In April of 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan stopped buying water from Detroit and switched its water supply to the nearby Flint River. By December of 2015, a state of emergency had been declared: Flint’s water was contaminated with lead (CNN Library, n.p.). What was originally a cost-saving effort would end up costing the state of Michigan millions, with a $97 million settlement being approved in March of 2017 for the replacement of Flint’s lead water pipes (Kennedy n.p., “Judge” n.p.). While there are other historical causes of the Flint water crisis—such as failures in regional planning and sharp population declines—the most pressing cause is the lack of government reaction and response (United States 1). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force, called by the governor to analyze the crisis, notes that:
The specific events that led to the water quality debacle…are a litany of questionable decisions and failures related to several issues and events including, but not limited to: decisions related to the use of the Flint River as an interim water supply source; inadequate preparation…for the switch to the full-time use of the Flint Water Treatment Plant using the Flint River as the primary water supply source; inadequate and improper sampling of distribution system water quality, potentially in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act; intransigent disregard of compelling evidence of water quality problems and associated health effects; callous and dismissive responses to citizens’ expressed concerns; persistent delays in coordinating appropriate responses to the resultant public health crises once irrefutable evidence of exposure and poisoning was presented. (United States 1)
The various factors leading to the Flint Water Crisis signal institutionalized and environmental racism, especially by members of the Michigan government. Due to these racial tensions, the Flint water crisis has implications far into the future, not only for its long-term health effects on residents, but also for the economic future of Flint and Flint residents’ trust in their government (United States 2).
Environmental racism is defined as “discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy,” especially regarding hazardous waste disposal (“Environmental Racism, N.” n.p.). Even more frequently, however, environmental racism refers to the “disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil” (Eligon n.p.). Historically, the term was coined in 1982, when Dr. Benjamin Chavis used it in describing the location of a chemical landfill in North Carolina (“Environmental Justice” n.p.). However, the idea of environmental injustice had been around since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 70s. A study from the University of Colorado in 2008 found that non-Hispanic African-Americans were “more highly overrepresented” in hazardous sites than any other racial and ethnic groups studied (Downey n.p.). From this same study, Boston Globe journalist Derrick Jackson notes that “black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live.” The study proposed that this disparity might be due to residential mobility, as white residents see a greater increase in mobility per income increase than other minorities, thus confining lower income African Americans to deteriorating neighborhoods (Downey n.p.).
Flint, Michigan is a city where the majority of residents are African-Americans, with the 2010 Census reporting 56.6% “Black or African American alone” (United States Census Bureau n.p.). As Jim Shelson notes in his analysis of the Flint water crisis, “poverty is endemic in Flint…” (520). 41.2% of the residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is $24,862 (United States Census Bureau n.p.). In comparison, 15.8% of Michigan residents live below the poverty line, and the median household income for the state is $49,576 (United States Census Bureau n.p.). Flint ranks 81st out of 82 Michigan counties in “overall health outcomes,” meaning that Flint residents have lower life-expectancies and quality of life, on average (Hanna-Attisha et al. 284 and “Health Outcomes” n.p.).
Many of Flint’s troubles stem from population decline following deindustrialization (Shelson 520). General Motors, historically Flint’s primary source of industry, began moving from the city to the suburbs, taking away both Flint’s “good-paying jobs” and its tax base (Felton n.p.). Michigan’s government encouraged hyper-local governance, and this walled off Flint from wealthier neighborhoods that could have helped Flint’s financial situation (Henderson n.p.). An editor at the Detroit Free Press asserted that “Michigan’s system of governance permits and even incentivizes the creation of poor, isolated urban centers that don’t have enough population or resources to deliver services.” This was the case with Flint.
When Flint reached a “perilous financial state in 2011,” Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Flint’s second in less than a decade (Bosman n.p.). These emergency managers have “complete control and authority over municipal decisions,” which “effectively seiz[es] legal authority from the mayor and City Council” (Shelson 521, Bosman n.p.). In a cost-saving effort, Flint’s emergency manager began making preparations to quickly switch the city’s water supply under the guise of low tax revenues and general budget shortages (CNN Library n.p.).
