The day before a Democratic presidential debate in New York, Hillary Clinton rolled out an environmental justice plan that calls for eliminating lead as a major public health threat within five years.
She would have her work cut out for her, as Flint, Mich.’s lead-poisoning crisis has shown. As Clinton reminded her audience today in a speech on racial justice at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference: “There are a lot of Flints across our country where children are exposed to polluted air, unhealthy water and chemicals that can increase cancer risk.”
Studies show that some 500,000 U.S. children under the age of 5, who are predominantly black and Latino, have high levels of lead in their bloodstreams. This is primarily because of lead-based paint in old buildings, but also stems from contaminated soil and drinking water. When it comes to water contamination, we don’t even know where most of the problematic pipes are concentrated; best guesses range from 3 to 10 million lead service lines in America. Nor do we have consistent reporting on concentrated areas of lead paint in homes.
Despite the myriad challenges, Clinton insisted Wednesday: “If we put our minds to it, it can be done.”
Her plan calls for:
- A Presidential Commission on Childhood Lead Exposure and a task force charged with finding and fixing 50 other Flints around the country.
- Directing all federal agencies to develop plans on environmental justice and ensure that the Justice Department prosecutes environmental crimes as heavily as other crimes.
- More funding — specifically, up to $5 billion in federal dollars — to replace lead paint in homes and contaminated soils in school yards.
- Federal incentives through her Clean Energy Challenge (something Clinton proposed previously) so that states have a reason to exceed federal standards for lead reduction and other types of pollution.
- Funds to replenish the Superfund budget to clean up over 450,000 polluted sites around the U.S.
- An update the Lead Disclosure Rule and Safe Water Drinking Act to improve lead inspections, and the need for more infrastructure spending to fix water and transportation-related pollution.
A number of these proposals would require Congress to cough up more funding for infrastructure and transportation, as well as for Congress to amend laws. And a few of them overlap with proposals from Bernie Sanders, who has also called for more funds for Superfund sites and directing agencies to develop clear priorities on environmental justice. Sanders, too, has highlighted the “unequal exposure of people of color to harmful chemicals, pesticides and other toxins in homes, schools, neighborhoods and workplaces” on his campaign website.
Flint has featured heavily in the Democratic primary and was the site of a Clinton-Sanders debate in March. With a week to go before New Yorkers vote, environmental justice is back in the national spotlight. But the intertwined problems of pollution, poverty, and racism won’t be fixed in just a handful of debates.