Imagine you’re taking a shower and suddenly, the water turns sickly brown. You turn on the kitchen tap for a glass of water, and out comes a noxious smell and particles of rust visible to the naked eye. For the people of Flint, Michigan, this has been the reality. Inhabitants of the city switched water sources from the main Detroit water system to a local river water source as a cost-saving measure in April 2014. After fecal coliform bacteria- an indicator of human waste contamination- was detected in the water of Flint in the summer of 2014, extra chlorine was pumped into the water supply. The extra chlorine has corroded the pipes of the water supply system, leaching traces of lead into Flint’s water supply. Studies conducted by Virginia Tech in the summer of 2015 revealed that between 20% through 60% of water samples across the neighborhoods of Flint had levels of lead above 5 parts per billion. Scientists stress, however, that any level of lead in water is unsafe, and can lead to permanent brain damage after longterm exposure.
The EPA’s regulatory measurement of 15 ppb in water supplies, a stat cited by local officials when declaring water was still safe for citizens to drink and bathe in, is not meant as a public health measure, rather as an indicator of infrastructure that’s wearing down and should be replaced or improved.
The city switched back to Detroit’s water system in October 2015 after high levels of lead were found in children, but it is unclear how many people and for how long the people of Flint were exposed to the contaminated water. Citizens are relying on emergency relief efforts and supplies of bottled water to stay healthy and avoid lead poisoning. A state of emergency was declared by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in January, 2016 after months of citizen complaints.
Correspondence between the offices of Gov. Rick Snyder made public after his State of the State address earlier this month revealed how little state and elected officials took this public health issue seriously. State Rep. Sheldon Neeley wrote Gov. Snyder a year ago pleading for help, asking for a $21 million debt owed by the city to be forgiven in order to relieve the water crisis. Much of the blame has been pinned on Governor Snyder, after his state agencies repeatedly declared the water safe despite any discoloration or noxious smell. It sent the message that the public’s water and health were not the problems of the state, turning the discussion into “political football” according to Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore. To Muchmore, it was unclear “why the state is responsible” for the water problems. And according to the New York Times, a memo from an Environmental Protection Agency expert, Miguel Del Toral, says “staffers have essentially downplayed or ignored warning signs” concerning incompetent state testing of lead levels.
41% of the population of Flint lives below the poverty line and 60% of the population belonging to a minority, raising the question of what media coverage of this crisis would be like if the event were to happen in a wealthier, more privileged community. Would the unsafe conditions creating the water crisis even present themselves in a richer community? Would the government be quicker to act, say, if a similar crisis were occuring in New York City? The birthplace of General Motors, Flint relied on the presence of the auto industry since the 1950’s to sustain its community. Flint had one of the highest percapita incomes at the time. When GM began spreading their factories, Flint lost an important source of tax revenue. And less privileged minorities with no access to the government subsidized move to the suburbs in the last few decades were forced to stay in the ciry. Today, GM employs about 10% of the people in the Flint area.
The issues surrounding the Flint water crisis are related to so much more than public health – the crisis has called into question the efficacy of Flint’s and Gov. Snyder’s government and policies, raises issues of wealth inequality and racial inequality and the roles of industry in Flint, and its media coverage puts a spotlight on the general opinion of environmental issues across the nation. Whether you consider water a commodity or basic human right, the outcome of the Flint water crisis will provide an important precedent to similar environmental justice issues in the future.