In short, this strategy allowed lead to enter the water supply (CNN Library n.p.). When the switch was made from the Detroit water supply, the new Flint facility failed to properly treat the historically polluted water with chemicals for corrosion control (CNN Library n.p., Carmody n.p.). Instead, “the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) determined that the water did not have to immediately be treated with corrosion control,” despite being well aware of the Flint River’s history of pollution and contamination (Shelson 521, CNN Library n.p.). It was this decision that directly led to the leaching of lead into the water supply.
In March of 2012, it was officially announced that the city’s water supplier would change from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Karegnondi Water Authority (CNN Library n.p.). A year later, in April of 2013, then emergency manager Edward Kurtz approved the switch—a decision which Flint’s city council both supported and advised the state treasurer to authorize (Fleming n.p., CNN Library n.p.). The contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was terminated, effective April of 2014 (n.p.). Also in April of 2014 was the appointment of Flint’s new emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who would remain the emergency manager until January of 2015 (Anderson n.p., Fleming n.p.). Flint officially switched its water supply on April 25, 2014 (Fleming n.p.). Immediately, residents complained about the quality of the water, citing bad odors, taste, and discoloration (CNN Library n.p., Felton n.p.). In the summer of 2014, over a 22-day period, 3 boil-water advisories were issues for the presence of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and total coliform in the water supply (Masten et al. 23). On September 9th, residents were informed that the water was once again safe to drink. Although problems continued, local government and emergency manager Darnell Earley refused to reconnect with the Detroit water supply, citing increased water rates and reasserting that the lead levels were below legal thresholds (CNN Library n.p., Langkjær-Bain 17). Despite numerous protests and attempts at government action, the extent of the lead contamination was not discovered until Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters, convinced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test the water in her home. The lead levels in the Walters’ home were “seven times the legal limit of 15 parts per billion” (McQuaid n.p.). Later analyses would show it spiking as high as 800 times the legal limit, making it equivalent, scientist Marc Edwards notes, “to toxic waste” (n.p.). When these findings were made public, the MDEQ issued a statement saying that it was the work of a “rogue employee” and that residents needed instead to “relax” (Langkjær-Bain 17). The Flint City Council voted to switch the water supply back to Detroit water, but was overruled by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, citing costs (CNN Library n.p.). Authorities insisted that the problem lay not in public water pipes, but instead in the pipes on the Walters’ property – which were plastic (Langkjær-Bain 17). In September of 2015, an independent study found that Flint water was “19 times more corrosive than Detroit water,” and by October of 2015, Flint’s water supply was finally changed back to Detroit water (CNN Library n.p.).
Nevertheless, the water remained unsafe to drink. Residents had cut back on their water usage, leaving corroding contaminants in the pipes that would need to be flushed out – at the expense of the residents (Kennedy, “Lead Laced” n.p.). Additionally, there would be no guarantee that the already corroded pipes would not continue to leach contaminants into clean and properly treated water (Carmody n.p.). In December of 2015, a state of emergency was declared, and state offices were provided with water coolers to give state employees the option of using bottled water (Shelson 522). It took until January of 2016 for the Michigan National Guard to be mobilized to distribute clean water throughout Flint (CNN Library n.p.). Numerous class action lawsuits were filed, and on March 28, 2017, a judge approved a $97 million settlement with the state to replace Flint’s water lines (CNN Library n.p.). However, the problem is still ongoing and will stay as such until the pipes are replaced.
The Flint Water Advisory Task Force found that “the causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of the agencies’ failure and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments” (United States ii). The failure to acknowledge the crisis, even in the face of mounting evidence signals severe negligence by the government to care for a majority African American city, and in doing so, also signals environmental racism at the hands of the government. A recent article in Significance Magazine notes that the state was not only just negligent, but actively attempted to cover up the crisis with poorly conducted research, bad sampling and the exclusion of data points that did not meet certain criteria of “worst-case” homes—criteria which the state itself later admitted to not properly tracing (Langkjær-Bain 19-20).
Michigan officials repeatedly favored lowering costs over the health of Flint residents. Victoria Morckel notes that “some have speculated that if the city had been under local rather than state control, decisions would have been made with public health, rather than budgets at the forefront” (23). That is to say that, had Flint been in charge of its own finances and own decisions, the crisis likely would have gone in a different direction. Instead of claiming safety despite evidence to the contrary, Flint officials would have immediately switched back to the Detroit water supply – or indeed, never switched in the first place. However, the state responded in a very different manner, remaining unconcerned about the residents of Flint.
