Forgetting Flint: how government oversight became a state health emergency

Source: Vice News

Flint, Michigan has recently become a household topic since the massive publicity around the water crisis that instigated a state of national health emergency.

Many people have a sense that some incredible injustice had occurred on these grounds, and those citizens had been unforgivably betrayed by their local governing system. But what happened exactly?

In Michigan, local units of government create state government. There are state laws in position that govern the fiscal health of local units of government. If, historically, yearly audits continue to cite financial issues, the state is in a position to take over the local unit of governance to fix these difficulties.

After a review of the local unit has been triggered by the state, there are several options available under Public Act 436 of 2012. There is a consent agreement, a neutral evaluation process or the Chapter 9 bankruptcy option.

Alternately, there is a state law that outlines the responsibilities of an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM).

In Flint, Michigan’s case, a decision was permitted to allow the appointment of an EFM. Flint had been under control of an EFM since the early 2000s, but the EFM exited once the budget was stabilized.

However, due to the decisions of a former mayor, Flint was set back onto the course of financial distress. In December 2011, the City of Flint fell under the authority of an EFM yet again.

The EFM is awarded all the authority and power of the mayor and city council, and essentially becomes the figurehead of local governance under a controversial law that was rejected by voters in 2012, but reinstated by Republican lawmakers six weeks later.

For the past 50 years, the City of Flint has been purchasing drinking water from the City of Detroit regional system.

However, the increasing costs of water over the past decade acted as a seed for the initiative to find a new source. The Genesee County Drain Commissioner advocated a plan to build a new pipeline from Flint eastwards to Port Huron, in order to draw raw lake water from Lake Huron.

In 2013, the City of Flint formally became the newest member of this authority.

The day after the city joined the new authority the Detroit Water System activated a clause in their contract to kick Flint off of its current water delivery system. The City of Flint was given one year to find a new source.

Over the course of the next year, numerous discussions were undertaken to remain on the Detroit system, but the costs proved too high to do so. However, the EFM at that time in 2014 decided, without public input, to begin to draw water from the Flint River as their primary source to cut costs.

Plans to properly prepare the city’s water treatment plant to draw water began. In April 2014, the city began to officially pull water from the Flint River.

River water is harder than lake water and takes a considerably larger amount of resources to treat it correctly. Unfortunately, the water was never treated to federal standards. Shortly after this cost-saving measure was indicted, residents began complaining about discolored, sulphur odoured water, rashes, stomach problems and loss of hair.

Officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality made a series of decisions that had consequences that would change the lives of hundreds of Flint residents.

Firstly, local governance under the control of the appointed EFM, Darnell Earley, chose not to require the Flint Water Plant to use optimized corrosion control, against federal regulations, despite informing the Environmental Protection Agency that they had done so.

Secondly, they took too few samples and used a protocol that was known to miss important sources of lead.

Lastly, they threw out two samples which would have put more than ten per cent of the samples at an “actionable level” of lead, which would have prompted a mandatory warning towards the residents much earlier, possibly preventing hundreds of cases of lead poisoning.

Due to these transgressions in responsible governance, Flint River’s corrosive water was able to dissolve the protective film inside of the city’s old pipes, allowing colorless, tasteless and odorless lead into the drinking water of thousands of residents.

The levels of lead that had been reported at 13 200 ppb (part per billion) qualified as toxic waste.

Lead has been studied extensively as a neurotoxin, and has been known to cause symptoms such as miscarriages, low birth weight, decreased IQ, decrease of impulse control, increased ADHD, learning disabilities, decrease in cognitive functioning and potentially violent behavior.

Research also suggests that exposure, especially at the incredibly high levels found in Flint drinking water, can affect DNA, causing damages of exposure to be carried through future generations.

Eventually, the city declared a state of emergency and forwarded the issue to the State of Michigan Department of State Police. The State Police concurred and the governor finally declared a state emergency, requesting federal levels of government to get involved.

Two days later, the president agreed. In total, it had taken the governor nearly two years to acknowledge the devastating effects these oversights had on the Flint population.

It has been argued that the racialized and economically marginalized population of Flint contributed to it being neglected for so long, causing potentially generations-long health effects and chronic illness which can affect life opportunities for many people.

Fifty-six per cent of Flint residents are black, and nearly 40 per cent live beneath the poverty line. Many advocates hold the unanimous opinion that this crisis would not have happened if the city were more affluent, or whiter.

The Black Lives Matter group states that African Americans, especially those in rural and poor areas, have long been denied access to clean drinking water.

“The crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident,” BLM stated on their website.

“State violence in the form of contaminated water or no access to water at all is pervasive in black communities.”

Initially, the decision to use Flint River water was proposed in order to save the local government approximately $15 million. The damages caused by this decision are currently estimated to be in the ballpark of $1.5 billion.

This figure does not include the long-term health impacts on residents, especially children, who have been exposed to lead poisoning.

The federal declaration now allows for federal funding at a mere $5 million. These people are now at massive disadvantages for the rest of their lives, due to simple government negligence and power being put in the hands of officials who do not have the well being of the people at heart.

The truth of what happened in Flint, Michigan eventually surfaced because of the citizens who felt their rights were being violated.

If it weren’t for the residents and few crusading experts who took matters into their own hands, and even used their own funds to purchase water-testing kits where the government’s authorities were negligent, this issue may not have garnered international media attention for several more years to come.

What happened in Flint is, and continues to be, a tragedy.

If we can learn anything from it, it is to be ever more critical of why this environmental racism continues to be propagated in economically disadvantaged communities who are racialized.

Black Lives Matter was correct in stating that this is not an isolated incident; indigenous communities in Canada suffer the same conditions with consistent water boil advisories and substandard living conditions.

It is the responsibility of all people, especially those who are not systemically disadvantaged in the same way, to bring awareness and lobby against bureaucratic negligence towards marginalized people for short-term fiscal benefits that advantage only a select few.

Let us ensure that what happened in Flint is never forgotten.