By Alistair Farrow
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Flint—the poisoning of a US city

This article is over 8 years, 4 months old
Issue 2490
US troops distribute bottled water in Flint, Michigan
US troops distribute bottled water in Flint, Michigan (Pic: Michigan State Police)

For nearly two years people in Flint, Michigan, have been drinking and bathing in water classified as “toxic waste”. Unelected “Emergency Manager” Darnell Earley switched the city’s water supply from the freshwater Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River.

Water from the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than that from Lake Huron, a Virginia Tech research team found.

This means that the lead pipes carrying the water corroded and the material entered the water supply. The entire population has been exposed to lead poisoning.

This can cause brain and kidney damage. It disproportionately affects young children and pregnant women, and can cause miscarriage.

And the crisis goes beyond lead poisoning. Doctors have found six other toxins in the blood of Flint residents. They do not yet know how this will impact on public health.

Scandalously Flint’s General Motors (GM) factory was supplied with non-toxic water from Lake Huron throughout this period. It was the only address in the city to be afforded the privilege.

GM had complained to the city management that Flint River water was causing the bodywork on its cars to corrode when used in production.

Yet GM’s drinking fountains and ice machines remained linked up to the river water—exposing ­workers to the toxins while the cars were protected.

Protesters are angry at the toxic water scandal

Protesters are angry at the toxic water scandal (Pic: Brusky)

Those responsible have no interest in being held to account. Darnell Earley has refused to be questioned about the crisis by a congressional committee.


Marc Edwards, one of the Virginia Tech academics who discovered the toxic water, gave evidence to the same committee earlier this month. He cited five falsified reports produced by various government agencies.

Edwards said, “The very agencies paid to protect us not only failed to do so, but also revealed their callous indifference to the plight of the most vulnerable.

“Had it not been for people completely outside the system, children in Flint would still be drinking that water today. That is a fact.”

Yet all this is just business as usual for the ruling classes in Michigan. The current crisis is the latest abuse inflicted on a city that is over

55 ­percent black and where over 40 percent of people live in poverty.

In the mid-1960s toxic waste from the city’s eight car plants was dumped into the Flint River at a rate of 26.5 million gallons a day.

The smoke from the factories covered working class neighbourhoods in dust, rusting metal and making people seriously ill.

People moved to Flint because GM promised them decent jobs. Its population was around 200,000 in the 1960s. Today it is around half that figure.

GM bosses have abandoned the workers who made them rich—and the government has abandoned them.

Instead the Republican governor installed unelected officials to run cities, stripping people of the few democratic rights they once had.

Despite all this, people are fighting back and organising.

Plumbers from across Michigan have volunteered to travel to Flint and install water filters in people’s homes.

Over 1,000 people shouted down the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, at his “State of the State” event last month.

Calls for him and his staff to be held to account are increasing and over 550,000 people have signed a petition demanding Snyder’s arrest.

Snide Snyder led city to ruins

Michigan governor Rick Snyder took office in 2011. He cut city budgets then declared a state of emergency, claiming that cities were failing to provide basic services.

The state used P.A. 436, or the Emergency Managers law, to install unelected city governments to drive through further cuts. The switch from safe to toxic water in Flint saved the city £10 million in the short term, but could cost as much as £900 million to fix.

Leaked emails show that Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, had informed him about Flint’s toxic water.

Muchmore’s wife, Deb Muchmore, happens to be Nestlé’s spokesperson for Michigan. Nestlé has been sued for illegally extracting fresh water from underground springs that feed Lake Huron. It is now supplying bottled water to the city.

Snyder and other state officials did nothing to stop people from using the water until last month. They have consistently downplayed the crisis.

Unelected emergency manager Darnell Earley

Unelected emergency manager Darnell Earley (Pic: Michigan Municipal League)

There is evidence that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew about the toxic water immediately after the switch. It may have failed to tell the state government or informed it secretly—keeping residents in the dark.

EPA regulator Miguel Del Toral was one of the first to detect lead in Flint’s water but his superiors blocked him from reporting his findings. He was prevented from giving evidence at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis.

One of his memos read, “The lead results were especially alarming given that the samples were collected using sampling procedures which minimize the capture of lead.”

Lee Anne Walters, whose house was among the first Del Toral tested, said, “We were still told the water was safe.”

The EPA has launched a review into its procedures for detecting contaminants in water. But the real problem is the disregard for working class lives shown by the state and other agencies. Officials put ordinary people’s lives at risk to save money.

The scandal cuts across the political establishment—Snyder is a Republican and Earley is a Democrat—as well as the unelected branches of the state.

Handwringing from the political class does nothing for people whose lives have been destroyed.

A history of inspiring union resistance—and betrayal

At the height of the US motor industry, workers in Flint had the same standard of living as workers in any US city.

This was not because of bosses’ generosity but thanks to a long history of militant working class organisation.

Today the average wage in Flint is $23,380, or £15,961. That’s $5,500 less than the average US workers’ wage.

Flint was the site of the great sit-in strike of 1936.

This was a central part of the highest point so far of class struggle in the US. Such strikes transformed the shape of the working class movement and built the new Congress of Industrial Organisations instead of the old heavily-bureaucratic unions.

The 44-day Flint sit-down strike was led by rank and file militants and socialists. It inspired workers across the country.

The company won an injunction against the strikers but it was never enforced after strikers revealed the judge owned £170,000 of GM shares.

When Flint’s police force attacked one of Flint’s occupied plants, strikers fought back by hurling nuts and bolts and bottles.

In the 1960s General Motors (GM) employed around 80,000 workers in the city. Today it employs 4,000.

The great sit-down strike in Flint, which ended this week in 1937

The great sit-down strike in Flint, which ended this week in 1937 (Pic: Sheldon Dick/Farm Security Administration)

GM and other US car firms have seen a decline in profitability since the 1970s.

This was partly due to competition from other manufacturers.

GM relocated some of its plants to places such as Mexico, where it could pay workers as little as 49p per hour.

Yet the majority of its sites remain in the US, where it has launched a campaign of plant closures and wage cuts.

The company uses the threat of foreign relocation as a means of pressuring unions to accept these cuts.

The United Auto Workers union (UAW) has been encouraged to play its part in this process and given shares in GM.

The UAW has supported the employer’s drive for “efficiency” in response to foreign competition and articulated this to workers.

The failure of union leaders in the US to challenge the idea that workers’ lives depend on the shifts of capitalist markets is a tragedy.

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