An entire city exposed to toxic water for months. The powerful people responsible for the disaster walk free while the full consequences for those poisoned, particularly children, will not be known for years.
It’s an all too familiar tale to the poor of the Global South whose countries are ravaged by Western multinationals.
But this happened in the industrial heart of the United States—Flint, Michigan.
In April 2014 the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron, supplied by the Detroit Water System Department, to the Flint River and began treating it in Flint.
What was sold as an exercise in self-sufficiency became a potentially lethal experiment.
The river water is corrosive because it runs over mineral-rich earth for hundreds of miles.
Unless the water is effectively treated it can strip off the protection added to old lead water pipes—the type of pipes used to carry water into millions of homes across the US.
But the process it underwent after the Flint water switch was not adequate and instead an entire city was exposed to lead in its water supply.
At least 12 people died from Legionnaire’s disease. Other people’s hair fell out, still more developed blotchy red rashes. Many more could yet develop symptoms.
Anna Clark’s book, The Poisoned City, follows the course of the crisis. It asks why the guilty are still walking free. And it also goes deeper, to look at how such a disaster could happen in Flint.
She told Socialist Worker that people in Flint were “possibly treated differently to how other communities in the state would have been if they had been in a similar situation.
“These environmental disasters don’t happen in middle class white neighbourhoods. And if they did, they would be treated differently.”
The conclusion she reaches is that the disaster is about race and class. And to understand this crucial context she takes the reader back to the beginnings of the city.
We had desegregation and fair housing laws, and at the same time people started leaving cities. There was a clear choice to disinvest in these communities and invest in others.Anna Clark
Flint grew along with the car industry. General Motors encouraged people to move there with the promise of good jobs and housing.
But beneath this promise of a bright future lay the stain of racism.
The thousands of black workers who moved from the segregated South to escape poverty and prejudice found it had merely taken a different form in the North. In Flint, they were restricted to the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest paid jobs.
Their poverty condemned them to the worst slum housing, their children to the poorest schools and sub-standard healthcare.
And black people were systematically excluded from home ownership—mortgage brokers were instructed not to issue loans in areas with large black populations. As the city centre became increasingly run down, white people were encouraged to move to the suburbs.
People using affordable housing vouchers—which black people were more likely to receive—were excluded from renting in new developments in the suburbs.
Those left behind were those who couldn’t afford to move, and they were disproportionately black.
Anna refers to this process as the “hollowing out” of cities. “We had desegregation and fair housing laws, and at the same time people started leaving cities,” says Anna. “There was a clear choice to disinvest in these communities and invest in others. A highway system was built, suburbs were built.”
The exodus grew in the wake of the 1967 riots against poverty and racism which swept Flint and 150 other towns and cities across the US.
This ugly legacy of racism frames the Flint water crisis. If you are black and live in Flint, you and your children are more likely to have lead poisoning and to have been exposed to toxins.
The official version of the disaster says the main problem was that the crisis was not understood quickly enough.
The governor of the state of Michigan, Republican Rick Snyder, claims to have not become aware of the crisis until late September 2015—after an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report sounded the alarm.
Before the switch in water supply took place environmental organisations at a local and national level questioned its logic.
Residents raised concerns about the water as soon as it began pouring out of the taps brown and fizzy in 2014. Their worries were ignored.
And there were already national newspaper stories about it in the spring of 2015.
“People went through all the official channels—the EPA, the Department for Public Works, protesting outside meetings,” says Anna. “And, if it is true the governor didn’t know until then, that in itself is a big problem.”
When the city management finally acknowledged there might be a problem, residents were told to wait for the water to be switched over to a new water source.
The problem was, the new hook-up could take months.
“It’s important to know how these decisions were made. What we’ve seen is what happens when barriers are erected to people who want a say in the governance of their own community,” says Anna.
“This is what happens when a community is impoverished. People were like, ‘Oh yeah, and now the water is bad too’.”
But not everybody was badly affected by the water crisis. The cost to the city of switching the water supply to the Flint River was $85 million, with annual payments of $7 million.
And, once the agreement was signed, it was legally binding until fully paid off.
Somebody certainly made a lot of money.
What happened in Flint could happen anywhereAnna Clark
Even before the water started flowing brown, people didn’t accept the city management’s lies. “There was an inherited culture of collective organising—facing up to powerful organisations and challenging them. For instance, the Democracy Defence League (DDL) formed to challenge the emergency management,” says Anna.
“The DDL was led by Claire McClinton, who used to be a General Motors union organiser. They showed up at city meetings and challenged decisions and held protests.
“Later on there were groups such as Water You Fighting For? One of the things they did was mapping—getting a sense of where things were and the scale of the problem.”
It was left up to ordinary people and a handful of professionals to discover the scale of the disaster, and to force the city management to take action.
One of those professionals was paediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha. In September 2015 she published a report into blood lead levels in children in the 18 months after the crisis broke. They had almost doubled.
Some 4 percent of children now had high levels—and in poor, black neighbourhoods this figure shot up to 6.3 percent. And this was just for the lead levels—there were plenty of other toxins present too.
Hanna-Attisha’s report was scoffed at by Snyder’s representative, who claimed she had “spliced and diced” the data.
The day after her report was released emails circulated at the EPA head office, discussing whether home filters should be provided to people in Flint.
“I don’t know if Flint’s the kind of community we want to go out on a limb for,” said one official.
It took a newspaper—The Detroit Free Press—gaining access to the state’s data to show its claims that Hanna-Attisha was wrong were based on a misreading of its own data.
“This needs to be a reckoning,” says Anna. “Criminal cases are still playing out, and the special prosecutor says there are still more to come.”
Finally some limited change has come. “The state of Michigan has just passed some of the strictest lead-in-water laws in the country,” she added.
There are dozens of US cities with similar water piping systems. Will it take a public health crisis on the scale of Flint for things to change in those places?
“People say, ‘That couldn’t happen here’,” says Anna. “But what happened in Flint could happen anywhere.”
Anna fears that the powerful people responsible are “waiting the clock out” and hoping people’s anger will dissipate.
But Flint is a city with long traditions and a good memory