An Update to The Flint Fiasco

More than one thousand days have passed since the city of Flint, Michigan, had clean drinking water. One thousand days pales in comparison to the two centuries of research on the effects of lead contamination existing prior to April 2014, when disputes with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department caused Flint to reopen its one-hundred-year-old lead pipeline connected to the Flint River. 

The Flint water crisis continues to make headlines into 2017, ranging from updates about the city’s drinking water lead levels, publication of a human rights commission report, initiation of more criminal lawsuits, and most importantly, contemplation of the future of Flint’s drinking water infrastructure.

Continued Water Advisories Despite Lower Lead Levels

First, the current lead contamination level in Flint’s water has subsided and is now below the federal limit. Nonetheless, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continues to advise Flint residents to use filtered drinking water while the city works to replace its lead-laced underground piping. The state continues to provide bottled water and filters to residents. However, the state of Michigan is trying to wean the City of Flint off of is its subsidization of water.

Discontinuation of Water Subsidies

This change occurred on the last day of February after the most recent water test demonstrated that Flint’s water complies with federal rules regarding copper and lead levels. Prior to this recent policy decision, the Michigan state government provided homeowners and businesses with water relief credits ranging between twenty and sixty-five percent.

Government officials estimate the cost of this these credits at $40.4 million. Considering that an initial remedy of adding phosphorous to water coming from the Flint River would cost, at most, $100,000 per year, the $40.4 million in water relief credits and the mounting legal costs associated with the crisis are exorbitant.

In a news release reacting to this announcement by Governor Snyder, Flint Mayor Karen Walker stated that, “We knew the state’s assistance with these water-related expenses would come to an end at some point, I just wish we were given more notice so we at City Hall, and the residents, had more time to prepare for the changes.”

Issues of Environmental Racism in Flint

In March 2017, an expert on Legionnaires Disease claimed the Flint water system is the likely source of a deadly outbreak killing twelve people in Flint in 2014 and 2015. In an affidavit filed with state health regulators, Dr. Janet Stout said that the city’s switch from Lake Huron back to the Flint River, as well the governmental inaction to treating the corrosive water, caused the outbreak, which also resulted in ninety-one illnesses. This Flint River water dissolved the lining in the city’s old pipes, causing iron to enter the water and boost Legionella bacteria reproduction. So not only were Flint residents left to worry about lead poisoning, they also had other harmful adulterants in their water.

The disease expert’s affidavit said the McLaren-Flint Hospital was the common source of exposure for over half of the Legionnaires confirmed cases during a seventeen-month period. This affidavit may have been included in the hospital’s response to inquiries from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to absolve itself from potential liability or sanctions for exposing hospital patients to the deadly disease.

A national study last year reported that Flint citizens of this predominantly African American city paid the highest water rates in the country. Even when the water was laced with lead, it is now apparent that some residents paid with their lives. The link between poor neighborhoods and the people of color who inhabit them has sparked the much-needed conversation of environmental racism.  Poor neighborhoods in the U.S. contain disparately greater amounts of lead.

The 2017 Michigan Civil Rights Report on Flint

Early this year, the government-appointed Michigan Civil Rights Commission released a lengthy 129-page report regarding the water crisis in Flint entitled, “Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.”

The report acknowledges that “the people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.” This report indicates “that the vestiges of segregation found in Flint made it a unique target” for its water crisis.

Moreover, the report argues that the racial discrimination in employment practices, education, housing, and even lending practices demonstrate a pattern of race-related issues in Flint. This pattern of historic racism “was built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry and the suburban area surrounding it.”

One of the report’s recommendations includes bias training for state officials. Additionally, this report is the third report to target current state laws related to emergency manager positions. A state-appointed emergency manager made the key recommendation to use the Flint River as a water source, albeit for just an interim period.

More Criminal Charges Filed in Addition to On-Going Civil Suits

Michigan Attorney General Bull Schuette charged two emergency managers, among two others, late last year. With these added officials, the total number of state employees criminally embroiled in the Flint water crisis sits at thirteen. Criminal charges among this group hovers at forty-three. In Schuette’s ongoing criminal investigation, the fact that a state-appointed emergency manager controlled Flint when it switched to the untreated water is crucial to these new charges.

In addition to these criminal-focused investigations, Schuette’s office also filed civil claims against two private companies: the Texas-based corporation LAN and multi-national corporation Veolia in mid-2016. These two for-profit water-engineering firms both allegedly played a role in the decision to switch to Flint River water.

The alleged civil law violations between these two companies include professional negligence, fraud, and public nuisance. Moreover, the lawsuits allege that these two companies overlooked crucial warning signs leading up to and during the water crisis. To back its civil claims, the Attorney General’s website also publicly displays a dearth of complaint exhibits for these two civil suits.

While some Flint residents are focused on these lawsuits and holding government official accountable for the lead in their water, others, including Flint’s mayor Karen Weaver, are looking towards the future.

Other Cities May Need To Take a Closer Look at Flint’s Water Infrastructure Rebuilding

Mayor Weaver recently announced that the city is still at least two full years away from achieving lead-free water service lines. These ongoing infrastructure development issues remain important because Flint’s agreement with the entity that provides its residents with its current water source is set to expire this summer.

In terms of the infrastructure efforts, Flint’s Mayor cautioned that a completion date of August 2019 is the goal. By then, the city will be able to replace its thousands of lead and otherwise unsafe service line pipes for its roughly 98,000 residents. As of March 2017, Flint has only replaced 8,000 of those pipes. Very recently, the EPA announced that Flint will receive a $100 million emergency grant to help fund these updates.

Other cities may also be looking at Flint’s infrastructure plans. For example, Pittsburgh is currently struggling with elevated levels of lead in its tap water. The lead issue in Pittsburgh is so widespread that the city’s mayor recently announced that the city will offer the free filters to all City of Pittsburgh homeowners.  A Virginia Tech professor who has researched the Flint water crisis also commented on what’s going on in Pittsburgh.  “The levels in Pittsburgh are comparable to those reported in Flint,” Dr. Mark Edwards said. “I don’t think you have a Flint on your hand, but those levels are worrisome.”

An interesting twist is that Pittsburgh also contracted with Veolia, the same corporation that the State of Michigan is currently suing. Veolia consulted with Pittsburgh to help the city cut costs. One of the more drastic measures included having the city switch from using soda ash to treat pipe corrosion to caustic soda, a less expensive chemical additive.

Closing

In response to the media frenzy about the lead contamination, Governor Rick Snyder responded by releasing his emails back in January 2016.  In one email, he stated, “It’s just a few IQ points… It’s not the end of the world.”  However, local Flint pediatrician, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, disagreed: “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.”

In part of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s report it noted, “When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices – as a matter of public right – must never be stifled or quelled again.”

While the slew of lawsuits implicating both criminal and civil blame for the Flint water crisis are far from settled, the town’s lower lead levels and long-term goal of replacing water service lines are small steps in the right direction. Nonetheless, Flint may simply be the tip of a lead-laden iceberg as other cities like Pittsburgh are realizing their lead-based water pipelines pos a significant health risk.

                                                                                                                        Kelsey Holder

Image: Flickr User darkday, Creative Commons.

  

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