The Poisoning of Flint

Residents of Flint, Michigan drank poisoned water for over a year.

In mid-2014, Republican governor of Michigan Rick Snyder, Flint’s city manager appointed by Snyder, and other state officials decided to change Flint’s primary water supply source. Flint River would replace Lake Huron, and save the state millions.

Michigan, like other states — especially those controlled by Republican administrations — has accrued large deficits while shifting the tax burden from large corporations and the wealthy onto low- and middle-income earners.

Snyder, for example, “dug himself into a $454.4 million deficit,” giving “away billions of dollars in tax credits to major corporations…all while squeezing more from the average citizen – some $900 million more, while corporations paid $1.7 billion less in 2014.”

The Flint River was, according to CNN, a

…notorious tributary that runs through town known to locals for its filth.

“We thought it was a joke,” said Rhonda Kelso, a long-time Flint resident. “People my age and older thought ‘They’re not going to do that.'”

Flint native and filmmaker Michael Moore called it “a body of ‘water’ where toxins from a dozen General Motors and DuPont factories have been dumped for over a hundred years.” Sewage was reported leaking into the river in 2011.

A 2011 city-funded study determined the river would need anti-corrosive treatments before it was safe to drink. Such a treatment was a requirement by federal law. Virginia Tech researchers believe the water could have been made safe to drink for $100 a day.

The Flint River was nearly 20 times more corrosive than Lake Huron, due to high salt levels and pollution, but Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the water. As one leaked DEQ email from April 2015 put it, “Flint is currently not practicing any corrosion control treatment at the water plant.”

Evidence suggests the DEQ “rigged water test results” to make it appear safer than prior research had indicated, and refused to follow federal procedures mandating the collection of water samples in homes at high risk of lead poisoning.

Residents filed a class-action lawsuit, and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and the EPA are investigating.

The corrosion ate away at Flint’s iron water mains, turning drinking water brown and foul. It further eroded lead pipes that deliver water to homes, poisoning drinking water with lead as well, invisible to the naked eye.

Flint residents paid the price. They report experiencing “skin lesions, hair loss, high levels of lead in the blood, vision loss, memory loss, depression and anxiety” (CNN). “The proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River” (Washington Post).

The Post notes:

According to the World Health Organization, “lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

Residents bought bottled water en masse. They also rocked the city with protests.

Governor Snyder was informed of the health concerns in February 2015. He ignored them. Administration officials, in private memos, said the issue would “fade in the rearview” after a new water system was completed in 2016, while at at the same time acknowledging this would be “a public health concern with chronic, long-term exposure” and that there existed “public panic.” They assured themselves that safe water acts did “not regulate aesthetic values of water,” so the smell, taste, and look of Flint’s drinking water could be dismissed, while at the same time they discussed how the corrosion of iron pipes was to blame.

Some of his officials were worried, however. Snyder’s own chief of staff wrote in July 2015 to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.” The director of that department, Mark Miller, wrote to his colleagues on July 22, “Sounds like the issue is old lead service lines.”

The EPA had picked up on the concerns long before. “State officials seemingly failed to heed repeated warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency as far back as February about potential problems with Flint’s water system” (The Detroit News). Emails show “the EPA and the state engaged in a secret conflict over whether or not corrosion control was necessary in Flint, despite it being a federal requirement.”

The EPA, while clearly fighting to get Michigan to abide by federal rules, also faces criticism for staying silent for months and being too slow to act.

Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News… Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November [2015].

When an internal EPA memo highlighting the concerns was leaked in June 2015, the EPA promised to “verify and assess the extent of lead contamination issues,” while the spokesman for DEQ told a reporter “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax” and the DEQ attacked the author of the memo and his findings.

(The state likewise attacked the doctor that discovered high levels of lead poisoning in infants and children, saying her work was wrong and that she was causing hysteria; later the state admitted she was right.)

For failing to make public the EPA’s knowledge right away, and for withholding findings from Flint officials because reports were unfinished, Hedman resigned this month.

The issue was still being blown off months later. On August 31, a Michigan state official declared in a private email, “[The] city has bigger issues on their agenda right now.”

Flint finally switched back to its former water supply in October 2015 (a spokesman for the governor claimed Snyder “did not become aware of the severity of the problem with lead until October 1” and moved to fix this “aggressively the next day”), and the DEQ admitted it had made a mistake, saying, “Our actions reflected inexperience.” The director resigned in December.

Snyder declared a state of emergency this month, and the Michigan National Guard arrived in Flint to distribute bottled water. Michael Moore, and others, are petitioning for the imprisonment of Snyder and others involved.

As tens of thousands of children face irreversible brain damage, behavior issues, and organ problems, the Flint crisis, an entirely man-made disaster, demonstrates how strict federal regulations and harsh punishments are sometimes hugely important, not just for private corporations but also state governments — and sometimes don’t come fast enough.

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