Flint once boasted 80,000 General Motors employees, but now only has a tenth of that. Unemployment is rampant. The racial composition of Flint is 56.6% African American. The US Census Bureau reported that Flint is the second most impoverished city for its size. Just over 40 percent of the municipality’s residents are living at or below the poverty line. Those in power find it easy to ignore the cries of poor people—especially if those poor people happen to be largely black. The people of Flint has consistently voted Democrat. In 2006, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research ranked Flint as the 10th most liberal city in the United States. Put bluntly, since the voters in Flint, Michigan, are a lost cause and of no use to the Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his Republican Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General who all had little incentive to respond to the complaints. As the citizens of the city lost hair and developed rashes, as children drank water that was tainted with lead and E. Coli those with the power to help did nothing. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials urged those people concerned about lead in Flint’s drinking water to “relax,” that there was no “broad problem” with contamination and described the whistleblower EPA official, Miguel Del Toral, whose draft report initially alerted lead-poisoned Flint residents to their great danger, as a “rogue employee.” They also attacked the work of Virginia Tech safe drinking water expert Marc Edwards. The analysis by Edwards and his team of graduate students revealed that some Flint tap water measured nearly 2.5 times more lead contamination than EPA’s hazardous waste designation level. They cast doubts upon Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Hospital whose research showed that after the switch to untreated Flint River drinking water, blood lead levels in children doubled, or even tripled.
Two years ago, the people of Flint turned on their faucets and a brown horror came flowing out. Many people complained to the state's government but were roundly ignored and dismissed. The people of Flint and other surrounding towns have been drinking, cooking with and bathing in lead-contaminated water for two years. In order to "save money," Governor Snyder's hand-picked emergency manager decided to change Flint's water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. General Motors used the river as its personal dumping ground for decades; it is highly polluted, and more importantly is highly acidic. When Flint River water began flowing through Michigan's ancient water supply system, it absorbed the lead right off the pipes and delivered it to thousands of homes. Lead contamination in water cannot be smelled, tasted, or seen. Flint’s water did have other problems besides lead contamination, including discoloration, foul odor and taste, but these were due to other harmful biological and chemical contaminants than lead.
What does lead do to the human body? Infants and small children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, weakened immune systems and general physical collapse that can lead to death. Pregnant women have a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. A raft of studies has pretty much concluded that lead can cause cancer. It causes cardiovascular diseases and kidney damage which, like cancer, can also kill. Five parts per billion of lead are a concern. 5,000 parts per billion is considered "toxic waste." From April 2014 until October 2015 the people of Flint were drinking water with up to 13,000 parts per billion of lead in it.
Flint residents are still getting billed for water the Virginia Tech study described as toxic waste.. In France long ago, it was "Let them eat cake." Today, in Flint, it's "Let them drink bottled water" ... except a whole lot of people in Flint can't afford bottled water, and they sure can't bathe in it.
"Everybody knows," wrote Flint native, author and film-maker, Michael Moore, "that this would not have happened in predominantly white Michigan cities like West Bloomfield, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Arbor. Everybody knows that if there had been two years of taxpayer complaints, and then a year of warnings from scientists and doctors, this would have been fixed in those towns." Moore described what is happening in Flint as a "racial crime." It was a crime against humanity done by a negligent administration which shows utter contempt for the welfare of the people whose welfare it is supposed to ensure. To them, certain people can just be ignored, pushed around and bullied.
It often takes a disaster to draw attention to environmental injustice. The crisis in Flint is terrifying - residents were left to drink poisoned water for months despite warnings from researchers who found elevated levels of lead in children - but presidential candidates and the dominant media did little to acknowledge that the pattern of pollution in communities of color extends far beyond Michigan. Nationally, people of color are nearly twice as likely as white people to live within one mile of facilities that use and store chemicals so dangerous that facility operators must submit risk management plants to the government. Children of color make up nearly two-thirds of the 5.7 million children living near these high-risk facilities, and poor people of color are significantly more likely to live near massive stockpiles of dangerous chemicals than white people living above the poverty line. In the event of a toxic release, spill or explosion, communities of color would face the brunt of the impact, according to a recent report by the Center for Effective Government.
Researchers at the University of Michigan published twin studies in January showing that low-income people and people of color don't end up living near hazardous waste sites and other polluters because housing is cheap. Instead, their communities are disproportionately targeted by industries that follow "the path of least resistance" when deciding where to build facilities. Hillary Clinton alluded to these disparities at the close of the January 17 Democratic debate, declaring that "if kids in a rich Detroit suburb" were drinking contaminated water, authorities in Michigan would have acted quickly to stop the problem. Bernie Sanders was not to be outdone - he demanded Snyder resign, saying that thousands of children may now suffer brain damage from lead because the governor knew about the problem and did nothing for months to fix it. Seeking media attention around the mass poisoning of children resulting from the ineptitude of government officials, if not their outright racism, is easy. But would either of these candidates really fight for environmental justice as president?
Flint’s catastrophe serves as a stark reminder that safe, clean drinking water is the essence of life.