Long before Flint began dealing with a toxic water crisis, the city was already rusting and oozing from its underbelly.
What little hope remains is weary and torn, abandoned like the rows of dilapidated uninhabitable homes and weed-strewn lots that dot the avenues, drowning in water too toxic to drink.
The story of Flint, Michigan, not unlike other former smokestack cities that dot the upper Midwest, is almost too painful to tell. The latest revelations, involving a water supply tainted with lead, feels like a cruel joke being played on people who can least afford the laugh.
With thousands of children at risk, the Justice Department has announced an investigation into who knew the water was toxic and when; Michigan’s attorney general has launched a separate inquiry. Ultimately, what happened in Flint may not be a criminal matter, but there is nothing moral about what happened there.
The once-booming center of industry has lost half of its population in recent decades and is now one of the poorest cities in the nation. Today, nearly 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. What remains of Flint is 56 percent black and nearly 40 percent white—all too poor to get up and leave.
Blink and you could be standing in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Camden, New Jersey, watching a similar tragedy unfold. Factories close, the middle class takes flight to the suburbs to build better schools and tend to pristine lawns.
They are among America’s forgotten cities—wracked with pervasive poverty and violent crime—populated by a forgotten people. Mostly black and brown, they have little voice over their own destiny. There are no finely suited Washington lobbyists pressing their interests. Presidential candidates rarely come to places like these and they almost never make the national news unless something really bad happens.
There are so many problems, so many complications in Flint that it is difficult for any one issue to command its collective attention.
Back in April 2014, an unelected manager appointed by the state to make Flint solvent decided the city could save money by drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron. Local residents thought it was a joke given the ugliness thought to be swimming in that river.
It would have taken a five-minute test to prove the river water unsafe. City leaders, who were then weighing less expensive options, knew as early as 2011 that water from the Flint River would need treatment with an anticorrosive agent before it would be drinkable.
In the end, the governor says he had no choice, since Detroit “kicked Flint off” its Lake Huron system. The fact is, that never happened. Detroit asked for a rate change and instead of negotiating, Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointee opted out. They were more concerned about saving money than saving lives.
To make matters worse, the Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality decided $100 a day was too much to pay for an anticorrosive additive that could appropriately treat the water. Consequently, the iron pipes eroded—turning the water brown—and lead began seeping into the water supply.
State and federal officials knew there was a problem. With brown water pumping out of kitchen faucets and fire hydrants, there was no way to hide their error.
State agencies reportedly used testing methodologies that would hide the real level of pollutants—including flushing residential systems before testing. They cheated to make it appear that the water was in compliance, knowing that skewed tests were used.
Ultimately, it took 18 months and a mother named LeAnne Walters who wouldn’t give up, Chicago-based EPA regulations manager, a local physician, an investigative journalist, and a class action lawsuit to force the state to do the right thing.
By then, the damage was done—to Walter’s 4-year-old twins and the at least 5 percent of Flint children who have tested positive. The effects of lead poisoning, especially on children, are well known and there are no safe levels for human consumption. Lead poisoning can have devastating effects on children, causing convulsions, hyper irritability, and neurological damage that lasts into adulthood. Studies show linkages to juvenile delinquency, ADHD, and a decrease in IQ performance. In fact, there is so much lead in the blood of Flint’s children that the state has called a state of emergency. The scourge is irreversible. This is a manmade disaster that will have catastrophic generational effects.
The Flint water crisis is just the latest among a host of serious environmental issues surrounding the city. When General Motors and suppliers pulled up stakes and left for greener pastures, they left unconscionable levels of contamination behind. The same is true in other Rust Belt cities. A community’s wealth is not only tied to jobs and education but also to health and the environment.
Economic recovery for Flint and others towns like it is about more than moving in a new company with some new jobs. It’s about rebuilding failing infrastructures and remaking social institutions. We can keep thumping our chest about personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, but there will be no economic uplift in Flint, Camden, Gary, or East St. Louis, until government does its part.
That means forcing chemical manufacturers, automakers, steel mills, and others to clean up their own mess. They should be forced to fill the hole they dug.
It is hard to believe that no one knew what was in that river. It is hard to believe that no one thought to test the water and the system through which it would travel for potential problems. And, the governor’s explanation about why the change was made as well as his reliance on his hand-picked investigative task force is even more dubious.
State leaders, it seems, were content to continue tighten the city’s belt until somebody strangled and died.