New York Law School

The Flint Water Crisis

When my siblings and I were younger, we each imagined ourselves growing up and becoming someone important. We were always taught to dream big. My sister Syrita always pretended to be a doctor, always pretending to perform life saving surgery. Today she is one. I, on the other hand, imagined standing before a jury giving the closing statement of all closing statements. Today, I am months away from realizing my dream.

Despite the fact that the only black lawyers and doctors my sister and I saw growing up were on TV, Syrita and I, like our other three siblings held onto our dreams, refusing to be woken up or deterred. We relentlessly envisioned ourselves being that next great lawyer or that next great doctor. Little did I realize at that time how lucky my siblings and I were by having the ability just to dream because for the thousands of black children in Flint, Michigan, who for the past two years, have drank, bathed and consumed food cooked in water from their home’s pipes, and the thousands of children yet to be born, State and Local officials may have poisoned those dreams.

Let me shed some light on the situation. Over the past two years, due to the inaction of State and Local officials, children, along with all other residents living in Flint, have been exposed to toxic water. This situation has been coined The Flint Water Crisis.

This crisis in Flint, Michigan began on April 16, 2013. In effort to save money, City officials from Flint, a City 56.6% black, and 40% poor, switched it’s water source from the treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Lake Huron, however, in order to attain water from Lake Huron, a pipeline had to be constructed. This project would take time, so in the meantime City officials began using untreated water from the Flint River until the pipeline from Lake Huron could be completed.

One year after the switch, in May 2014, Local residents started making complaints about the new water. Complaints ranged from the taste, smell and color of the water to the development of body rashes, generalized medical complaints and illnesses. A few months later, on August 15, 2014, Local and State officials responded by issuing a boil water advisory. The warning was issued in parts of the City where water tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Two months later on October 13, 2014, the Flint General Motors Plant announced publicly that it would no longer use the Flint River water because the water was rusting car parts. Upon the announcement, Local officials arranged for the company to tap into a different water line while residents were still left to drink the contaminated water. However, General Motors was not alone in its refusal to use the Flint River water. Shortly after their announcement, after noticing that the water was damaging their surgical instruments, Hurely Medical Center decided to step up its own filtering system and use of bottled water, as did a local university.

Yet despite the complaints by residents and the refusal to use the Flint River water by GM, a hospital and local university, Local officials continued to deny that anything was wrong with the water, going so far as to refer to people who raised questions about the quality of Flint’s water as an “anti-everything group”, while at the same time accusing critics of the government of turning complaints about the water into a “political football.”

And even though City officials downplayed the severity of the toxic water, in January 2015, City officials announced that Flint’s water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, a disinfectant byproduct, which by its mere presence in water violates the Safe Drinking Water Act. Moreover, during this time that the presence of trihalomethanes was discovered in the Flint River water, health officials in Flint found a number of children with abnormally high levels of lead in their blood. This was accompanied with body rashes, adults complaining of headaches and foul smelling water; to which State and Local officials responded by explaining to the residents of Flint that, those with normal immune systems have nothing to worry about.

In Flint, 40% of the population is poor and 18.3% of the population does not have a high school diploma, to which both State and Local officials know. With this information, officials know that the residents do not have the resources in which to challenge their statements. Assuming arguendo, even if all the residents had evidence to support their contention that the water was not safe to consume or use, 40% of the residents cannot afford to buy bottle water every week, let alone a lawyer to argue their findings. Simply put, officials allowed for the poisoning of the insolvent and uneducated persons of their community, who happen to be majority black because officials know that there is nothing the residents can do.

In February 2015, Flint officials tried to further convince those same residents that, notwithstanding their own findings of high levels of lead in their water making it unsafe to consume, that somehow the water was still safe by hiring water management giant Veolia, to investigate the City’s water quality. Veolia, whom was paid $40,000 by the City, announced that the water was safe to drink in spite of the presence of sediment, a brown discoloration, and a number of residents turning up with rashes and headaches.

In fact, things continued to get so bad for Flint that a research group lead by Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, conducted an independent study on the water. His group announced their findings around the same time Veolia announced theirs, reporting that the water in Flint, Michigan was contaminated with high levels of lead. As a result of the Virginia Tech Study, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved.

