In the 21st century, our industrialized system has stripped the human element from the most basic human needs. Food, air, and water—these things are elemental, required by all life. Yet the molecules that sustain us are too often consigned to the footnotes of our life story.
But few people read the footnotes until their lives depend upon it. Unless they’re black or poor. Or they live in Flint, Michigan, with brackish, brownish water pouring out of their taps. Imagine, for just one minute, learning that you fed your baby formula with water that was tainted by lead, and that it may be years before symptoms manifest.
The tragedy and malfeasance should shock even the most cynical.
“Emergency Managers” make a bad situation worse
A series of missteps contributed to Flint’s water crisis. As the city of 100,000 struggled with dramatic job losses over the last decade, Flint walked the tightrope of insolvency. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a staunch conservative who preaches the gospel of austerity, appointed a series of emergency managers, and gave them unprecedented powers to enact civic policy with minimal oversight.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Credit: Source.
Each manager took dramatic steps to cut the city’s operational costs. Eventually, Flint's water supply was placed under the financial microscope, and some number cruncher determined that switching primary sources from Detroit to the Flint River would save
more than $1 million a year. For bottom-liners, the decision was easy. It didn’t matter that the Flint River was unclean, a convenient dumping ground for garbage and old appliances for more than a generation. What mattered was carving line items from the civic balance sheet.
On April 25, 2014, Flint shut off the Detroit water supply and opened the Flint River floodgates. Within weeks, residents complained that their water was discolored and tainted. They suffered rashes, and worried about bacterial contamination.
City and state officials dismissed their concerns, and insisted repeatedly that all was well. By August 2014, residents were under a boil order and, by October, General Motors stopped using municipal water at its Flint plant because it corroded equipment.
But according to officials, it was perfectly safe to drink—as long as it was boiled first.
The High Cost of Saving Money
A year ago, amid rising complaints, Detroit’s water system offered to reconnect to Flint, waiving the $4 million reconnection fee. Emergency manager Jerry Ambrose declined. By February, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests showed that water culled from residents’ taps was contaminated with lead leaching from old pipes and infrastructure because, as we now know, Flint's water wasn't properly treated to prevent corrosion. The EPA contacted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to discuss this life-threatening problem, but their warnings were ignored.
Officials’ mindless lack of action strains credulity. What happened next, however, crossed the line between gross incompetence and criminal negligence.
Over the course of six or seven months, bureaucrats and politicians argued the efficacy of any water
tests and willfully deceived Flint’s citizens. EPA scientists and area doctors urged state action, and their concerns were ignored or suppressed. Still, the EPA didn’t force the issue.
Lead is a soft, pliable heavy metal that is extremely hazardous, and its poisonous effects have been known for centuries. “Lead poisoning has been a scourge to human health for millennia,” wrote The World Health Organization in a 2010 report. “Childhood lead poisoning has been a recognized clinical entity since the first decade of the 20th century.” (Some criminologists and epidemiologists argue that leaded gasoline was responsible for 90 percent of the spike in crime between 1950 and 1980, and as consumption of leaded gasoline declined, so too did crime.)
Lead is abundant on our planet, and is therefore impossible to avoid. But minimizing exposure is crucial. Too much lead is especially harmful to young children because it can severely affect mental and physical development, and it does so for years after exposure. Elevated levels of lead in anything that touches our lives is bad news.
There is strong evidence linking lead toxicity to damage in every major system in the human body: nervous, skeletal, cardiovascular, reproductive. It’s linked to health problems from birth defects to kidney failure to tooth decay. And while not everyone knows exactly how toxic the element is, we all know that it’s poisonous.
Even if the handful of bureaucrats in Michigan were unaware of lead’s dangers, what about state and
federal experts who worked this case? They knew that Flint’s water supply contained dangerous levels of lead, but rather than err on the side of caution, they played politics with people’s lives. Was it because those people were poor?
Stories Like Flint Seldom Happen in White America
From its earliest days, the Flint water scandal has been sold as a public relations problem, when it is, in fact, a serious health crisis. EPA readings in Flint have averaged 11 parts per billion (ppb), more than twice what is considered safe. One reading soared as high as 13,000 ppb. Every child in the city has been exposed. It will cost more than $1.5 billion to remediate.
Michigan, bordered by two of the five Great Lakes, is a successful, industrial state in the world’s richest democracy—not a developing world economy where people scrabble and scrape just to survive. It’s hard to imagine affluent people in McLean, VA, or Greenwich, CT, or Newport Beach, CA, being treated with such callous disregard for their long-term well-being.
In the New York Times, John Eligon speaks of environmental racism in Flint—a contention that is hard to refute, and which leads to one inevitable conclusion: in 2016 America, the bottom line is more important than poor people’s lives.
More than 56 percent of Flint residents are African-American, as opposed to just 14 percent statewide. News stories reveal the same systemic racism that many people associate with New Orleans in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina. In most recent medical tests, lead levels in the blood of Flint children have double and tripled. John Wiggins, 62, has to bathe his wife in untreated water even though she’s sick with lupus. Many teenagers have complained of mouth sores, or that they’re unable to shake colds, while others have experienced nausea and vomiting.
As political apologies go, Gov. Snyder’s was forthright. He seemed shaken, and he accepted full responsibility, admitting that he failed Flint. But when asked if racism was a major factor in the state’s response to the crisis,
Snyder replied, “Absolutely not.” For Snyder, the good work his people have done in the poorest areas of Pontiac and Detroit—reducing violent crime, creating jobs in underprivileged communities—is proof that he and his government understand the importance of serving those in greatest need.
But his words don’t support the facts. A task force formed by Snyder’s administration found that the failure to provide safe drinking water was primarily the fault of the MDEQ, reporting that agency staffers engaged in “aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved.”
Snyder is not a rookie governor at the beginning of his mandate. If the atmosphere at the Department of Environmental Quality was so poisonous and dysfunctional, he had ample time to clean house.
The governor has also blamed the city council for the fiasco, even though records show that Emergency Manager Edward Kurtz approved the temporary switch to the Flint River. Even worse, the MDEQ then advised city officials not to treat the new water source immediately, but to monitor and make a decision on treatment in a year or so.
Marc Edwards, the corrosives expert who exposed this
story describes that one decision as the lynchpin.
"Had they followed the law,” Edwards said, “the switch would have been considered a success.”
GOP praises Snyder’s efforts to fix Flint’s water
Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush warmly praised Snyder, laying blame instead at the altar of complicated government regulations too difficult to understand and implement. That seems laughably naive, particularly as new revelations continue to hit the media. Stronger oversight and a robust, active EPA—one that enforces laws and best practices—could have stopped this problem from becoming a public health disaster.
Why best practices weren’t followed is a matter of conjecture, but the question remains: why do environmental tragedies occur so often in poor, marginalized, mostly black communities?
Though he has promised transparency, Snyder’s recently released emails about Flint have been redacted and are likely incomplete. We will be a long time learning the truth of why the people of Flint were made to needlessly suffer. And the effects of this negligence—or malfeasance—will be felt for generations.