Flint, Michigan: A City in Troubled Water

The residents of Flint, Michigan are no strangers to hardship. In the past three decades, auto plants have closed, the population has plunged, violent crime has spiked, and poverty rates have reached 40%. But in recent months, the blue-collar city north of Detroit has hit a new low. Lead has contaminated the city’s water supply, leading to widespread poisoning and a state of emergency.

The crisis originated in 2011. After years of economic decline, the city was “so broke that it was taken into state receivership”. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promptly ousted the mayor and city council and appointed a series of emergency managers to govern and reduce costs. In 2013, one manager decided to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the new Karegnondi Water Authority (both draw from Lake Huron). But as the connecting pipes were not yet built, he ordered officials to temporarily pump from the Flint River – at a projected savings of $1 million/year. Flint River water began chugging through city pipes in April 2014.

The Flint River is a “cesspool” tainted by farm runoff, sewage, and decades of industrial effluent. To make matters worse, the river’s water is highly corrosive to lead (19 times more than Detroit water!). Yet the state refused to add a required anticorrosive element, costing just $9000. As a result, the water corroded lead throughout the system, including lead pipelines connecting homes to city water mains and lead solder used to fuse copper pipes. This lead then leached into Flint’s water supply.

Almost immediately, residents complained about the cloudiness, colour, taste and smell of the city’s water. However, the effects were more than cosmetic. Many reported that the water was “making them sick”, causing rashes, hair loss, headaches, eye irritations, and other health problems. After a flood of warning signs, the city council called on the emergency manager to switch Flint back to Lake Huron water in January 2015. But the calls went ignored. [Outrageously, only GM received a “special hook-up to clean water” after car parts showed corrosion].

The EPA started to grasp the grave danger in summer 2015. In a June memo, an employee wrote “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water”. Moreover, “The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern”. Still, a state of Michigan spokesperson advised Flint residents to “relax”, claiming that test results just didn’t hold water.

By late summer, however, the poisoned water supply became undeniable. Researchers from Virginia Tech found that some Flint water samples contained 13,200 ppb of lead – far above the EPA limit (15 ppb) and even the threshold for hazardous waste (5000 ppb)! Likewise, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha compared children’s blood with earlier samples, proving elevated lead levels.

But it wasn’t until October 2015, after months of denial and deception, that Michigan officials acknowledged the environmental nightmare. Governor Snyder switched Flint’s water back to Detroit’s system at a cost of $12 million.

Already, the damage was done. Besides the visible impacts, the lead has likely caused significant neurological damage, particularly in Flint’s 8,657 children under 6. According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure affects brain development resulting in “irreversible” effects like reduced IQ, behavioural changes (such as shortened attention span and increased antisocial behaviour), and reduced educational attainment! It can also cause anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and toxicity to the immune and reproductive systems.

The economic impact is also significant. Many victims now require costly healthcare and social services, including special education. The city’s $2.4 billion in home value has gone “down the economic drain”, leaving numerous residents with “a net worth of zero”. Moreover, many companies are struggling to stay afloat in Flint, while others are avoiding the city altogether.

Like Flint water, the solution to the disaster remains unclear. Under the current state of emergency, officials are using $5 million in federal funding to provide water, filters, water test kits, and other necessary items. Non-profit groups, like the American Red Cross and Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, are joining in. Furthermore, the Michigan National Guard and police are going door-to-door delivering water…and warnings.

Once basic needs are met (in the world’s richest country!), attention must turn to fixing Flint’s water system. Simply switching back to Lake Huron water was not enough, as the pipes are now severely corroded. Some suggest recoating the pipes with anticorrosive element but this could take over six months. Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, argues that “we have been emotionally traumatized and need new pipes” (costing up to $55 million). Others call for a compromise: gradually replacing every lead service line, while coating pipes with phosphates.

Over the long-term, the government will need to fund various health and social services for victims. In the words of Dr. Hanna-Attisha, we need to throw “all of these wraparound services at children” or risk “lifelong, multigenerational consequences”. Governor Snyder is currently seeking $195 million for this purpose. Finally, come hell or high water, we must identify and prosecute the perpetrators of this fatal fiasco. Already, hearings are underway on Capitol Hill. In addition, the Department of Justice, FBI, and Environmental Protection Agency are investigating possible crimes, including misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter.

Do your part! Please complete an Op4G survey for the American Red Cross, or donate to: the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, or the United Way of Genesee County.