The EPA, led by one of their managers told Michigan officials that the chemistry of the river water had contaminants from pipes, including lead, leaching into the water system. State and Local officials responded the only way they knew how, by downplaying the EPA’s findings and instructing residents to continue drinking the water.

Despite the research results from the EPA and Virginia Tech, the announcement by City officials of high lead levels in the water and the October publication of the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood, State and Local officials continued to deny that the water was unsafe. Officials continued their denial in spite of some children in Flint exhibiting lead levels in their blood so high that physicians compared those levels to those seen in citizens of war-torn countries.

Notwithstanding the emergence of all the studies and results, the only thing Gov. Snyder did in that same month (October 2015) was announce that the State would purchase water filters and test lead in schools. However, he still refused to admit that the Flint River water was toxic. The leader of the State, by his refusal to acknowledge the toxicity of the water, effectively consented to the irreversible harm of thousands of underprivileged and uneducated people, mainly black people.

Later that same week, Gov. Snyder finally said something positive. Gov. Snyder recommended that Flint go back to using water from Detroit, and while “everyone was sleeping” went ahead and switched the Flint River water back to Detroit water. Snyder did all this, but yet he still refused to admit what all State and Local officials knew as well as Flint residents; the water was poison.

For the remainder of 2015 Gov. Snyder, and his administration as well as, State and Local officials remained silent with respect to Flint. However; just five days into the New Year (2016), it finally became official; Flint was in a State of Emergency.

At every turn, Local and State officials tried to diminish this disaster, making public statements advising residents to drink the water, even hiring a water company to support their statements. Regardless of what officials in Flint and throughout the State of Michigan tried to do, we cannot and must not forget what really happened here; what really happened was officials blatantly lied to the people of Flint and as a result allowed ill-informed and indigent residents to unknowingly poison themselves.

Therefore, the question is; who was aware. First, State records obtained under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that Flint’s fateful decision to sever its ties with the City of Detroit as its supplier of drinking water went all the way up to the Michigan’s governor’s office. So we know the governor played a role in this. In addition, according to records obtained by the Free Press under FOIA on March 25, 2013, then-State Treasurer Andy Dillon and Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, held a telephone conversation about “Flint water supply alternatives.” Later that same evening, the Flint City Council, which was under a State-appointed emergency manager, voted 7-1 in favor of a switch in the source of its water supply from the City of Detroit Karegnondi Water Authority. This is the move that would ultimately lead to Flint using corrosive water from the Flint River as an interim source, which produced drinking water with unsafe levels of lead.

So, at this point of the story, Gov. Snyder, his chief of staff, the former State Treasurer, the City council and the appointed emergency managers were all involved. Furthermore, records show the decision to use the Flint River as an interim source was made while the City was under the control of State-appointed emergency manager Edward Kurtz but the actual switch occurred while Flint was governed by his successor as emergency manager, Darnell Earley. Thus, at the time the water source was switched; Gov. Snyder, his chief of staff, the former State Treasurer, the City council and two appointed emergency managers were all involved.

This decision to draw water from the Flint River starting in April 2014, combined with a failure by the State Department of Environmental Quality to require treatment to soften the water to reduce corrosion and the leaching of lead from delivery pipes and other failures related to water testing, has ultimately proved catastrophic.

With all the statements, studies, and testing that has ben conducted, State leaders were still dismissive of residents’ complaints about the water. Evidence of their dismissiveness was found in internal communications amongst State and Local officials in emails that eventually became public. Those emails discussed whether the water was safe for the 100,000 residents of Flint. One hundred thousand residents drank the water that their elected officials said was safe! One hundred thousand residents, of which nearly 57 percent are Black, and over 40% live in poverty. Could it be that these officials ignored the complaints of Flint residents because they are predominantly Black and underprivileged? Would this have happened if they were white and wealthy?

