealed high lead levels in water in Western New York.

Which begs the question: Is Buffalo the next Flint?  

The fifth and final installment of the “DifCon: Our Cities. Our Issues.” series last Friday focused on how lead poisoning connects Flint to Buffalo and the issues that come with water contamination.  

“The goal of the series is to gain a deeper understanding of global issues,” Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion and organizer of the series, told the small audience in the Intercultural and Diversity Center. “These things are going on in the broader world. How do we as a community at UB respond to that?”  

Framing Friday’s discussion were panelists Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer; Henry Louis Taylor, professor of urban and regional planning; and James Jensen, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering. Each spoke for 10 minutes on different aspects of lead poisoning in Flint and Buffalo.  

Elaborating on the dangers and risks associated with lead poisoning, McPherson raised the issue of lead in school water pipes. Recent testing found lead levels in numerous schools in the Buffalo Public Schools and other local school districts are well above acceptable Environmental Protection Agency levels. Despite this news, this isn’t the first time lead has been a local issue.

“We have a long history of lead poisoning, mainly through lead paint in [Buffalo’s] old housing stock,” McPherson noted.

Taylor broadened the discussion by pointing out the social, political and economic issues tied to Flint’s polluted water.

He said the way that cities are built puts those from lower-income groups — specifically African-Americans and Latinos — at higher risk of suffering from lead toxicity. They are placed in harm’s way, he said, because they are more likely to live on underdeveloped land among harmful environmental elements.

“Land is a commodity and the goal is to maximize profits in the utilization of this land,” Taylor said. “If we didn’t put profits over people and didn’t build cities in ways that concentrated lower-income people in underdeveloped lands, we would be here discussing another kind of difficult problem.”

Taylor noted that Flint’s water crisis began long before the city’s water source was changed from the safe Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the contaminated Flint River.

He argued that the crisis began when companies decided to use lead paint on water pipes that provided the city with drinkable water — a decision that benefited the lead industry, he said. Had lead paint not been used, Taylor says, the situation wouldn’t be what it is today.    

Jensen addressed the scientific and engineering aspects of water contamination, emphasizing the importance of looking at the different perspectives related to one issue.

“With lead poisoning, there are really important scientific, policy, legal and social justice perspectives,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves and society to have a baseline understanding of all of these perspectives.”

Jensen told the audience that harmful environmental pollutants can come from main water sources, water pipes and service lines. At this point, the best solution to reducing lead-contaminated water is to replace the water infrastructure entirely — something, he said, that is easier said than done.     

Panelists agreed that a possible solution to prevent water contamination from threatening communities is to have those responsible for polluting the environment held accountable and pay the consequences.     

“Now is the time to respond to those who are responsible,” Jenson said.

Taylor suggested sending those responsible to jail would create a just society, as their actions have raised serious issues, like endangering the lives of low-income people living in contaminated areas.

The discussion concluded with words of encouragement. Panelists told the audience that their resources, knowledge and imagination will help foster leaders who can build a better future.    

“Inspiration leads to education; education leads to action,” McPherson said.

“We are the future,” Taylor said. “We will write the next chapter of U.S. and world history. We should think deeply about what we want that chapter to look like.”