The Flint Michigan water crisis: Three years on

The Flint Michigan water crisis: Three years on

There are so many public services that we take for granted - aspects of the first world infrastructure that are so fundamental to the operation of our civic order that we’d never dream for a moment that they could be snatched away from us in an instant. We imagine that commodities like air conditioning, clean water and even electricity are somehow imperative of life itself. “I pay my taxes”, we say to ourselves, over and over like a prayer to those far-off bureaucrats we deem presumably responsible, “I’m entitled to decent social services.”  We never imagine the hard work and crucial engineering that goes into delivering the basic necessities of life, how much paperwork and toil goes into delivering us a glass of water. How little do most of us know how easily government negligence can inadvertently poison ordinary citizens. But the citizens of Flint, Michigan know all too well. After all, they’ve now been using bottled water for over a year. It’s like the poet Coleridge once said: “water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” In terms of civic disasters, the Flint water crisis really is a whopper. 

It’s incredible to think that, in 2017, an American city could be cut off from its own water supply. It’s even more incredible to think that institutional incompetence could have led to an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease, and contaminated an estimated 10,000 children, who will likely suffer from serious health problems as a result of lead poisoning. In 2017, more government officials are being taken to court over the scandal.

Five employees from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (Liane Shekter-Smith, Michael Prysby, Stephen Busch, Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook) are being charged with misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty for the parts they played in the crisis. Another ten additional MDEQ workers also face prosecution, and there are still many more lawsuits still to be settled. How on earth did things go so catastrophically wrong?

Wind the clocks back three years, and take a look at the town of Flint. Statistically, it does not paint a pretty picture, 70 miles north of the bankrupt city of Detroit, Flint is a textbook example of a rust belt community that has been gutted by the decline of America’s automobile industry and the outsourcing of factory work. Social detectives conducting a post-mortem can see evidence of the death of the working classes in every cracked road, boarded window and decaying precinct. Approximately 41.2 per cent of its population lives below the poverty threshold, as a result of General Motors closing down operations nearby. The housing crisis hit the city hard, and unemployment led to vagrancy.

The water supply fund was so mired that nearly $9 million dollars of debt and austerity measures meant that every federal employee was looking for ways to cut costs. The MDEQ believed that the best way for Flint to save cash would be to switch the source of water from Lake Huron to the River Flint, thereby providing their own water. Cost-cutting measures and a hurried pipeline meant that lead had soon managed to contaminate the very water that 90,000 people drank and bathed in.

For a while, nobody noticed that the water treatment from the new pipeline was insufficient, but over time a number of little details added up to one very disturbing picture. First, the Flint Truck Assembly plant stopped using the local water supply when they noticed that the high levels of chlorine were gradually corroding engine parts. A number of residents became aware of the water’s strange smell and taste and noted that it looked cloudy, or brown. In August of 2014, city officials detected coliform bacteria in the water supply and asked citizens to boil their water in the meantime.

Initially, this infection was blamed on the cold weather and ageing pipes, but when Flint citizens began complaining of more longterm health issues, the truth became far harder to ignore. Some people even started to lose clumps of hair as a result of the lead poisoning they experienced over the better part of a year and exhibited other symptoms of poisoning, such as periodic vomiting, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue and weight loss. The Flint Michigan water crisis had begun in earnest.

The DEQ claimed that the water had passed all health tests performed in 2015. Nevertheless, hearing about the state of Flint’s water, the city of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water supply again for a fee of $4 million. The DEQ refused, and stated that there was “no threat to public health.” However, most citizens were not convinced. In January of 2015, a public forum was held in which citizens were encouraged to speak out on the subject of Flint’s water supply.

A study by Virginia Tech researchers, led by Dr. Marc Edwards, soon determined that evidence of contamination was irrefutable. Edwards stated: “It was the injustice of it all and that the very agencies that are paid to protect these residents from lead in water, knew or should've known after June at the very very latest of this year, that federal law was not being followed in Flint, and that these children and residents were not being protected. And the extent to which they went to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered."

A study conducted by Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, the program director for pediatric residency at Hurley Children's Hospital, soon found extremely elevated levels of lead in many children’s bloodstream. On December 15, 2015, Mayor Karen Weaver declared a citywide state of emergency to prompt help from state and federal officials and demanded additional state funding as a result of the cognitive impairments caused by levels of lead in the blood.

On January 6, 2016, governor Rick Snyder finally admitted that there was a problem, and ordered the Michigan Emergency Operations Centre to coordinate a public outreach program in order to educate his citizens about the danger leaking through their faucets. Furthermore, the state then organised water resource sites across the city where residents could pick up bottled water, water filters, replacement cartridges, and home water testing kits. The desperate citizens of Flint launched an urgent appeal, and made several requests for aid to be provided by US citizens in the form of donations of bottled or filtered water.

Currently, much of the scandal concerns how much Governor Snyder knew about the water contamination. Was he simply misinformed about the true extent of the problem, or willfully ignoring an issue that would have inevitably cast a shadow over his administration? According to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Snyder's chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote in 2015: "I'm frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don't think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we're just not sympathising with their plight)." Apparently, records pertaining to the state of the water pipelines were stored on index cards at the Department of Public Works, but only 25 per cent had been digitised by 2015.

Snyder did make a request for federal aid to President Barack Obama, but was denied a request for Major Disaster Declaration, since the water crisis did not come about due to natural causes. By early 2017, water quality had returned to safe levels. Yet Snyder and the Michigan Emergency Operations centre urged residents to continue to use bottled or filtered water until the pipes had been replaced completely.

Replacing the lead-lined pipes will allegedly take at least three years. For the people of Flint, that's another three years of using vast supplies of bottled water for even the most basic of tasks. Brushing your teeth? You need bottled water. Washing your hands? Bottled water. Watering your plants? Bottled water. Even pets have to be given water from the bottle, lest any latent lead exposure kills them outright. In the meantime, Flint has since gone back to drawing water from Detroit and plans to construct a new pipeline to Lake Huron have stalled.

But almost as damaging as the health effects have been the political and social consequences. How could the government have mishandled such a key aspect of infrastructure? It's clear that the people of Flint have experienced a profound sense of betrayal, and in an area where more than half of the population are African-American, some have claimed that the crisis reveals institutional racism when it comes to pollution since the poorest black citizens will inevitably suffer most. In a time of political apathy, when many believe that the ruling elite have abandoned the shrinking middle class and the working classes especially, incidents like this will only add fuel to a national sense of outrage, injustice and disenfranchisement.