How corporate pollution and callous bureaucracy joined forces to poison the water of Flint

From ToxicLeaks

In the year 1936, Flint was the battleground of a bitter struggle between big corporations and the workers. A strike had taken control of the General Motors (GM) factories and neither government nor GM managed to bend the will of the strikers. In 2015, the people of Flint feel the cold revenge of capital and state violence, as they fall victim to one of the worst environment crises in the recent American history. In Flint, decades of corporate pollution and government irresponsibility merged to deliver an ecological and health disaster to the residents.

A city beggared by offshoring and the financial crisis[edit | edit source]

This crisis stems from the economic hardships of Flint and more generally Michigan. Whereas the state used to be the heart of the car industry during the 20th century, it was hit hard by the end of the century deindustrialization. General Motors may have prospered of the backs of Michigan laborers for decades, but when transport costs fell it did not hesitate to betray these workers and ship off production to lands where the wages were lower and the workers didn't ask too many questions. 80,000 workers worked for GM in Flint in 1970 but only 8,000 in 2010. To make things even harder, the housing market crisis wreaked havoc on the economy. This had a disastrous effect on Flint and the whole state of Michigan, where revenue fell by 25 % between 2006 and 2013. The thing is, state regulations compensated the state deficit by asking for more and more resources from already struggling cities. As you can guess, the deficits of these cities went through the roof and in 2011, Flint had accumulated a deficit of $25.7 million. The once proud working class city of Flint had sunken into terrible poverty. But that was only the beginning of big corporation and government’s revenge against the Flintonians.

The end of municipal democracy in Flint : the appointment of an emergency city manager[edit | edit source]

The situation was so critical that the state of Michigan decided to appoint an emergency city manager in November of 2011 to address these financial issues. Of course as the state was in part responsible of Flint's dire situation, this decision isn't without irony. But the fact is that the emergency manager had authority to act without the consent of the elected mayor and councilmen. That municipal decisions escaped the control of elected representatives and therefore the control of the people is significant, in light of the terrible decisions that would be made in the following years.

Emergency manager decides to cut corners and use Flint river water[edit | edit source]

Now, how did the emergency manager tackle the deficit of Flint's budget ? Why by improvising a change in the water supply. Flint used to get its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), but in 2013, the city manager decided to switch the water supply to the Karegnondi Water Authority(KWA), which would deliver water from lake Huron. This plan was designed to save a couple million every year. However, the pipes that would deliver the treated water from the KWA would only be ready in early 2016, and the DWSD announced that its contract with Flint would expire in april 2014. The choice was then to bargain for temporary water delivery from the DWSD for those two years, or to use Flint's backup water source, Flint river. Officials having estimated that dealing with the DWSD would cost 5 million more than to treat the Flint river water, it's not too hard to guess what was decided... Thus was the Flint river chosen to supply the homes of the people of Flint with drinking water, and at that time, everybody seemed to agree that it was the right call, as the mayor Dayne Walling put it “It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard”, even though that was the same river General Motors had dumped decades worth of toxic waste into.

Growing concerns on the water quality in 2014[edit | edit source]

However optimistic the officials may have been, the first concerns about water quality were voiced only months after the switch. Residents started claiming that the water had a strange color, and that is tasted and smelt bad. Coliform bacteria was detected in the water and the residents were advised to boil water before they drank it in August and September 2014. Concerns about an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease also arose in October of 2014, the number of cases in 2014 was 4 times the 2013 number. One of the probable causes of the outbreak was the Flint water system. Last but not least, General Motors reported in octobre 2014 that the water was corroding car parts ! This drove General Motors to not use the Flint water anymore. This was a very serious indication that something was off, how could a source of water that damaged metal parts be safe for people to drink ? It heralded the major problem the Flint river water would lead to: corrosion of old lead pipes that would raise tremendously the lead concentration in the water drunk by the residents, and cause lead poisoning. However, these early signs were not taken into account by the decision makers, as we will see, and the residents of Flint were not nearly as lucky as General Motors' car parts.

