Fecal chloroform, rust, sediment, and lead flowed from thousands of taps for months before local government issued a boil order. Patients complained of rashes and hair loss. Children with signs of lead poisoning crowded clinics while Legionnaire’s disease reared its ugly head. Dramatic reports of water with a funny smell, a sick yellow hue, and a foul taste hummed in the background of this dying industrial city. Physicians such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm about lead poisoning ruining the potential of Flint’s children, while the Snyder administration studiously denied the grim reality on the ground. While this disaster unfolded, Flint’s residents, largely poor and black, languished under the supervision of a parade of emergency managers solely focused on the bottom line. Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. $5 million was the price to revoke that right in Flint, Michigan.
Flint is a city choking on the decay of post-globalization capital flight. The closure of several GM plants in the 1980s devastated the “Vehicle City”. The resultant disappearance of stable, middle-class manufacturing jobs precipitated a cycle of population flight and deindustrialization that continues to haunt the area today. With a population nearly 60% African-American, and a 42% poverty rate, the city was ripe for governmental schemes aimed at stripping away basic services in order to keep a fingernail’s hold on solvency. Enter the era of emergency management.
The saga of Flint’s water crisis is rooted in the destruction of local democracy in favor of an anti-democratic, top-down approach in which citizens aren’t afforded the right to influence public policy. In 2012, the Michigan state legislature passed Public Act 436, a law designed to rescue financially distressed municipalities from themselves. What the law achieved in fact was the creation of the legal and political space for an unelected official, referred to as an emergency manager, to dictate public policy with zero democratic accountability. The language of PA 436 is quite explicit in neutering the power of local elected officials. Section 141.1549 reads:
Following appointment of an emergency manager and during the pendency of receivership, the governing body and the chief administrative officer of the local government shall not exercise any of the powers of those offices except as may be specifically authorized in writing by the emergency manager…
This passage effectively smothered the democratic institutions of Michigan’s most troubled cities by disenfranchising their most vulnerable population, poor blacks. The denizens of Flint, Detroit, and several other poor municipalities with majority-minority demographics have shouldered the devastating effects of this state-sponsored dislocation from democracy.
In the face of lawsuits and heated criticism of PA 436, officials in Lansing called into question local representatives’ capacity to negotiate the terrain of their most pressing public policy challenges. In an almost dismissive defense of local concern, Terry Stanton, of the Michigan Department of the Treasury, was quoted, “making difficult political decisions can be very trying for local officials.” Stanton’s response betrays a noxiously paternalistic view of local elected officials. Wrestling with tough political decisions is the mandate for city representatives. Should the aftermath of their decisions prove unproductive, residents can petition the institution, hold a referendum, or simply vote officials out of office. Unfortunately, by focusing on the deficiencies of local governing bodies, Lansing failed to take advantage of the opportunity to attack the structural issues that hinder Michigan’s progress.
In 2013, Snyder-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz, in cooperation with the Flint city council, backed a vote to sever ties with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as a cost-cutting measure. It was decided that the Flint River—a notorious dumping ground—would hydrate city residents until the completion of the Karegnondi water pipeline in 2016. Kurtz’s successor, Darnell Earley, rebuffed offers to extend Flint’s contract with DWSD, instead preferring to collaborate with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to obtain the permits needed to switch the city’s water supply to the local river. April 25th, 2014 marked the beginning of Flint’s dance with environmental racism.
Nearly two years later, the national media has turned their spotlight on Flint. Although local media such as the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio reported on the crisis from the outset, national outlets focused their human rights reportage on Syria and the various refugee crises gripping Europe. The pace of national coverage of the poisoning of Flint has moved from a localized trickle to a flood of bleeding-heart outrage on the editorial pages of the big players. The unfolding scandal is a study in how the paucity of political influence opens the door to stunningly racist public policy. The majority-black demographics of Flint (and other black cities in Michigan under emergency management) are an inescapable fact that must remain in the forefront of any serious analysis of this tragedy. It’s incredibly difficult to insist that the white residents of say, Grand Blanc, would be stonewalled in the face of pointed questions about local water quality.
After months of what the Flint Water Advisory Task Force characterized as state agencies’ “…aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit these efforts [to expose lead contamination] and the individuals involved,” Governor Snyder finally requested a federal declaration of emergency last month. President Obama quickly signed the declaration, which will free up $5 million in federal aid for the next 3 months. In a bid to influence the optics, Snyder also activated the Michigan National Guard to distribute bottled water and filters to desperate residents. He gave a speech apologizing to Flint residents, and then released 274 pages of emails related to the disaster. Snyder’s emails provide a window into the state’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the Flint River is toxic. In fact, concerned residents and groups were accused of using reports of lead poisoning as a “political football”. One email from a local pastor even warned of the potential for civil unrest.
Governor Snyder has released an estimate of $60 million to replace all of the lead piping in Flint. If the project is fully funded, total replacement would take at least 15 years. The logistics and financing of such a massive undertaking have yet to be ironed out. As of today, Flint has to get by with bold declarations of support that are paper thin. The House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform has heard testimony from Flint officials and one resident on the disaster in their city. Governor Rick Snyder and Darnell Earley were notably absent from the hearing. Snyder was not invited to attend, and disgraced former emergency manager Earley defied a congressional subpoena.
There was the trademark outrage from ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (Md.), who quoted song lyrics and implored the witnesses to reflect on the devastating impact on Flint’s children. Meanwhile, partisan fissures emerged over two issues—first, House Republicans did not invite Snyder to testify at the hearing (nor did he volunteer to show), and second, Senate Democrats blocked an energy bill because it doesn’t earmark funds for disaster relief in Flint.
Although Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October, the decaying infrastructure of rusted out piping continues to present a health hazard. Lead continues to leach into the water from local pipes. Recent testing by researchers with Virginia Tech found lead levels that meet the threshold for hazardous waste. In another blow to relief efforts, the EPA has notified the city that the consumer-grade Brita and Pur water filters being distributed are not up to the task of blunting the flow of lead that in some areas exceeds 150 parts per billion. Thus, residents will need to continue to rely on bottled water for cooking and bathing. Because Flint is a food desert, residents are particularly dependent on sustained governmental action to provide clean water. They can’t simply roll into the nearest Wal-Mart to stock up on water. There are quite literally, no other options.
Governor Snyder needs to resign effective immediately. The Michigan State Legislature should immediately repeal that odious law, PA 436. Finally, Senate Republicans should open the purse and fund extended disaster relief for Flint. Anything less is yet another tragedy.