February 9, 2016 - As the water crisis in Flint continues to escalate, Vien Truong, an environmental champion and clean energy expert, is challenging Michigan and other states to an unusual call to arms: use pollution - or more accurately, the government mandated tax on it - to help end poverty in low-income communities like Flint. Vien Truong has devoted her career to helping low income communities of color breath easier. After a landmark victory in California, in which she helped to move one quarter of every dollar the government collects for a pollution tax to be reinvested in vulnerable communities, she’s looking at replicating that success across the country.
“In a tragedy like this, policymakers often focus solely on what went wrong and point fingers at one another until the issue falls out of the news,” said Truong. “It’s not enough to just find blame, we must also find real solutions. We must create lasting and sustainable change in our environment and communities suffering the most.”
Truong was a leader in the passage and implementation of California’s SB 535 (de Leon), a landmark bill which implemented a “cap-and-invest” system. Under a cap and trade system, polluters must clean up or pay up. SB 535 required that at least a quarter of those funds created are reinvested back into the same disadvantaged communities that suffer from hot-spots of harmful pollutants. Since its implementation three years ago, the policy has moved billions of dollars into low income communities and communities of color, providing them with programs to bring clean and green technology like affordable housing by transit-oriented development, thousands of free trees for concrete jungles, and car-shares for disadvantaged families. A number of environmental, health and socioeconomic indicators are used to determine the distribution of these funds, including drinking water quality, ozone concentrations in the air, and poverty rate.
In her efforts to get all 49 other states to adopt the same or similar model, with Oregon and Washington State currently debating similar pieces of legislation, Truong is especially focused on the most vulnerable, like those in Flint. Her organization, Green for All, is reaching out to local decision-makers to offer their assistance.
In an interview last month with NPR, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said that she believes race and poverty have played a significant role in the state’s botched response to the crisis. As recently as last year, the American Lung Association ranked the ozone quality in Flint as among the worst in the nation, and unaddressed infrastructure issues have contributed to a dipping population and climbing poverty rate.
“Much of what is happening in Flint is consistent with what's being seen across the country: the communities suffering from the greatest pollution are also living in the highest levels of poverty, and are so often overlooked by environmental efforts. As Michigan charts out a path forward for the people of Flint and other vulnerable populations in the state, it should take heed from examples like SB 535 for how to create sustainably healthy communities,” said Truong. “Flint has a long road of recovery ahead, and communities around the country that have seen the ugly face of environmental racism stand ready contribute their best ideas to help Flint make a comeback.”