The Poisoning of A Generation in Flint

As the home of the largest General Motors plant in the United States, Flint, Michigan, once thrived economically. It wasn’t until the 1980s, during the midst of a huge boom of influx of African-Americans migrants from southern states, that the crisis began. The story really begins there. While there was an influx of migrants, new African-American families were limited to where they could live, since the city only contained two neighborhoods which allowed black people to move in. After fair housing laws and school desegregation began to break down the system of discrimination, the city’s population began to decline quickly as white middle and upper-class class families left the city. It was during the same decade that General Motors acquired major losses and was forced to downsize, causing the beginning of an economic decline. 

In 2011, an audit took place and the state found that Flint had a projected $25 million deficit which needed immediate attention. The state of Michigan took over finances and it was concluded that there was a shortfall in the water fund. Previously, the city had been obtaining water by purchasing from Detroit. That same year, the city announced that there would be a new pipeline built from Lake Huron to Flint in order to reduce costs. However, due to the huge deficit in finances, the issue would need to be addressed and immediately. A proposition was meanwhile made to obtain water from the Flint River instead of Detroit. It was approved. (CNN, 2018). 

On April 25, 2014, Flint officially made the switch. The problem? The treatment of Flint river water is vastly different to that of Detroit lake water. The biggest issue was that the water wasn’t treated with corrosion control, something that would have protected residents of the city from the breaking down of the ill-maintained water lines. Metal from the pipe lines began to contaminate the water. 

Pictured above are the corroded water lines. 

It wasn’t long after that issues started arising. In her book The Poisoned City, Anna Clark tells of when Pastor R. Sherman McCathern noticed that something was wrong. “Puddles formed on the dry grass and splashed the skin of the delighted kids who ran through it. But the water looked strange. The water was coming out, dark as coffee, for hours,” McCathern remembered. The shock of it caught in his throat. "Something is wrong here." (WBUR, 2018). 

And so it was. Complaints had been coming in about the new water since May, but nothing had been done about it. It wasn’t until August 15, 2014, months after complaints had begun to come in, that a boil advisory was issues in the western parts of the city. The water had tested positive for E. Coli.  Two months later, on October 13, the General Motors plant refused to use the river water coming from the city due to the rusting of car parts, costing the city $400,000. By the beginning of the year in 2015, the city had announced that the water had been contaminated with a disinfectant byproduct. Even though it was a blatant violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, officials inform residents that they have nothing to worry about as long as they have normal immune systems. Just two weeks later, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DSWD) offered the city a reconnection to the Lake Huron water and waived a $4 million fee for service restoration. Flint officials declined the offer. That February, the city hired a consultant who said that the water is safe to drink “despite the presence of sediment and discoloration.” Lead, among other contaminants from pipes, had already leached into the water system and had begun affecting citizens. 

The lead contamination brought huge issues along with it. The biggest problem was Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia that causes headaches, muscle pain, chills, and fevers topping 104°F. This is what killed people in Flint. Along with that, children became much more susceptible to this illness due to their developing bodies. They were absorbing up to 5x more lead than the adults in the city. Toxic as it is, it also brought about stunted growth, aggressive behavior, and anemia. Adults were affected, too. It brought about miscarriages and reproductive problems in a lot of women. The biggest issue is that it took time for those problems to show up. Nobody could tell this was happening. All the while, the Flint water crisis was bubbling under the surface and just waiting to burst. (WBUR, 2018). 

While a manager at EPA, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency had told Michigan officials that lead was leaching into the water system in February. The city didn’t inform residents of their flunking the Safe Drinking Water Act again until April. Research and data analysis began immediately and the state informed the city that more children had lead in their blood since the water switch in October. Two weeks later, Flint finally switched back to Detroit water. 

While this was seen as a hopeful end to the crisis that had broken international news, it was simply beginning to become an even bigger problem. In January of 2016, Michigan Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency in the county and the US Department of Justice opened an investigation into the crisis. After receiving a letter from Governor Snyder asking for a declaration of an “expedited major disaster” and an estimation of $55 million to install lead-free pipes through the city, President Obama declined. Instead, he authorized $5 million in aid and the declaration of a state of emergency in the city. 

After that, the federal lawsuits didn’t seem to stop. Lawsuits were filed by the ACLU of Michigan against school districts, against the state for the violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act, a class action suit against EPA for negligence and damages, and many more. Trials began in prosecution of state workers and officials, charges including negligence, fraud, public nuisance, false pretenses, conspiracy, tampering with evidence, and willful neglect of duty. In March of 2017, the EPA awarded $100 million for infrastructure upgrades. A couple weeks later, a federal judge approved a $97 million settlement for the replacement of lead and galvanized steel water lines in Flint. 

While Flint has been granted federal dollars to fix the issue that ran rampant in their community, the problems do not end there. While the water lines should completely be replaced by the end of this year, evidence keeps piling up for criminal trials. Nick Lyon, the state’s Health and Human Services Director is being charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to his alleged failure to “alert the public about Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genessee County when he had noticed that another outbreak was foreseeable and…conduction an investigation of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in a grossly negligent manner” (CNN Library, 2018). 

Today, Flint still does not have clean and safe water. However, the free bottled water program will continue to run until supplies, a part of the $450 million aid received by the city, run out. What happened in Flint serves as the perfect example of an ill-managed and negligent government. Peter Meunnig, a professor of public health at Columbia, estimates losses to amount to 18,000 years for the exposure in children, that will lead to “$395 million in social costs based on the likelihood of lower IQ levels for those exposed, leading to lost economic productivity, reliance on welfare and costs to the criminal justice system.” (Saburn, 2016). 

An entire generation has potentially been destroyed. No amount of money in damages can ever fix that. 

Photo Sources: 1, 2