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Thabit Pulak: The Flint Water Crisis – Not simply an honest mistake

The Flint Water Crisis – Not simply an honest mistake

In spring 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan were struck by surprise as they turned their taps to receive brown-colored contaminated water. It was later found out that the water was contaminated with lead concentration pushing hundreds of times beyond the acceptable limit, effectively poisoning the whole city’s population. With America’s per capita GDP pushing $53,000, as compared to the worldwide average of about $10,000, we are one of the wealthiest nations on this planet. To other nations, the United States is often viewed as the beacon of success – a place where everyone lives in comfort, and happiness. But such an image doesn’t hold up well when one takes a look into the living situation of those residing in Flint, Michigan. As a city stricken by a dangerously contaminated water supply, with some of the poorest residents in the nation, Flint is a grim reminder of the suffering that some residents in America actively endure on a day to day basis as a result of the gross negligence of both attention from leadership, as well as a lack of allocation of resources. What specifically happened here? What impact did this ultimately have on the people of Flint?

April 25th, 2014 was the fateful day when the officials of Flint, Michigan officially switched the water source of the city from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (sourced from Lake Huron) to that of the Flint River, citing that this was a “temporary switch”. The ultimate goal was to build a pipeline to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which would allegedly save the city 200 million dollars in the next 25 years if executed properly, according to officials. Officials tried to keep the public relaxed about the decision, claiming that “Flint water is safe to drink” [1]. However, officials didn’t attempt to proactively do any tests for themselves to see whether such a drastic change in water source change would affect the corrosion within the pipes. One of the biggest red flags was that the pipeline system of Flint Michigan was made of lead – any type of corrosion would pose a big health risk to the citizens. Yet, the officials decided to take a “wait and see” approach, as characterized by the Michigan Radio at the time [2]. The officials didn’t have to wait long. The reports of contaminated water came almost directly after the switch was made. In May, reports of E. Coli in the water prompted the city to put up a boiling advisory for water before use. Eventually, it turned out that the water from the Flint River was indeed corroding the pipes, and a harmful amount of corrosive flow through was coming out of people’s taps. In fact, in October, General Motors decided to stop using the water, as they were fearing it would corrode the machines in their facility. By February of 2015, it was determined officially that there was extensive lead contamination of water supplies across Flint Michigan (this was already known before – it just took a while for city officials to catch up to the fact) [3]. The interesting thing to note here is that it took several months before city officials could even acknowledge officially that there was contamination of something dangerous in the water. What could possibly suggest such a delay?

The Michigan Civil Rights commission published a 129-page report, after a yearlong investigation of the Flint Michigan water crisis. Over 150 residents’ testimonies were heard, and compiled in the report. The commission concluded that the problems in Flint could be connected to “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias”. The report specifically zeroed in on how the reckless decision of the emergency management to switch the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River without being more careful, disproportionately affected communities of color, which predominantly make up Flint Michigan. According to the US census, Flint is over 57% black [4]. Over 41% of the citizens in flint live below the poverty line. Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, representing the city of Flint, stated “It’s hard for me to imagine the indifference that we’ve seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community”.

Upon further analysis of the crisis, there are some potential conflicts of interest that arise of the politicians that have been involved in making some of the decisions. Governor Snyder of Michigan’s chief of staff was Dennis Muchmore, who was with the Flint water issue. During this time, his wife, Deb Muchmore, was also the spokesperson in Michigan for Nestle, which happens to be the largest private owner of water resources in Michigan. Given that Nestle has a business model that revolves around bottled water, it is not unlikely for one to see that there is definitely a conflict of interest. Michael Moore elaborates on this “The Muchmores have a personal interest in seeing to it that Nestles grabs as much of Michigan’s clean water was possible — especially when cities like Flint in the future are going to need that Ice Mountain.” While Moore might be slightly alarmist in his rhetoric here, there is a solid point to be seen. The Michigan government recently allowed Nestle to expand groundwater retrieval extensively from sources just 120 miles from Flint Michigan, for a measly $200 per year [5]. This decision to let Nestle get access to such vast amounts of fresh water for little to no benefit to the state led to a big controversy from the people of Flint. Finding out the finer the details of the arrangement with Nestle is also still unclear, as the specific terms hadn’t yet been disclosed. Unfortunately, substantial information regarding this deal is unlikely to come out about, especially given Michigan’s dead last ranking of transparency, according to a recent national study of state ethics and transparency laws [6].

Regardless of the debate of the underlying intentions of how the flint water crisis came out, at this point, there is at least one thing that everyone can agree about – that the entire city was exposed to noxious water. This toxic, lead-laced water has already affected the population, and will very likely have long lasting effects. It was concluded via a study by Virginia Tech University, that Flint Michigan as a whole was contaminated by levels of lead that far exceeded safe limits. Furthermore, certain parts of Flint had households that had lead levels exceeding 13,000 parts per billion (ppb). This is an extremely high amount – for comparison, 5,000 ppb is considered to be a level of contamination equivalent to that found in industrial waste. 5 ppb is considered to be the level of lead from which one should be concerned. Extended exposure to lead at concentrations of 5 ppb and above lead to various neurological and developmental problems, which means that children are particularly susceptible [7]. With such extreme concentrations, citizens of flint were already being affected by the lead poisoning within a very short time window.

As of now, 6 officials have been criminally charged in the Flint Water Crisis case [8]. There were intentional efforts to cover up the facts of the crisis – according to the Detroit Free Press, “ Some people failed to act, others minimized harm done and arrogantly chose to ignore data, some intentionally altered figures … and covered up significant health risks.” The fact that there are now criminal charges being filed indicates that the notion that the overall situation as an “innocent mistake” was untrue.

When was the last time we heard about such an issue affecting an affluent population? Had it affected a richer population, would the actions taken by the government been much quicker and more effective? Would there be willful negligence by the leaders to such an extreme scale? Such questions we might never find the answer to – and that is the irony of it all. While officials argue over who is to blame, and who isn’t – a neglected population continues to suffer. Down the road, what does the future of America look like? Can we work to prevent underprivileged populations from suffering disproportionately from manmade environmental problems? The situation at Flint, Michigan tells us that we have a lot of work left to do. Only time will tell if we are learning from our mistakes.

Work Cited

1. Snyder, Rick. “Snyder Email.” State of Michigan. Executive Office, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

2. Smith, Lindsey. “After Ignoring and Trying to Discredit People in Flint, the State Was Forced to Face the Problem.” Michigan Radio. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

3. Roy, Siddhartha. “Hazardous Waste-levels of Lead Found in a Flint Household’s Water.” Flint Water Study Updates. N.p., 01 Sept. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

4. “Population Estimates, July 1, 2015, (V2015).” Flint City Michigan QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

5. Ellison, Garret. “Nestle Bottled Water Plant Upgrade Driving More Groundwater Extraction.” N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

6. Egan, Paul. “Michigan Ranks Last in Laws on Ethics, Transparency.” Detroit Free Press. N.p., 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.

7. Mayo Clinic Staff Print. “Lead Poisoning.” Mayo Clinic. N.p., 06 Dec. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017

8. “6 State Employees Criminally Charged in Flint Water Crisis.” Detroit Free Press. N.p., 29 July 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017