The city of Flint, Michigan, located 66 miles Northwest from Detroit on the Flint River, was once the automotive industry’s Medina to Detroit’s Mecca, with household names General Motors and Chevrolet both being founded there in 1908 and 1911 respectively. These companies provided the community with the income and opportunities that helped it prosper during the early 19th century. Those glory days came to an end during the economic recession and oil crisis of the early 1980s, during which GM shuttered and demolished many of its automotive factories in the area. At the turn of the century, economic outlook in the city continued to look bleak, with unemployment, crime, poverty, and urban decay plaguing the city. After Flint accumulated more than $30 million of debt, the state of Michigan appointed an emergency finance manager in 2002 to alleviate the city’s fiscal woes. Though this did help slightly improve the city’s economic outlook, it was placed into an even deeper hole during Governor Rick Snyder’s time in office, from 2011 to present-day.
With the city teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the Flint city council voted in March of 2013 to switch the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the newly-built Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), sourced from Lake Huron, in an attempt to save the city millions of dollars. After gaining approval from Flint’s emergency manager, Flint let their agreement with DWSD expire in April of 2014 and joined the KWA. The only problem was, the KWA was not expected to be finished until late 2016, leaving the city without a water supply for nearly two years. The city decided to switch its water supply to the Flint river, which was expected to provide fresh water until the KWA was completed.
Soon after the switch, Flint residents began complaining about the color, odor, and taste of their water. They were reassured by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that this was simply a result of old pipes and cold weather and that the city would take steps to ensure this did not occur again. By March of 2015 however, the city council was scrambling to switch the Flint water supply back to the DWSD but it was too late; the damage was done. Tests of the city’s tap water showed excessive amounts of chlorine from the river and water treatment plants which corroded the city’s water pipes and added toxic lead particles into the water supply. A test preformed on the water in September of 2015 by Virginia Tech University detected lead levels as high as 13,200 parts per billion (PPB); the EPA threshold for action is 15 PPB, although many public health scientists argue that any amount of lead in drinking water is dangerous.
While the community was guaranteed that the water was safe to use by the DEQ, children and infant that were tested by the Hurley Medical Center in Flint showed abnormal amounts of lead in their blood compared to results from prior to the switch. Infants and children exposed to lead suffer from speech impairment, hearing and hair loss, decreased muscle and bone growth, brain and nervous system problems, and can lead to coma, convulsions, or even death. Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist from the nearby University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, compared the level of lead exposure suffered by the residents of Flint to those experienced by Iraqis following the United States’ invasion in 2003.
Towards the end of 2015, the city of Flint, now re-connected to the DWSD, declared a citywide state of emergency while Governor Snyder created an independent task force in order to investigate who was responsible for the mishandling of the ongoing crisis. On December 29, 2015, just days before the New Year, the task force concluded that the DEQ was at fault for mishandling the Flint water crisis. The scathing report accused the DEQ of dismissing and attempting to discredit public concerns and independent studies that showed the Flint river was toxic. The report led to the resignation of DEQ director Dan Wyant and communications director Brad Wurfe as well as Flint Department of Public Works director Howard Croft.
In January of 2016, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency for all of Genesee county, including Flint. The state began handing out bottled water, water filters, and home water tests kits to the residents of Flint. President Obama followed suit a few weeks later declaring a federal state of emergency in order to provide federal aid to alleviate the ongoing crisis, authorizing an emergency $5 million to help provide the city with some relief. The federal state of emergency in Genesee county is the first of its kind in that it was prompted by a man-made disaster rather than a natural one. However, it was denied “Major Disaster Declaration” status after failing to meet the legal definition of “major disaster” which is defined federally as a natural catastrophe or one caused by a fire, flood or explosion. A few days after Obama’s declaration of a federal state of emergency, the Michigan House of Representatives voted to approve the $28 million Governor Snyder requested to help the city. Snyder has also allotted an additional $195 million of Michigan’s 2017 budget to provide aid relief.
Local outrage grew into national outrage as more and more of Flint’s residents either fell sick or loss access to fresh water, with Governor Snyder and the DEQ doing little to alleviate the problems. Citizens, politicians, and celebrities alike all harshly criticized the lack of inaction in Flint and have done arguably more to help out the community that state officials. Brewing company Anheuser-Busch has donated over 51,000 cans of water to the victims of the crisis while PepsiCo has teamed up with rival Coca-Cola as well as Walmart and Nestle to provide Flint public schools with water through the rest of 2016. Singer Cher partnered with water company Icelandic Glacial to donate over 180,000 water bottles to the residents of Flint.
Though the crisis did not boil over into the public eye until late 2014/early 2015, the factors contributing to the Flint water crisis had been long accumulating. The city was once home to various factories, mainly automotive and lumber, leading to decades upon decades of industrial waste being dumped into the Flint river. Add human waste from a booming population and one is left with a river which would be unthinkable to use as a source for a town’s fresh water supply. Yet that is exactly what government officials did in an attempt to allegedly save money, even at the cost of human lives.
It is worth noting that over half of Flint’s population of 102,000 are African-American and that 42 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Though Snyder and other government officials had previous knowledge of the toxicity of the Flint river and the dangers that it posed to the community, little was done and residents were continually reassured that the water was safe to use. The ongoing water crisis has been branded by some pundits and experts as a poignant example of environmental racism, or the practice of placing low-income and/or minority communities near environmental hazards. The city’s demographics coupled with the Michigan government’s hasty response to the crisis pose a very important yet still unanswered question: would Governor Snyder and the Michigan DEQ have reacted to the crisis in a faster, more proactive manner had the residents of Flint been mostly middle-class white Americans?
Tomorrow night, the two remaining Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, will debate in Flint’s Whiting Auditorium in another attempt to convince voters why they should be the party’s nominee to take on Donald Trump in the general election just two days before Michigan’s primary. The candidates will invariably be asked questions on what they believe needs to be done to address the Flint water crisis as well as the racial and environmental roots behind it to prevent it from ever happening again. Both Sanders and Clinton are expected to present an outline of how our nation will tackle the problem of our crumbling infrastructure.
The crisis in Flint is much more than just a Michigan issue. Our nation’s infrastructure and public works, which was once the pinnacle of the entire world, are now falling apart and decaying, even resembling third-world countries in our most impoverished communities. While we currently have presidential candidates who are pledging to continue pouring tax payer’s money into perpetual warfare in the Middle East or ridiculous walls along our southern border, very little has been said about the effort our lawmakers should put into revitalizing our nation’s highways, bridges, and other public works. American citizens, particularly the poor and people of color, have long suffered the brunt of de-regulation and corner-cutting practiced by both our government and private corporations and this is just the latest case. The situation in Flint has evolved from a crisis into a tragedy, a tragedy which has highlighted the true problems our country faces that some of these presidential hopefuls have thus far failed to properly address. What happened in Flint, Michigan is likely to happen in other communities throughout this nation until we fix the structural problems which lay underneath.