On April 25th, 2014, with its government run by the latest in a series of Emergency Managers appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water system over to the Flint River, ending a decades-long purchase agreement with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) which draws its water from Lake Huron. Within a few weeks Flint residents began reporting problems with hideously discolored and foul-smelling water from their taps. Unbeknownst to them, the Flint River water was silently eroding the protective phosphate layer from the insides of their homes’ water lines, many of which were old and made of lead. To make matters worse, a boil water advisory was issued in Flint after coliform bacteria was discovered in the city’s drinking water. Boiling the water killed the bacteria but also concentrated the lead residents had no idea was in the water.
A little less than a year after the switch to the Flint River, high levels of lead began being reported the homes of Flint residents. It is unknown how long people were exposed to lead but, judging by the high levels of lead found in the blood of kids in the city, it had been going on for some time. During this time, inexpensive phosphate treatment of the water at the city’s water treatment plant had not been used (DWSD water was treated with phosphates.) Some say it was to save money, others to avoid feeding bacteria that had been on ongoing problem.
Although testing results had been showing high lead levels since February 2015 and University of Virginia professor Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center sounded the alarm about lead levels in the water and blood of people living in the city in early September of 2015, no steps to correct the problem were taken and Edwards & Hanna-Attisha were initially vilified and demeaned. Then, a month after they rang the alarm bell, two years ago today, Gov. Snyder went before cameras and microphones to admit what everybody else already knew: Flint had a problem with lead in its drinking water. Unspoken at that news conference was that this was a human-caused catastrophe caused by his appointed Emergency Managers as a cost-saving measure. Emergency Managers and others with no experience in providing safe drinking water had made disastrous decisions that had poisoned an entire city.
Two years later, the city is still in the midst of a crisis. Full replacement of of the lead and galvanized water service lines won’t be completed until late 2020 at the current rate of replacement. In the meantime, although lead levels in the city’s drinking water appear to back to “normal” levels, officials are still cautioning residents not to drink the water without first filtering it. This “the water is safe, just don’t drinking it” is a familiar refrain. Early in crisis, state officials were even encouraging parents to bathe their babies in it.
Why will it take over five years to replace the lead and galvanized water lines in Flint? It’s because Flint is not a wealthy city. It’s an aging, former manufacturing boom town that has been forsaken by the industries that once made it great and by a state government that seems to have no idea at all what to do to revitalize these carved out husks with large geographical areas to serve on an ever-dwindling tax base. Most importantly, it’s full of poor people of color with little to no political capital.
They literally don’t make the cut.
If this catastrophe had happened in a wealthy, mostly-white community, not only would their plight been front-page news until it was resolved, it would have been resolved quickly. Rather than a slow-walking program to replace the water service lines run largely by a beleaguered city government, the state would have marshaled ALL of the resources it could put its hands on, sending in the cavalry, as it were, a SURGE of resources and money and people to dig the lead lines out and replace them NOW.
It COULD be done this way.
But it’s not NOT being done this way by choice.
The Republicans who run our government won’t spend the money and resources because they gain little political capital for doing so and will pay almost no political price for NOT doing so.
It’s time for a Flint Water Crisis Surge. It’s time the state of Michigan finally did right by them. They’ve dealt with poisoned drinking water for over three years now. Over a dozen people have died from a Legionnaires Disease outbreak that is now believed to be tied to the switch to the Flint River. Thousands of Flint children were exposed to lead during a particularly vulnerable time in their development. And ALL Flint residents have dealt with the unimaginable inconvenience of two years of schlepping bottled water from distribution centers and using water filters for all of their water along with the equally unimaginable stress that this catastrophe has put on them. Their appliances and home plumbing were destroyed by the corrosive water. And the chance of them ever being able to sell their homes for what they were worth before the crisis began is essentially zero.
So, yes, it’s time for a Flint Water Crisis Surge. The only question remaining is if our leaders have the political will to do it.