The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened

There is a massive and ongoing injustice occurring in Flint, Michigan. As I sat down to write this blog post, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. The men, women, and children of Flint have been poisoned. Their water continues to poison. And those charged with protecting the public are morally culpable—at best morally complicit and at worst criminally responsible.

What we know:

At the end of 2011, Flint, Michigan was taken into receivership by the state. Removing control from the elected mayor and city council, Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager. From this point onward, the people of Flint did not have democratic representation in decisions as the emergency manager could override in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and the beginning of the Flint water crisis (and you can read more here), following Mother Jones’ reported timeline:

April 25: To save money, Flint changes its municipal water source to the Flint River rather than the Detroit water system. The switch is overseen by state emergency manager Darnell Earley, who, like other emergency managers around the state, is able to override local policies in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Summer: Residents begin complaining to local leaders about tainted, foul-smelling tap water—and health symptoms such as rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it.

August/September: E. coli and coliform bacteria are found in the Flint water supply. The city instructs residents to boil tap water before drinking.

October 1: General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water in its plants after workers notice that the water corrodes engine parts.

It is important to note that the complaints of General Motors were answered, and the Governor “quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water.” It is also important to point out that previously, the emergency manager had rejected switching the water source to the Flint River because of its corrosive nature, and when the decision was made to use the Flint River, many of the issues could’ve been avoided with a treatment costing $100/day for 3 months.

January of 2015 began with an admission that something was not right, but they still insisted the water was basically safe:

January 2: Flint issues an advisory warning that its water contains high levels of trihalomethanes, byproducts of water-disinfectant chemicals. Over time, these byproducts can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. Sick and elderly people may be at risk, the advisory notes, but the water is otherwise safe to consume.

Within a week, state buildings started bringing in clean bottled water for themselves and the emergency manager rejected an offer from Detroit to hook Flint up to water from Lake Huron, treated in Detroit. By the end of January, the residents of Flint were publicly complaining about serious health problems and expressing concerns about the water. Starting in February 2015, one mother, Leanne Walters, noticed her children were breaking out in rashes during baths, losing hair, and experiencing other disturbing reactions. She began complaining, demanding that her water be tested, and organizing. When her water was finally tested for lead, it tested at 400 parts per billion (there is no SAFE amount of lead, but EPA regulations list 15 parts per billion as toxic). All of her children’s tests showed lead exposure, with one child testing positive for lead poisoning.

The more you dig into this situation, the more you see horrifying, ongoing deceit by public officials—from continuing to “pre-flush,” despite EPA warnings that this temporarily lowers test results, giving residents a false sense of the real lead amounts in the tap water, to a new emergency manager overriding a city council vote to switch back to Detroit water system. (At this point we’re only at March 2015!) As Mother Jones reports:

April 28: Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead corrosion, conducts new tests on the Walters’ home without flushing the taps first and finds lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. . . .

September 15: Edwards determines that Flint River water is 19 times as corrosive as Detroit tap water and estimates that one in six Flint homes have elevated lead levels. A MDEQ spokesman disputes the findings.

When we look through this timeline, a few things are clear. Leaked emails show that the people of Flint were being ignored and blown off by the highest levels of State Government and abstract decisions about fiscal responsibility trumped any consideration of public health. In September, they were pushed to finally issue a lead warning but it was full of misinformation, and, in October, Governor Snyder’s office was still lying to the people of Flint, claiming that the water complied with federal safety standards. The same week Snyder’s office issued this press release, water fountains in Flint schools were found to have high levels of lead. Finally, the government announced they would go back to Detroit water. Yet after more than a year of unsafe, corrosive water flowing through the pipes, significant damage was done. Lead is still present in tap water in Flint, Michigan. The most recent water tests—conducted at the end of December, after the switch and after starting anti-corrosion treatment—remain well above what the water filters can filter out (150 parts per billion.) Clean water is now being pumped into the Flint system; however, the pipes are so damaged by the last year of corrosion that lead is still contaminating the tap water. Water and filters are being distributed by the Red Cross and National Guard; however, there has been controversy as to whether the most vulnerable (the poor and the undocumented) have sufficient access to this. On January 27, a lawsuit was filed asking the federal court to step in to provide safe, clean drinking water. Protests are also ongoing to stop residents from Flint from continuing to receive water bills for unsafe drinking water. Today it remains unsafe to use tap water in Flint, Michigan.

Key Points:

  1. The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
  2. Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
  3. Those in positions of power (General Motors and State officials) were provided with safe, clean water quickly once the problem was noticed. While the residents of Flint, the majority of whom are African-American and 40% live below the federal poverty line were repeatedly lied to and blown off.
  4. Lead poisoning leads to significant brain damage and other irreversible health damage to children. Every child in Flint Michigan under the age of 6 has been exposed to toxic levels of lead. This is known and indisputable. The effects of lead poisoning often take years to show up and properly evaluate. From child development to impulse control, the long term effects for the community in Flint will not be known for some time.
  5. Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
  6. Flint is not the only city in America where corrosion and disintegration of lead pipes is a concern; it is only the beginning.