This lack of concern over contaminated drinking water in a majority African American community is a hallmark of environmental racism. As a brief example, in Michigan alone, the most polluted ZIP code is a part of Detroit that is 84% African American (Eligon n.p.). Flint’s unique demographics in particular make it impossible to ignore the environmental injustice. Flint is the only city in Genesee County – a large majority white county – that would use the Flint River as an emergency water source, even before the cost-cutting measures were implemented (CNN Library n.p. and United States Census Bureau n.p.). Historically, the river has been of poor quality, with the water in the 1970s being severely degraded due to the presence of “fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils and toxic substances” (CNN Library n.p.). It took until 2001 for a monitoring and cleanup of the most polluted sites to be ordered; these sites included industrial complexes, landfills, and farms (CNN Library n.p.). In the years between, the residents were exposed to such toxins simply by living near the watershed. Derrick Jackson notes in his op-ed that “While there are major correlations between poverty and proximity to toxic sites, race is a stand-alone factor” (n.p.). Flint has the misfortune of being both majority African American and poor. Additionally, despite the water troubles and concerns over the emergency backup, Flint residents were overcharged for their water – “Flint charged the highest water rate in the United States…” (Morckel 25).
These problems are partially due to the decreasing population, which strained Flint services. However, the “whiter and wealthier” suburbs are far less likely to have these same problems (Morckel 25). The distinct divide between what happened in Flint and what would likely never happen in the whiter suburbs point especially towards racism. Flint’s representative, Dan Kildee, was unsurprised, calling race “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint” (Eligon n.p.).
A memo prepared for Governor Snyder stated that the Flint water contamination was “not a top health concern” and that it was the residents who failed to understand a compound contaminating their water in context – implying that the compound was safe and that residents’ fears were unsubstantiated (Eligon n.p.). Lee-Anne Walters, often called the ‘whistleblower’ on the lead contamination, encountered a Flint official at a City Council meeting who “intimated that Walters and her neighbors were spiking their own water just to draw attention to themselves” (McQuaid n.p.). Such insinuations are not only insulting but elitist, dismissing real concerns as an attempt to grab much needed attention. Despite this attitude and dismissal, the government never acknowledged the role that race played in the crisis. Governor Snyder is quoted as saying that he “did not know if race was a factor in the Flint disaster” despite records that clearly showed the dismissal of poor and minority residents’ concerns by his administration (The Editorial Board n.p.). However, the Task Force findings clearly identify the role that race and poverty played into the lack of response (The Editorial Board n.p.). This negligence could only stem from environmental racism: the concerns of minorities were trivialized; and it was the officials, who were not exposed to the water, who claimed to understand the problem, even though numerous examples and studies proved them wrong.
Such negligence has deeply affected the health of Flint residents and placed Flint’s trust in its government in serious jeopardy. The long-term negative health effects of lead have no known treatment (CNN Library n.p.). Blood lead levels can be reduced with certain medications, but the effects to the heart, kidneys, and nerves are more difficult to treat, especially in a city as disadvantaged as Flint (CNN Library n.p.). In children, the risk is even higher. Lead from drinking water disproportionately affects children – “children can absorb 40% to 50% of an oral dose of water-soluble lead compared with 3% to 10% for adults” (Hanna-Attisha et. al. 284). This can cause impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems, delayed puberty, and is detrimental to “overall life achievement” (CNN Library n.p. and Hanna-Attisha et. al. 283). In pregnant women, lead is a known abortifacient (Hanna-Attisha et. al. 284). For an area already economically distressed, such long-term and damaging health effects are greatly concerning. Coping with such issues is often expensive, and with the proportion of residents who live below the poverty line, has the potential to be fatal. The Michigan government, aware of the effects of lead, and aware of the demographics of Flint, chose not to respond to concerns, instead “closing ranks” and attempting a cover-up (McQuaid n.p.). Residents of Flint have little reason to trust the government that condemned them to the long-term effects of lead poisoning.
The increased distrust of Flint residents regarding their government does little to help their situation. Eligon notes that “Environmental decisions are often related to political power” (n.p.) Flint already, as a Democratic city in a state government dominated by Republicans, has little political power (Eligon n.p.). That is not to say that distrust is always bad. It can, at times, help motivate vigilance and criticism. However, if people begin to turn away from the government, democracy cannot survive and even limited power is lost (Budig n.p.). Officials are elected into political power by those with political power – should Flint’s mistrust further interfere with the little power they retain, the residents will have little hope of improvements in the future.
