The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is just the tip of the iceberg. We are living in a nation of Flints, thanks to racial bias, economic inequality, austerity and conservative governance. We can’t afford to kid ourselves about what it will take to fix it.
Clean water is vital to human life. Our bodies are 60 percent water. We may live for weeks without food; Mahatma Gandhi survived 21 days of complete starvation. But without water, we’d most likely be dead within three to five days.
That’s why the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has such a visceral impact. That we should be able to trust the water that comes out of our taps feels like as much of an inalienable right as being able to trust the air that we breathe. For a city of 100,000 to be poisoned by its own water for almost two years is unthinkable. That thousands of children were exposed to lead contamination, and its lifelong consequences, is unconscionable. Yet, that’s what happened in Flint.
By now the, the story is well known.
● In April of 2014, Flint changed its municipal water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The state emergency manager for Flint made the decision in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
● By the summer, residents complained of discolored, foul-smelling water that caused rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it. E. Coli and coliform bacteria were found in Flint’s water. General Motors stopped using Flint River water in its plants after workers noticed it corroded engine parts.
● In January 2015, Flint’s water was found to have high levels of trihalomethane, a carcinogenic byproduct of water disinfectants. Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system at no cost. The emergency manager rejected the offer.
● In March, 2015, the city council voted to “do all things necessary” to switch back to the Detroit water system. The city’s new emergency manager “nixed” the vote.
● The state government spent the next year ignoring citizen’s increasing complaints, and downplaying or denying outright the scope of the problem — all the while supplying state workers with bottled water.
● In January 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared s state of emergency for Genesee County, where Flint is located. Later, Snyder announced a link between the Flint River water and a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 10 people.
The story of Flint’s poisoned water began in the middle of the previous century, when the auto industry brought jobs and prosperity to the city.
General Motors’ plants lined the waterfront, and their toxic wastes went right into the river. When deindustrialization, encouraged by tax policies that rewarded companies for shipping jobs offshore, swept across the country’s industrial centers, the GM plants abandoned the city, leaving the toxic wastes behind, and Flint ill prepared to deal with it.
Flint’s water crisis is no isolated event. Lead poisoning is a pervasive problem in our inner cities, where some children have higher levels of lead contamination than those in Flint.
● In Washington, D.C.’s historically low-income Stadium-Armory neighborhood, lead levels in the soil were found to be 10 times higher than the accepted standards of other developed countries.
● In Baltimore, the percentage of black households with lead contamination has increased, while the percentage of white households has decreased.
● Eighteen cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey have higher shares of children with elevated levels of lead than Flint.
● Last month, schools in Sebring, Ohio were closed after elevated levels of lead in pipes serving some homes and buildings in the village. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a criminal investigation after the operator of a water treatment plant failed to tell the public that high levels of lead and copper had been detected in some homes last summer.
It’s not just inner cities either, and it’s not just lead.
● In Herculaneum, Missouri, half of the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning. A jury returned a $320 million verdict against the Fluor Company, which has appealed the verdict and moved its smelter to Peru.
● In 2014, agricultural runoff and crumbling infrastructure led to an algae bloom in Lake Erie that made Toledo, Ohio’s drinking water unsafe.
● Also in 2014 a chemical spill in West Virginia contaminated the Elk River, which supplied tap water to hundreds of thousands of people.
● In August, 3 million gallons of contaminated water were released into the Animas River, pushing lead levels to 3,500 times normal, and arsenic levels to 300 times normal.
The reason is a concentration of polluting industries is low-income areas. (n Baltimore, for example, the concentration of polluting industries correlated for decades with low-income neighborhoods and low-educational attainment. A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters this week found that just five percent of industrial polluters are responsible for 90 percent of the toxic emissions in the U.S., and they tend to cluster in low-income and minority communities. A 1987 study found that the racial make-up of an area was the single most important factor in determining where polluters were located.
Companies locate in these places because it’s easier than anywhere else. These communities usually don’t have the economic and political power to stop polluters from setting up shop in their backyards, or to demand the enforcement of existing environmental regulations. Dr. Sacoby Wilson, assistant professor of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, told The Huffington Post, ”These communities become dumping grounds because they’re the avenues of least resistance. I call it contamination without representation.”
Flint is merely the latest intersection where racial bias, austerity, and inequality collided with disastrous results.
The same discriminatory policies that created communities like Ferguson, Mo. made places like Flint sitting ducks for environmental inequality. The New Deal programs meant to help Americans afford homes incorporated racial redlining into lending guidelines. In places like Flint and Ferguson, government subsidized “white flight,” as white families moved to the suburbs and left concentrations of black people stuck inside city limits. Local zoning hemmed in black neighborhoods with industrial zones and businesses that white neighborhoods didn’t want, devaluing the property of blacks who lived in those neighborhoods.
Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Environmental Policy Institute, quoted in Think Progress, said, “Whites were able to leave because the federal government financed the suburbs. African Americans couldn’t leave because they were prohibited by federal law from moving out of the city.”
In Flint, austerity was a means of disenfranchising the predominantly black city. Michigan has one of the toughest emergency manager laws in the country, which allowed the governor to appoint unelected agents to take over local governments deemed to be in a “financial emergency.” The managers have sweeping powers to override democratically elected local governments. So, when Flint’s city council voted to switch back to the Detroit water system, the city’s emergency manager simply vetoed the idea. The citizens of Flint were left without the protection of a democratically elected government that answered to the people.
Austerity was also the driving force behind the decision to switch Flint’s water source. Rick Snyder campaigned as a business-oriented candidate, a “small government” conservative who would run the state government “like a business.” Snyder’s appointed emergency manager made the decision in order to save money with his eye on the bottom line. With the switch, the state government no longer added anti-corrosion chemicals to Flint’s water, allowing rust, iron, and lead to leach from the pipes and into the water. The cost of the anti-corrosion chemicals was about $140 per day.
Who will pay for what happened to Flint?
The only way to truly save Flint is to replace the city’s lead pipes. The cost of doing so is now estimated at $767 million to $1.5 billion. No one knows where the money will come from. (For context, that’s equal to the cost of between eight and 15 F-35 fighter jets, a plane that the Pentagon has yet to determine if it will work as designed. So far, it doesn’t.) Senate Democrats have proposed legislation that would provide $600 million in help for Flint, with much of it going to infrastructure. But Republicans complained that the costs were not completely offset by cuts in other federal spending. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) warned that aid to Flint must not add to the national budget deficit for “what is a local and state problem.”
President Obama submitted his final budget proposal to Congress. Despite the widely publicized crisis going on in Flint, the president’s $4 trillion budget proposal doesn’t set aside any money for the ongoing water crisis in Flint. It provides money for loans that may be used to rebuilt the city’s infrastructure, as well as other cities.
The president seeks an 18 percent increase in spending on water infrastructure. That’s a $157 million increase for the whole country. But the added money for drinking water comes from cuts to programs to make the water cleaner and safer overall. It cuts the Environmental Protection Agency’s program to improve state and local system by one quarter.
It’s not enough. Flint and cities in similar predicaments need to be made whole again. Generalized programs aimed at improving things overall might improve outcomes for such places, but effectively addressing the crisis in Flint – and similar crises nationwide – requires that we specifically address lead contamination and the problems that led to it. In the meantime, generations of children in Flint and places like it will pay the highest price for what happened in sacrificed futures.