by Chaya, Deni and Julie
The Flint, Michigan water crisis has been in the news a lot, but just how did it happen? Who and what is responsible?
In 2013, as a cost-cutting measure, the Flint City Council voted to switch its water supply from the Detroit water system directly to Lake Huron. This new system wouldn’t be ready until 2016. In April of 2014, Darnell Earley, who’d been appointed Flint Emergency Manager by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, temporarily changed Flint’s municipal water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, despite some qualms that already existed about the quality of Flint River water. The Detroit water system, on the other hand, was considered to have a safe water supply.
Soon after, Flint residents began complaining that their tap water was tainted and foul-smelling. In response, the city suggested they boil tap water before using it. Rashes and hair loss were also reported. By summer, E. coli and coliform bacteria were found in the water supply. By the early winter of 2015, Flint issued an advisory warning that high levels of trihalomethanes (TTHM), byproducts of water-disinfectant chemicals, had been found in the water supply. Despite TTHM causing liver, kidney and nervous system damage, putting sick or older people possibly at risk, Flint officials said the water was otherwise safe to consume.
Detroit offered to hook Flint back up to its water system at no cost, but Emergency Manager Earley refused. Governor Synder then replaced Earley with Jerry Ambrose. Residents turned out in force at a town hall meeting to complain about health symptoms they attributed to the water.
LeeAnne Walters, a Flint mother of four, demanded the city test her water when her kids developed symptoms. Lead levels of 104 parts per billion (ppb) were found in the Walters’ tap water. Walters, trained as a medical assistant, stayed up nights investigating Flint water quality reports. Her demands for action and early civic/medical responses alarmed Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, who began researching blood lead levels of Flint’s youngest children before and after the change of water supply. Walters and others, dubbing themselves “water warriors,” began staging regular protests outside City Hall.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard for initiating an enforcement action on lead levels is 15 ppb. Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral, a manager at the EPA’s Midwest water division. She told him she discovered that Flint wasn’t using standard corrosion control methods to treat the water, which would prevent old pipes (such as those in Flint) from leaching lead. Del Toral also found out that the city was flushing tap water before it took samples for testing, which resulted in lower lead test levels. He expressed his concerns to others at the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Mayor Dayne Walling asked the state for help, stating that the challenges of treating the Flint River water were “underestimated” by those who made the decision.
By January of 2015, Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose said that getting emergency water from the Detroit system was not in the city’s plans, although an independent water expert recommended switching back to the Detroit River system. The consultant hired by the city stated the water was safe to drink and met all state and federal standards, although a month later he called for $3 million in changes at the water plant to get the TTHM in check.
The City Council voted 7 to 1 in favor of reconnecting to the Detroit water system, but Ambrose called the vote “incomprehensible” and prevented it from happening. Blood tests conducted on LeeAnne Walters 4 children found that all of them had lead exposure, and that her 4-year-old had lead poisoning. Del Toral wrote, “Given the very high lead levels found at one home and the pre-flushing happening in Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated.”
However, the director of the EPA’s Midwest division, Susan Hedman, thought that Del Toral’s report was premature and said that an official version would be released “when the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management.” In response to the Governor’s request for updates, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the lead problem was just in the Walters’ home, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said that seasonal elevations in lead levels were usual.
Water quality problems continued, and Flint River water tested at 19 times as corrosive as Detroit tap water; one in six Flint homes was estimated to have elevated lead levels. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality disputed the findings.
In September, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards said that corrosive water was causing lead to leach into the residents’ tap water. The city and state continued to say that the water was still safe. Shortly after, tests showed lead levels had spiked. Ten percent of homes tested found an increase in lead since the switch to the Flint River water supply. Medical tests showed more children with increased levels of lead. The state disputed these findings.
Del Toral wrote a memo to the head of the EPA’s drinking water division, calling Flint’s lack of corrosion controls “a major concern.” Additional tests conducted at LeeAnne Walters home, without flushing the taps first, revealed extremely high lead levels, more than two times the level that the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha’s research found that the percentage of Flint children under 5 years old with elevated blood lead levels had doubled (or in some cases tripled), since the change in the water supply. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality called her findings “unfortunate” in a time of “near hysteria” among residents.
Flint issued a lead warning, advising residents to drink and cook only with cold tap water, while continuing to maintain that the water complied with federal standards. Governor Snyder issued a press release that stated, “The water leaving Flint’s drinking water system is safe to drink, but some families with lead plumbing in their homes or service connections could experience higher levels of lead in the water that comes out of their faucets.”
On October 1, 2015, the county declared a public health emergency, and the next day, Governor Snyder announced some mitigation measures including spending up to $1million to purchase water filters and test water at schools. Also included was expanding lead exposure testing and expediting water treatment to better control pipe corrosion. Five days later, the city’s technical advisory committee recommended immediately returning to the Detroit water system, and on October 8 the Governor announced a plan to reconnect. Coincidentally, lead was found at high levels in the drinking fountains of 3 Flint schools that same day.
The director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality states, “It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint…” Attorneys announced a class-action lawsuit brought by Flint residents against state and city officials, including the Governor and the Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. More recently, the Michigan chief medical officer told Flint residents to use only bottled or filtered water.
Flint’s environmental injustice poisoned-water crisis would have remained hidden and ignored, if not for affected Flint residents — turned community activists – who forced the issue to light with their research and public outcry.
But the water situation in Flint must be seen within the larger context of disempowerment and disenfranchisement for the primarily Black residents of cities across Michigan. As explained by Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn
in The Root:
“Flint’s citizens, 52 percent African American, have been deprived of the right to govern their city since 2011. Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law allows the governor to appoint an unelected official to control a city determined to be in fiscal crisis. Emergency financial managers have been primarily assigned to majority-African-American cities across Michigan. In the past decade, over half of African Americans in Michigan—compared with only 2 percent of whites—have lived under emergency management. EFMs are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities with similar money problems have not been taken over. Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan.”
Longtime Flint residents were skeptical when city officials had celebrated the change in the water supply since Flint-based General Motors had once used the river as a dumping ground. “I thought it was one of those Onion articles,” said Rhonda Kelso, a 52-year-old Flint native. “We already knew the Flint River was toxic waste.” Kelso has joined others in a class-action suit targeting city and state officials, including ex-Mayor Walling and Governor Snyder.
One of the earliest public demonstrations demanding clean water was in February 2014, with over 50 people marching in sub-zero temperatures, was organized by residents Melissa Mays and Flint Councilmen Eric Mays and Wantwaz Davis, an ex-con who ran a vigorous campaign to win a council seat. In fact Wantwaz has referred to Flint’s water problems as “genocide.” “The reason I used the word, it didn’t stem from a racial standpoint. It was more about class. It was more about the low- [and] moderate-income people. The poor people — whites, blacks, Hispanics, Chinese — we are the ones who are ill affected by this water. Not the people with the money. The people with the money can leave and come back. Or move to outside counties.”
Community demonstrators were supported from the outset by Erin Brockovich and others working with her. Demonstrations in Flint have continued and grown, as public outcry has forced government offices and officials to acknowledge the crisis (though not actually do anything that has fixed it…) In mid-January as Michigan Governor Snyder gave his state address at the capitol building in Lansing, dozens of protesters gathered outside holding signs that read “Arrest Snyder” and marched to the building’s steps chanting “Snyder Must Go.” Many have called for Snyder’s resignation and arrest. Among these demonstrators were UAW members, local political activists, and parents who have spoken out against the water contamination. But there was also a line of young black protesters marching around the back of the building holding signs that said “Flint Lives Matters.” Black Lives Matter has been an ardent supporter of the movement in Flint.