The Poisoning of Flint, Michigan: A Tragedy
Updated: May 5, 2020
One of the most fundamental human rights, a resource that our bodies cannot survive longer than four days without consuming.
We wash our hands in it. Shower in it. Soak our bodies in it.
We drink it. Cook with it. Wash our dishes with it.
If you are fortunate enough, you might have never given your access to clean water a second thought.
Imagine that one day you turn on the kitchen sink, or run your bathwater. That surge of clear, pure water you are accustomed to is now murky, with unidentifiable particles floating in it. It has an awful scent to it and drinking it leaves behind a metallic aftertaste.
What would be your response? How long would you tolerate living without someone replenishing your flow of clean water? Let’s say you contact your water company to complain about the filth pouring out of your faucets, only to receive an evasive response.
Days pass. Your anxiety levels are sky-high. You resort to purchasing gallons of water for daily use and instruct your children to stop taking baths, rinsing their toothbrushes under the faucet, or washing their hands.
Weeks pass. Water has become your every waking thought. You are driven to begging your neighbor for access to their shower, only to learn that your neighbor and your entire community also lacks clean water.
Months pass. You know by now that fecal coliform bacteria populates the water supply. The most you have been advised to do is boil your water or use bottled water. You have dealt with environmental officials gaslighting you, 1 attempting to convince the public that they are overreacting and have nothing to worry about.
A year passes- it is clear, now, that you are slowly but surely being poisoned. Your hair is falling out in clumps. You have formed rashes on your skin consistent with lead poisoning and symptoms of a disease that develops from exposure to legionella bacteria. Dangerous percentages of lead have been detected in the water.
You have picketed at town hall, you have written your legislatures, you have made an effort to contact every authority you can think of. Your hope for change blossoms when a group of local activists and clerical heads launch a lawsuit against the city for “recklessly endangering” its residents by not providing a safe water source. Three months later the case is rejected, with your city’s attorney dismissively calling the complaint “baseless and devoid of legal merit.” Meanwhile, your city remains in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and no one has any concrete solutions to offer you.
You are at a loss of what to do at this point— you are living paycheck to paycheck and can hardly afford rent, much less relocate your entire family to another area.
Six years pass. Six years.
This is how long residents of Flint, Michigan have been living with a poisoned water supply. The Flint water crisis demonstrates a frightening lack of concern for human life by many top executives and government officials in the United States. And what is ultimately the root of this crisis?
Greed and flippancy towards a poverty-stricken population that is 53.4% black. Flint, Michigan has a history of racism that scales back to the civil rights era. Flint was the North’s most segregated city, with only two neighborhoods designated for black residents.
As the U.S. passed laws against segregation and housing discrimination, middle- and upper-class whites began to flee the area (a phenomenon known as “white flight”), repulsed by the thought of potentially sharing their schools and neighborhoods with black people. Flint’s population decreased substantially. According to Anna Clark, who wrote about the crisis in her book “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” the stark decline in the population made it next to impossible for Flint’s residents to support industrial plants and a water system intended to serve twice as many people. Options for employment declined in the late 20th century— GM’s employment opportunities decreased significantly as they sought cheap labor overseas and several other businesses also closed up shop. Meanwhile, Flint’s population saw another 18% drop between 2000 and 2010.
On top of that, state budget cuts resulted in a drastic decrease in revenue that was supposed to be shared with local governments. Flint’s budget had previously been largely dependent on these funds, and could not handle such abrupt cuts— in the midst of the fallout caused by 2008’s recession, no less (which threw Flint into a spiraling housing crisis and led to another drop in job opportunities). The Michigan Municipal League estimates that as a result of this abandonment, Flint lost over $54 million between 2003 and 2014. Over 40% of Flint’s population now lives below the federal poverty level.
This brings us to April 25, 2014, the fateful day marking the beginning of this manmade disaster. Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency manager (an unelected official forced upon residents of financially bereft cities) had Flint’s water supply switched from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money while a new independent pipeline was being built. Ignoring the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, Flint River was not treated with an anti-corrosive agent (orthophosphate) required to be suitable for human consumption before switching the water supply.
Given Flint River’s longstanding history of industrial pollution, it is horrifying that such an irresponsible decision was deemed acceptable. It begs the question of whether the state of Michigan would have acted as carelessly if the community was primarily white and upper class. Would such a community have been cursed with a water supply that is corrosive enough to disintegrate auto parts? (Yes. Even GM switched its water source from Flint River to Lake Huron as early as 2014, because the water was rusting their engines.) Would the community have at least been granted the courtesy of careful planning and consideration? In the case of Flint, poisoned, bacteria-infested water continues to gush through deteriorating pipes to innocent victims of over half a decade of greed and deception.
In 2015, water company Veolia was hired to address Flint’s water quality. Despite senior executives privately discussing through email exchanges the possibility of lead poisoning Flint’s water supply, the company released statements indicating that the water was safe to drink. Four years later, upon human rights advocacy group Corporate Accountability discovering these incriminating emails, a lawsuit was filed against Veolia by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Veolia was accused of “professional negligence, negligence, public nuisance, unjust enrichment, and fraud.”