The first step in solving the Flint crisis was to have the problem recognized. Whistleblowers and investigative reporters first monitored the water and sounded the alarm (United States 2). This vigilance helped the crisis to come to national attention and forced the state government to act. The March 2017 settlement will help prevent future lead contamination. Replacing the pipes will prevent further damage and will allow for clean water to finally reach residents (Kennedy “Lead-Laced” n.p.). However, one of the most notable solutions hearkens back to the very beginnings of Flint’s problem with depopulation and monetary crises. Regional planning likely could have helped Flint had it been implemented in time to properly respond to the depopulation and monetary crises. That is not to say that it is too late for Flint. Implementing measures to expand into adjacent communities and increasing tax revenue could help with the budgetary deficit that first placed Flint into the hands of an Emergency Manager. Planning out more efficient waterways that are more suited to the number of people being served could also help with Flint’s sizing issues of having too few people in too large an area. Monica Davey notes that “the city has hollowed out,” citing that “about 20,000 properties among the city’s 56,000 total are vacated or blighted…” (Davey n.p.). However, such solutions to this problem must be posed with care to avoid relocations and urban renewals, as these would only serve to increase racial tensions.
One common question is why Flint residents remained in Flint and did not relocate once the crisis was made known. Quite simply, the remaining residents have no other options, as the cost of living in other areas of Michigan are likely higher (Brayman n.p.). Residents who were able to relocate have already done so (n.p.). Flint has a long history of failing infrastructure and a steady decline in quality of life ever since the deindustrialization of the city (n.p.). Given the poverty in Flint and the lack of mobility out of Rust Belt cities, Flint residents remained trapped (n.p.). The culture shifted to one of solidarity in the face of this systematic racism (n.p.). The zoning in Flint only served to further disadvantage minorities, again preventing opportunities for escape (n.p.). In short, Flint’s strong systematic racism trapped residents and left them at the mercy of a government they no longer trust (n.p.).
The most common claim regarding the Flint crisis is that it is not rooted in race. Instead, the issues are said to lie within the urban planning and outdated infrastructure. Victoria Morckel claims that “…especially when race is brought into the equation – there needs to be a greater understanding both locally and beyond, that Flint’s budgetary issues have more to do with outside forces…than they do with the actions of any one individual or administration” (Morckel 24). Jim Shelson notes that the issue of lead pipes is endemic throughout America, and that “Flint, Michigan is certainly not the first U.S. city to see its water contaminated by aging pipes,” implying that the circumstances in Flint are not uncommon (Shelson 524). That may be partially true – as stated above, several solutions involve the implementation of urban planning efforts. These claims might have more weight were it not for Flint’s demographic, the long wait for government response and aid, and the blatant cover-up of the incident, for which several administrators are facing criminal charges (Kennedy, “Lead-Laced” n.p.). More importantly, it is these outside forces that compose the structure of environmental racism. Environmental racism is shaped by plans that place minorities in high risk areas. By simply citing outside forces as a way of dismissing issues of racism allows for that exact same structural racism to continue, albeit under a different name. Additionally, to ignore the racial aspect is to overwrite the experiences of the majority of Flint residents. Nancy Krieger says of race theory: “It affords us alternative frameworks to analyze, in context, population health and health inequities as embodied in history, revealing the workings of structured chance in our jointly biophysical and social world” (832). Ignoring the racial aspect of the Flint water crisis ignores an important framework that surrounds social relations. Race, embodied in history, plays a part, conscious or not, in the actions of the government. It is difficult to imagine an affluent, white community receiving the same response as Flint.
The water crisis in Flint embodies a history of racial tensions. For government response to be so negligent shows that there is still far to go to achieve equal rights for all community members. One can only hope that the outcry following the crisis will lead to increased vigilance and care in future cases, so that eventually such incidences might only be spurred on by poor planning and not environmental racism. But perhaps the worst part of this issue was that Flint’s water crisis could have very easily been avoided. Zoning changes could have expanded Flint’s tax base to reduce the financial burden. The water supply could have remained the same. Flint’s new water treatment plant could have taken the time to ensure that the water was properly treated. However, for a city already steeped in systemic racism, environmental racism seemed only inevitable.
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