Flint water crisis: background

A view into Flint drinking water pipes, showing various types of iron corrosion and rust. Photo: Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper

The Flint Water Crisis is one of the most blatant instances of environmental injustice in recent years. It was a failure at many levels of governance, full of complexities and ongoing litigation yet to date, no lasting solution has been offered to Flint’s residents. We want to take this week to take a deeper dive into what happened in Flint, where progress and justice currently stand, and how lawmakers are planning on addressing the crisis to ensure that citizens do not have to endure a tragedy like this again.

As CNN explained, Flint once thrived as the home of the nation’s largest General Motors plant. The city’s economic decline began during the 1980s, when GM downsized. In 2011, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit. In order to reduce the water fund shortfall, the city announced that a new pipeline would be built to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. In 2014, while it was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source. Soon after the switch, residents said the water started to look, smell and taste funny. All the while, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as well as then-Governor Rick Snyder continued to assure the public that there was nothing wrong with their water. Tests in 2015 by the EPA and Virginia Tech, proved otherwise and indicated dangerous levels of lead in the water at residents’ homes.
Between 6,000 and 12,000 Flint children were exposed to lead in their water and at least 90 cases (with 15 reported deaths, although Frontline estimates that it could be more) of Legionnaires disease were reported. While numerous lawsuits were filed (and consolidated) on behalf of Flint residents to hold administrators and lawmakers accountable, many are still tied up in the legal system. What’s worse is that Michigan’s taxpayers are paying millions of dollars for both the prosecution and defense lawyers in the Flint cases. While Flint residents wait for justice and a path forward they must grapple with the fact that the city’s children may face cognitive impairment as a result of their water being poisoned. To get more of the story, you can read CNN’s comprehensive timeline here.
Why This Matters: In 2017 the Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report stating that “deeply embedded institutional, systemic and historical racism” indirectly contributed to the ill-fated decision to tap the Flint River for drinking water as a cost-saving measure. Low-income communities like Flint lack the political capital of wealthier communities and thus are routinely neglected and forgotten by lawmakers. Unfortunately what happened in Flint is just the tip of the iceberg as millions of Americans drink unsafe drinking water around the country, especially in poor, rural communities. While racism has a big part to play in Flint, it’s also a testament that we must ensure regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act are enforced and that government agencies have the budget to ensure the safety of Americans.

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