In 2015, to mark the first anniversary of Flint’s fateful switch to river water, about 100 Flint residents marched through their city’s downtown in protest.
“Stop poisoning the children,” was one of the refrains they chanted on a cold and blustery day.
Barely anyone noticed. The protestors were literally shouting into the wind.
Things have certainly changed since then.
Over the past year, a disaster that was once largely ignored by the media and denied by government officials has become a scandal making headlines around the world.
And now two state officials and one city employee are facing possible jail time if convicted of the felonies, misdemeanors and common law violations they’ve been charged with.
Others will almost certainly be confronting the same fate.
What hasn’t changed is this: The people of Flint still can’t drink their tap water unless it has been filtered. They are still facing incredible, unacceptable hardships. And they remain traumatized by a government that, so far, has been unwilling or unable to provide them with something most Americans take for granted: easy access to safe, clean water.
The chain of events over the past year that led to the exposure of Flint’s water crisis is now well-known.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water specialist Miguel Del Toral, who would emerge as the unsung hero in this saga, wrote and then leaked an internal memo in June sounding the alarm about the potential public health crisis lurking in Flint’s drinking water. In the face of persistent, adamant denials from state officials that any problem existed, a unique collaboration between Flint residents, scientists at Virginia Tech and the ACLU of Michigan produced an unprecedented independent test of the water in nearly 300 homes.
The results of that citizen-led study, released in mid-September, revealed that Flint’s water contained lead levels far higher than what’s deemed acceptable by the federal government. Shamefully, the declaration that Flint’s water was unsafe was met with more denials from state officials. Accusations from the ACLU of Michigan that the city and state had cheated on their water tests – allowing them to falsely claim the water was safe -- were essentially ignored. The call for an immediate outside investigation also went unheeded.
Another independent study – done by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint’s Hurley Medical Center – found that, after the switch to the river in April 2014, the percentage of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled.
Again, the state’s response was to deny the truth and attack the truth-teller.
Finally, the denials completely crumbled when the accumulated facts became impossible to deny.
In October, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, bowing to intense public and media pressure, followed the recommendation of a panel of experts and allowed Flint to return to the Detroit system. But the damage done by using highly corrosive river water untreated by anti-corrosion phosphates for 18 months has proved to be massive.
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who played a pivotal role in exposing Flint’s lead crisis, recently likened drinking unfiltered tap water in the city to playing “Russian roulette.”
And so, on the second anniversary of the disastrous switch to the Flint River, and one full year after that little-noticed protest march through Flint’s downtown, here are a few thoughts about the ongoing crisis:
- The pivotal role Michigan’s emergency manager law, PA 436, played in creating the crisis. As much as Gov. Snyder would like to diffuse criticism by claiming the Flint crisis resulted from a failure of government at all levels, his own bi-partisan task force reported that the disaster was first and foremost the state’s responsibility, and that the extreme emergency manager law championed by Snyder was a key factor in the lead contamination of a city’s water supply. As the task force members pointed out in their March 2016 report: “… the facts in this case point to the reality that state government, as the entity in charge of Flint decision-making, failed to protect the health of the city’s residents. Regardless of any successes of the EM process in other Michigan cities, this failure must force us to review the EM law and the general approach to financial problems. Government approaches to cities in fiscal distress must balance fiscal responsibility with the equally important need to address quality of life, economic development and infrastructure maintenance and provision.”
- A flawed philosophy. Going hand in hand with an inherently dangerous law that replaces democracy with an austerity-driven autocracy is a philosophy that touts the supposed benefits of running government as if it were a business. That was achieved in Flint. And the business models it came to most resemble were Dow chemical and the dioxin contamination of the Saginaw River and BP’s massive crude oil leak that wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. Corporations are motivated to cut costs in order to boost profits. In Flint, we have seen what happens when the bottom line is given more importance than the health and wellbeing of citizens.
- The high costs of austerity. Flint’s emergency managers thought they could save maybe $5 million over two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron is being built. That fateful decision, along with the rush to start using the Flint water treatment plant, which wasn’t ready to do the job, and the apparently illegal decision not to use mandatory corrosion control, could cost Michigan taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. First, there will be the massive costs of mitigating the harm done to thousands of children who will have lower IQs, learning disabilities and behavioral problems as a result of exposure to high levels of lead. There is the damage to ruined infrastructure that will have to be replaced. When you start adding in lost property values and damage to internal plumbing as well as appliances such as water heaters, dishwashers, washing machines and more, the ultimate costs just keep climbing. In addition to the criminal cases, class-action lawsuits and lawsuits brought by individual families are proliferating. There no way of telling what the ultimate bill will be, but it is certainly going to make that $5 million look like a pittance in comparison.
- The people's resilience. Amid all the tragedy, heartbreak, illness and the trauma, there is also something incredibly uplifting and inspiring to be found in the Flint water crisis. Think again, for a moment, about those 100 people marching through Flint one year ago. At that time, their demand for a return to the Detroit system seemed virtually hopeless. A collection of working-class and poor people in a town with an African-American majority with no access to local democracy – what chance did they have? But they persevered by refusing to remain silent, relentlessly searching to find allies that would ultimately help them overcome the massive obstacles in their way.
"What hasn’t changed is this: The people of Flint still can’t drink their tap water unless it has been filtered. They are still facing incredible, unacceptable hardships."