In April of 2014, Flint, Michigan residents noticed that there was something wrong with their water. As UCS Senior Fellow and noted Boston Globe Opinion writer Derrick Jackson recounts in his lengthy report, only a month after the city of Flint switched to using Flint River, instead of Lake Huron water, community members noticed the difference. Bethany Hazard told reporter Ron Fonger of the Flint Journal that her water was murky and foamy. LeeAnne Walters, recent winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, noticed rashes on her children. Other residents too noticed the water was discolored, smelled or tasted bad or their families were experiencing health problems.
But state and local officials wouldn’t admit the problem or act…for a long time. In fact it took two years before the state began delivering bottled water to residents, and then only under court order. And another year for the EPA to provide a grant to upgrade the water system while a federal judge ordered the state to provide another $97 million. Just this month, the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, announced that delivery of bottled water to residents is at an end. Ask yourself, would you drink the city water now?
An avoidable crisis
It’s easy to ask, why did all this occur? Did the city NEED to switch water supplies? How could the health and safety of so many residents be ignored? Why did it take so long to respond to residents?
The crisis and disaster occurred because of a decision by Flint and state officials to switch from the Detroit water system, to a new Karegnondi Water Authority that was under construction, ostensibly to save money. There was no pressing need to switch systems except the promise of future savings. And since the new system wasn’t completed, and the contract with Detroit wasn’t renewed, a short-term “fix” was chosen to use Flint River water, but without appropriate treatment with anti-corrosion additives.
So it occurred as a business decision and it didn’t need to happen. The contract with Detroit could have been extended.
But the reason so many residents’ concerns were ignored? There the answer lies in the long history of environmental injustice in our country. The city of Flint has a majority of people of color and many living in poverty. Time and again, health and safety impacts on these communities are ignored, as are the voices of the residents. In Flint, community members were the first to report that there was an issue with their water and began to organize to provide clean, bottled water well before any state intervention. And it is these most impacted communities who continue to speak up for themselves. But it was and is hard to get anyone to listen. It is easy, and appropriate, to single out the government officials from the city and state, including the governor. What about the rest of us?
Scientists and reporters—where are you?
The residents knew what they were experiencing, but not necessarily why. But scientists like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician and EPA whistleblower Miguel Del Toral as well as Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech, did provide critical diagnostic evidence that helped explain what was going on.
But there is a big university community in Michigan, and throughout the Upper Midwest. And many other environmental scientists all around the country working on water quality. If ever a community needed our help, it was and is Flint.
And, as Derrick Jackson reports, the story was slow to get traction in the media. Ask yourself if that would be the case if the crisis was in a wealthier, whiter community. If you have any doubts, see this report that scientists from EPA published in February about environmental racism—it’s behind a paywall but you can read this news article on it, and another study here.
The Flint community is organized and speaking out. They still need and deserve our attention, our support and most of all, they deserve environmental justice.
Ask yourself how you can become a part of the solution; how you can help to bring environmental justice.