The Flint water crisis represents, perhaps, the worst intersections of racial and economic inequality, environmental racism, political exploitation, and corruption in the United States. Flint residents to add insult to injury also pay some of the highest water bills in the entire State of Michigan at nearly $150 per month. A good portion of the residents are also being threatened with utility service cutoffs for not paying their expensive, past due water bills for lead-tainted water. And yes, you read that correctly, the city of Flint is demanding that residents pay for water they cannot use!

Water so tainted that some residents developed rashes, lost hair and became ill. Yet despite the horrible side affects and numerous complaints, in a memo prepared for Gov. Snyder by his staff, Gov. Snyder stated that the side effects were “not a top health concern”. How is it, that the health of 8,600 children is not a top concern? And who knows how many more children the tainted water will affect. What about unborn children whose mothers drank tainted water during their pregnancies? Or children and pregnant women who reside outside Flint but were exposed while visiting relatives, childcare centers or hospitals inside City limits?

Instead of ensuring that each resident has bottled water and water filters, Gov. Snyder has offered residents docile responses and slow moving remedies, while the investigation into how one of Michigan’s greatest man-made public health crises unfolded has only come forward with explanations in bits and pieces, two years after the initial discovery and findings.

This reminds me of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lackadaisical federal response to Hurricane Katrina, where the same lack of urgency delayed life-saving aid. Of course, there is a key, heartbreaking difference between recent developments in Flint and the crisis in New Orleans in 2005: Katrina was a natural disaster; Flint’s disaster was the result of public officials showing breathtakingly bad judgment. And what makes Gov. Snyder look even worse is that for over a year now, State employees have been receiving bottle water while residents were told that the tainted water was safe to drink.

The way this crisis has been handled is a transparent example of environmental racism. “Environmental racism is tied to the carelessness behind this crisis,” said Karen Weave, current Mayor of Flint. “It’s a minority community, it’s a poor community, and voices were not being heard. And that’s part of this problem.”

So what does the future have in store for Flint? For starters, officials announced a plan to remove and replace all lead water pipes in Flint homes. “The $55 million dollar project will focus on areas where residents are deemed to be high-risk and those residents will be given priority for pipe replacement,” Mayor Karen Weaver said.

Also, State and Local officials along with General Motors and the United Auto Workers union said they plan to donate $3 million to support increased health and education services for Flint children who have been exposed to lead. The five-year commitment from the Detroit-based automaker and the union will address “immediate, ongoing and growing needs,” the United Way of Genesee County said. But then the next question becomes; is this enough?

City administrator Natasha Henderson told the Flint Journal that the State’s $30 million pledge to help pay water bills isn’t enough to counteract the effect of the crisis on City finances. The reason being is that the proposal would only keep Flint’s water fund financially solvent until year’s end, which could force water service shutoffs to resume. Ms. Henderson added that she told the City council members that at least $60 million is needed.

So while the residents of Flint continue to ponder their future, trying to figure out just how they will handle their crisis both from a financial standpoint; the ability to afford bottle water every week, and from a medical standpoint; the ability to get their loved ones, especially any children, the care they need, officials responsible for creating the crisis receive an early retirement.

Officials Howard Coft, the Flint official responsible for water oversight, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Brad Wurfel, and director Dan Wyant all voluntarily resigned for their role in the crisis but that is all that happened to them. Meanwhile, the residents of Flint continue to suffer. It’s the innocent that are suffering the consequences for the decisions of others.

In closing; the future for Flint is bleak. Bleak because lead exposure can cause changes to DNA methylation patterns that could potentially affect several generations. Lead is particularly harmful to the developing brains of fetuses, to young children and to pregnant women. Lead interferes with the metabolism of calcium and Vitamin D resulting in high blood lead levels in children. These consequences, which may be irreversible, can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma and death.

Consequently, the total number of people affected by the lead water is unknown because there is no way to tell how many future children the water will affect. As a result, children not even born yet will suffer from the actions, or lack thereof, by State and Local officials.

When my siblings and I were kids, we had dreams of what we wanted to be when we grew up and thankfully we were able to realize those dreams. For the 8,600 children of Flint, of whom many are of color from disadvantaged backgrounds, and for the thousands of babies not yet born, their dreams will no longer occur, for their dreams are now poisoned.

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