BY SANDRA RIANO
Senior Opinion Editor
It is highly unlikely anyone would want to bathe in, much less drink water from a river nicknamed “General Motors Sewer.”
It also wouldn’t be surprising a water supply with such a moniker contained high levels of lead.
Unfortunately, this is the fate that residents of Flint, Michigan faced. In 2014, state officials switched Flint’s water supply from the freshwater of Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save $15 million and balance the budget until its new water pipeline was built. Soon residents began to notice the difference not only in the color and smell of the water but of the effects it was having on their bodies and on their children. Many residents reported hair loss, skin rashes and other ailments often caused by lead poisoning.
Up until this point it was a salvageable situation; fix the water source and treat those affected. But that’s not what happened. It took more than a year for any official institution to acknowledge that the ailments Flint residents were reporting were directly tied to the poisoned water. In an attempt to fix an E. coli outbreak, officials added chlorine to the water supply, which only exacerbated the issue. Even the General Motors factory in Flint switched their water source from the Flint River to a nearby township because Flint’s water was corroding their car parts.
In a never ending example of bad public administration, the state was caught lying about the use of a corrosion control system which could’ve prevented the escalation of this crisis. The system was not in place and would’ve only cost the city $100 a day. In some instances, there are blatant attempts to cover up the city’s wrongdoing through fabricated water testing results and omission of incriminating results. One home which tested for 397 ppb (parts per billion) of lead. The federal action level of lead in water is 15 ppb. Resident complaints throughout this crisis were ignored at all levels of government. This tragedy of errors is less about the origin of the crisis but the government’s response, or lack thereof.
This issue is also a case of environmental racism, which is loosely defined as “the placement of low-income or minority communities in proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments.” Flint is 65 percent non-white and 41 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Often, environmental racism attacks communities of color because they often lack political muscle to fight back. Many have stated that a crisis of this level would have never played out to this degree in an upper middle class, white neighborhood. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in a statement, “Because clean air and clean water are basic human rights…our rights shouldn’t change between ZIP codes.”
Another, more subtle form of discrimination went on throughout this crisis. It dealt with water stations requiring a valid ID. Undocumented immigrants with no access to valid ID’s were left with significantly less options for finding clean water. Deliveries of water and supplies at doorsteps were ignored by undocumented immigrants due to constant fear of deportation raids. These immigrants did not speak to strangers and many didn’t know about the lead in the water until family members from other parts of the country told them after it became a national story.
It is assumed that all residents of Flint, over 100,000 people, have been exposed to this contaminated water. The water was switched back to Lake Huron water last October but the damages caused to residents has been done. Many children were unknowingly exposed to undrinkable water during key development stages and it may lead to severe and irreversible neurological problems. It is unknown to what extent this will affect the resident’s overall health, but it will become clear within the next few years just how many lives have been ruined by this water.