Flint's emergency city manager adamant on the use of Flint river water[edit | edit source]

This is the saddest part of this story. The health disaster might have been avoided if only the officials in charge of decisions hadn't been so stubborn and so focused on budgetary issues instead of caring for the welfare of the people their job was to protect. In June 2014, Mayor Dwayne Walling kept hammering that there was nothing to fear : “It’s a quality, safe product, I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.” It's dumbfounding to think that people have been misled into drinking toxic water because their representatives promised them something that was just not true. However, as more and more people became alarmed by the growing health issues seemingly linked to water, the elected officials tried to bring an end to the use of Flint river water : in march 2015, the city council voted 7 to 1 to return to the Detroit water system (DWSD). A vote that the emergency city manager Jerry Ambrose deemed “incomprehensible”, because of the steep cost of a return to Detroit water. And a vote that he therefore chose not to take into account, maintaining the use of Flint river water. Thus was the worse decision in the history of the city of Flint taken by bureaucracy in its purest form, with no democratic control whatsoever.

Poisoned water : discovery of high lead levels[edit | edit source]

In early 2015, citizen complaints about the water did not relent and an EPA manager, Miguel Del Toral, found elevated lead levels in the water of the home of the Walters family, who had suffered several health problems and believed they were linked to the water. This made Del Toral suspect that the chemicals inside the water were corroding the pipes and that heavy metals were leaching into the stream. Indeed according to the Copper and Lead Federal Rule, all public water systems have to maintain controls to ensure that there is no corrosion from the pipes into the water. However, in this case, Miguel Del Toral points out that the tests are not being well done because they are only testing the water before it goes through the pipes and reaches the homes of the people of Flint. This alarm was not heeded by other officials within EPA or by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) that was responsible for the safety of the water in the state. In september 2015, the Walters family contacted Dr Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech and asked him to come check out the water in Flint. He agreed and brought a team that conducted and published a study that found that the water in Flint was “very corrosive” and “causing lead contamination in homes”. They measured that at least 25% of Flint homes had lead levels higher than the legal limit of 15 parts per billion in their water. Some homes had dramatically high levels of about 13,000 parts per billion.

The dire health consequences[edit | edit source]

The substandard quality of the Flint water has had disastrous consequences of the health of the Flint residents. The Hurley Medical Center in Flint reported in septembre 2015 that the number of children with high lead levels had doubled since the city switched to Flint river water. This means that twice as many children had been exposed to a substance that will cause a reduction of their IQ, of their problem solving skills, and of their chance of getting a higher education. These children will be more prone to aggression, hyperactivity and might develop attention deficit disorder. Statistically, they have become more likely to commit crimes, to serve time, to have trouble finding a job, to be dependant on welfare. Apart from the lead poisoning other health issues affected the residents, such as the Legionnaire's disease outbreak. In january 2016, 87 cases of the disease had been reported and 10 peoples had died. Even though the authorities persisted in denying the link between the water source and the outbreak, Marc Edwards' study indicates some very high levels of bacteria in some homes, which proves that the outbreak was really caused by the switch to the Flint river water and mismanagement of the water quality by officials.

The people of Flint demand justice for bureaucratic crimes[edit | edit source]

Since novembre 2015, the angry people of Flint have rightly started several lawsuits against the Mayor, the governor, the emergency city manager and a string of other officials involved in this massive screw up. They are asking damage for the lives that were lost, for the health issues that they suffered, more than all they are suing to ask government to do its job : protect the citizens and provide clean and safe water. They therefore ask that the old and dangerous lead lines be replaced. We can only encourage the plaintiffs in their fight against government in its most callous and careless form.

Lessons from a bureaucratic debacle[edit | edit source]

Finally, even though it came much too late, the water source was switched back to Detroit in October 2015 and Flint started adding orthophosphate to the water to reduce the corrosion of the pipes. This already cost the city $12 million, but the bill will be much much higher, because of the short-sightedness and the total lack of humanity of city officials. Since the water has damaged the lead pipes, changing the pipes is going to be necessary regardless of the quality of the water that is now being used again. And the price of that change could be sky-high. According to Flint's new Mayor Karen Weaver, it could reach $1,5 billion ! However that's only the tip of the iceberg, because the real cost of the Flint water crisis will be the money needed to take care of the social and health consequences of this pollution. Before the crisis started, a study estimated that the cost of childhood exposure to lead in Michigan would be around $330 million. This figure covered the money the children would never make because the lead exposure affected their intellectual development and limited career opportunities. It also covered the cost of criminal justice as these children were more likely to become criminals. Finally it includes lifelong treatment for the numerous issues lead exposure leaves its victims. $330 million if everything stayed “normal”. And now ? Philippe Grandjean from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health estimated the cost at several billion dollars. That's a lot of money that the American citizens are going to have to spend because some bureaucrat decided he would save a few bucks by taking a poorly planned decision.