SAN FRANCISCO, USA – Flint, Michigan is not a hard to reach city. It’s an hour outside Detroit, Michigan, with a population of nearly 100,000. For some perspective, it surpasses the city of Bath, UK’s population by almost 2,000. Flint, a town not quite a city but certainly the type of place you would expect to have a working water system. However, in 2014, Flint’s water became toxic.
So, where did it all go wrong?
The history is straightforward. In 2014, in an effort to save costs, the city’s drinking water source was switched from the nontoxic Lake Huron and Detroit River drinking water sources that service the city of Detroit, to the Flint River. According to The Washington Post, the move was meant to be temporary, while the city waited to connect to a new regional water system. The Flint River was already known to be a toxic drinking water source, due to insufficient water treatment and lead in the water pipes, but in America, capitalism rules.
Almost immediately residents of the Flint metropolitan area were experiencing serious health problems, such as rashes and hair loss, and complaints of their tap water’s smell and taste, The Washington Post reports. By the summer of 2014, fecal coliform bacteria was detected in the water and residents were advised to triple boil their water before use, and by Autumn the nearby General Motors engine plant stopped using flint water because it rusted parts.
In a good-neighbor gesture, by January of 2015 the city of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system, but Flint insisted its water was safe, according to a timeline report by The Washington Post. That same month, a bottled water giveaway program was started, with bottled water running out in just thirty minutes. And one month later the State of Michigan pledged $2 million to help Flint’s water system, resulting in Flint officials declaring the water safe, according to state and federal standards in the subsequent month.
However, in Autumn 2015, doctors at Hurley Medical Center detected high levels of lead in children’s blood, despite state regulators insisting the water was safe, thus resulting in Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder, pledging $1 million to buy water filters and test water in Flint public schools, a case reported by The Washington Post. Just six days later, Governor Snyder called for Flint to go back to Detroit water, passing legislation shortly after to award Flint nearly $10 million for water and supply inspection. Consequently, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, was voted out of office in November 2015 over the water scandal, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director resigned and apologized for the scandal, according to The Washington Post.
Following a state of emergency been declared in January 2016, Governor Snyder ordered the Michigan National Guard to Flint, to distribute bottled water and water filters after the town asked the state government for help. Simultaneously, the Health and Human Services Department in Michigan reported an increase in Legionnaires’ disease, including 10 resulting in deaths, from June 2014 to November 2015 in Flint’s county (Genesee County).
So, where is Flint now?
Ultimately, what began as a cost-saving mechanism will probably end up costing the city more than if they had stayed on Detroit’s water system. The city has been replacing the lead pipes at an estimated cost of $55 million – even Elon Musk offered to help, the Guardian reported – however, it is estimated there are still 2,500 lead service lines still in place, as of April, 2019.
US Judge, Linda Parker, ruled in April 2019 that Flint residents can sue the federal government over the water crisis, due to the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was too slow in its intervention. The state of Michigan has already seen more than dozens of lawsuits, which include class-action cases, as a result of the water crisis. Judge Parker wrote in her opinion stating that “The impact on the health of the nearly 100,000 residents of the City of Flint remains untold…it is anticipated, however, that the injury caused by the lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come.”
“The impact on the health of the nearly 100,000 residents of the City of Flint remains untold…it is anticipated, however, that the injury caused by the lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come.”
Monetary compensation might be nice, but not being sickened from your city trying to save some money is much nicer. Flint, Michigan is a majority African-American city, leading many, including a government appointed civil rights commission who filed a nearly 130-page report in 2017, to point to systemic racism as a contributor to the scandal in the first place, CNN reported.
The next time you turn on your tap to fill your water bottle, or take a shower, or cook and clean, think about what the ramifications for your everyday life would be if you couldn’t do that.
What if the water coming out of your tap was a foul brownish color that gave off horrible odor? What would you do? Buy bottled water probably, but bottled water is notoriously more expensive than tap water; clocking in at $1.21 per gallon vs. $2 per 1,000 gallons for tap water, Money Crashers reported. That’s a lot of money if you’re part of the 41.9% of Flint residents under the poverty rate.
So, would you try to boil it? Just use it for showers or cleaning? There’s no good choice when your hands are tied like that. While the city of Flint would like us to believe their water is safe again, the ramifications of the water crisis will likely be felt for generations, and the people of Flint have good reason to not believe their city officials at face value. They have been lied to before, and the legionnaires outbreak mentioned earlier proves this is a life or death issue.
Madeleine Sheehan is an in-house Social Politics Correspondent and Sociologist based in San Fransisco, USA.
All opinions within the content are owned by Madeleine Sheehan.