January 2016, Governor Snyder claimed he had only just been informed that Flint’s water supply may have resulted in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. Progress Michigan exposed emails exchanged nine months prior to this effort to avoid responsibility, revealing that county health officials and the state department of environmental quality were aware of a connection between the spike in Legionnaires’ disease and Flint’s abysmal water supply. For nine months, government officials sat with the knowledge that Flint’s water was leeching away the health of its residents. The Center of Public Integrity ranked Michigan a well-deserved 50th among 50 states for governmental accountability and transparency.
The complete disregard for the lives of Flint residents is appalling. In the face of sociopolitical economic crises, the U.S. has demonstrated time and time again that poor minority groups are expendable. In fact, there is a term for the intersection of environmental race and class bias coined by social justice advocate and former United Church of Christ’s director of the Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis, called environmental racism.
It’s a phenomenon that explains why a state government that claims to care about its citizens spent more time gaslighting residents complaining about declining water quality and denying evidence that Flint River is a poisoned cesspool than actually structuring a concrete plan for the future. It explains why Flint residents have been drinking and showering in toxic waste for 6 years, and must continue suffering from this horrific reality in the midst of a global pandemic. Poverty-stricken individuals in the U.S. already suffer disproportionately with some of the most basic human rights being treated as luxuries, such as affordable housing and access to healthcare. Now even access to a non-toxic water supply is not guaranteed. Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, embraces a basic principle we as a society should fight to maintain. All peoples and all communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.
If you seek to get involved in the fight for environmental justice, whether you live in a community damaged by injustice or not, we strongly recommend for you to build upon your understanding of how environmental and health issues are impacting low-income populations and the history behind these circumstances.
You can learn more about the fundamentals of environmental racism at the following websites:
Environmental Justice Primer for Allies, Academics, Planners, and Scientists
Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice page
United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s “National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites”
Integrate’s Environmental Justice and Environmental Resources learning modules
Future Learn’s free Environmental Justice course
K-12 Environmental Justice Toolkit
If you have the platform, you are encouraged to speak out about issues you notice in your own community and beyond so that we can prevent them from falling by the wayside, ignored by the rest of the country. Perpetrators seek to dodge responsibility and silence people suffering from injustice. It is up to us to continue demanding accountability and transparency from those who hold precious lives in their hands. If you are able, you may want to consider donating funds to or volunteering your time with one of the initiatives creating solutions for environmental issues listed on Dr. Robert Bullard’s website such as the Center for Race Poverty and Environment, EarthJustice, or UCC Environmental Ministries. We must continue fighting back against political greed and corruption in this country by demanding justice and advocating for the voices of the most vulnerable to be heard.
Clark, Anna. “'Nothing to Worry About. The Water Is Fine': How Flint Poisoned Its People.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 July 2018, www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/03/nothing-to-worry-about-the-water-is-fine-how-flint-michigan-poisoned-its-people.
Smith, Lindsey. “Leaked Internal Memo Shows Federal Regulator's Concerns about Lead in Flint's Water.” Michigan Radio, 13 July 2015, www.michiganradio.org/post/leaked-internal-memo-shows-federal-regulator-s-concerns-about-lead-flint-s-water.
Fonger, Ron. “Water Coalition Drops Federal Claim, Flint Calls Lawsuit 'Baseless'.” MLive, 17 July 2015, www.mlive.com/news/flint/2015/07/water_coalition_drops_federal.html.
“How Flint's Water Crisis Happened, And Why It Isn't Over.” How Flint's Water Crisis Happened, And Why It Isn't Over | Here & Now, WBUR, 10 July 2018, www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/07/10/flint-water-crisis-poisoned-city.
Laylin, Tafline. “How Michigan's Flint River Came to Poison a City.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Jan. 2016, www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/18/michigan-flint-river-epa-lead-contamination-mdeq-pollutants-water-safety-health.
Klayman, Ben. “Michigan Attorney General Sues France's Veolia in Flint Water Crisis.” STLtoday.com, 22 June 2016, www.stltoday.com/business/local/michigan-attorney-general-sues-france-s-veolia-in-flint-water/article_fce5e910-2485-5280-869d-0a58561b7e5e.html.
Corbett, Jessica. “'Despicable': Internal Emails Reveal Water Contractor Knew About Lead Risks in Flint Months Before City's Public Confirmation.” Common Dreams, 10 Dec. 2019, www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/10/despicable-internal-emails-reveal-water-contractor-knew-about-lead-risks-flint.
Davey, Monica, and Mitch Smith. “Emails Reveal Early Suspicions of a Flint Link to Legionnaires' Disease.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/05/us/emails-reveal-early-suspicions-of-a-flint-link-to-legionnaires-disease.html.
Thompson, Dan. “Lessons in Transparency from Flint, Mich. (Industry Perspective).” Government Technology State & Local Articles - E.Republic, 20 Apr. 2016, www.govtech.com/data/Lessons-in-Transparency-Flint-Mich-Industry-Perspective.html.