Uncovering The Environmental Racism Behind Flint's Water Crisis
All eyes have turned toward Flint, Michigan this week, as government officials, environmental activists, and celebrities have begun to take notice of the ongoing, two-year-old water crisis in the city. The story, which is now being likened to Hurricane Katrina by some critics, doesn’t begin with the declaration of a state of emergency on January 5th by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder—it begins in April 2014. It was at this point that city officials formally switched the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This move was done as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. The problem, though, is that the Flint River is notoriously toxic and—unlike Joan Jett—residents do in fact give a damn about it’s bad reputation. As the city of nearly 100,000 began to drink from the new water source, reports began to flow in about strange rashes and an odd taste, smell, and color coming from the tap water. Despite all of that, city officials insisted it was safe to drink and ignored the problem.
It took a study by a heroic doctor at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint back in September to convince city officials that there was a problem—and one that’s far more serious that anyone could’ve imagined. Her name is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and she is the pediatrician who studied lead levels in children that came into her office. The findings? The water that had now been flowing through the city’s pipes for over a year was poisoning children at an alarming rate. Specifically, the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled. As if those findings weren’t bad enough, a group of Virginia Tech researchers who sampled the water in the summer of 2015 found that the levels of lead in the water were so bad in some homes that they met the EPA’s definition of “toxic waste.” Before any action was taken, the results were denounced by state officials, before they finally gave in and admitted that the water was poisonous. By October, the water source was switched back to Lake Huron—but the damage had been done. Now, the question isn’t whether the water was dangerous but rather how a water supply switch led to lead poisoning.
The answer, it turns out, has more to do with the city’s residents than the simple answer of corroded pipes. Since the 1970s, research has been compiled that links low income communities that have majority populations of people of color with an increased likelihood of lead poisoning; air pollution; and proximity to landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste treatment facilities. This connection is known as environmental racism, and it lies at the heart of the Flint water crisis. The city is nearly 47 percent African American—with 41 percent of residents living below the poverty line—and hasn’t had control of its finances since 2011. That’s right. Every financial decision in Flint since 2011 has been made at the state levels rather than by the city council or mayor thanks to a Michigan law that allows the state to appoint an emergency financial manager to handle the city’s budget. In total, about 50 percent of Michigan’s African American population is under the control of an emergency manger who doesn’t need to be elected to the position. During the ten-year period between 2003 and 2013, expected revenue was cut by nearly $55 million. That’s a problem for a city plagued with an aging water infrastructure system that would cost an estimated $767 million. In comparison, cities with majority white populations and economic problems like Troy, Hazel Park, and Pleasant Ridge never came under financial oversight.
For the residents in Flint, they now have to face the fear of lead poisoning and all of its side effects as they grapple with what comes next. Lead poisoning—which is irreversible—could lead to skin lesions, hair loss, vision loss, memory loss, depression, and anxiety in the short term. For children, it can impact their IQ and lead to learning disabilities. As if that weren’t awful enough, a study from 2011 has resurfaced that found that if the city had paid $100 a day for water from the river to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent, it could have prevented 90% of the problems in Flint. It’s a startling reality that is the basis for one of the class-action lawsuits facing the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which violated federal law when it failed to treat water with the anti-corrosive agent. This caused the water to erode the iron water mains and turn the water brown. The color was at least a problem the residents could see. Lead, meanwhile, was a hidden problem that stemmed from lead pipes that were corroding from the toxic water.
The nation has erupted in outrage, and responded with compassion as citizens and government officials grapple with the ongoing water crisis. To date, Gov. Snyder, Mayor Karen Weaver, and President Obama have all declared a state of emergency as the National Guard hands out supplies in town. As the officials grapple with how best to handle the situation and find funding to help the citizens, people from around the country have stepped up efforts to help. Cher teamed up with Icelandic Glacial to provide 180,000 bottles of clean water, while a Muslim group called “Who is Hussain?” have donated 30,000 bottles.
GOV.SNYDER,R U RESPONSIBLE⁉️ HELL YES‼️ IT WAS"YOUR JOB"2KNOW‼️U DIDNT CARE ENOUGH 2SPEND 100💰A DAY,2KEEP WATER SAFE,4Babies,Kids,Old Folks
— Cher (@cher) January 16, 2016
🙏🏻DIDNT KNOW PPL R DYING FROM LEGIONNAIRES DISEASE IN FLINT💔GIFT FROM UR POISON WATER GOV.SNYDER☠ #WhatWillWashAwayYourSins CLEAN WATER⁉️
— Cher (@cher) January 14, 2016
On the political front, the issue came up during the Democratic debate on Sunday as both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton called for action against the government officials who knowingly poisoned residents in Flint. Hillary said that “every single American should be outraged,” while Bernie went a step further in his condemnation—calling for the Governor’s resignation. Whatever happens, no amount of resignations or legal action will make the reality facing Flint residents hurt less. A population that has struggled through poverty and neglect was allowed to be poisoned by state officials to save money and that’s a tragedy that can never be forgiven.
Stay tuned to Milk for more updates.
Images via Detroit Free Press, Sam Owens, and The Associated Press.