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Fri, 04.25.2014

The Flint, Michigan Water Crisis Is Exposed

*On this date in 2014, The Flint water crisis was exposed.  This was an environmental racism crisis affecting the Black and poor community in Michigan. 

The emergency started that year after the drinking water source for the city of Flint, Michigan, was changed. In April 2014, Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Flint River. Officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water. As a result, lead from aging pipes leaked into the water supply, leading to extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin and exposing over 100,000 residents to elevated lead levels. A pair of scientific studies proved the lead contamination in the water supply.   

On January 5, 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Genesee County, of which Flint is the major population center. Shortly thereafter, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency, authorizing additional help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high lead levels. The water supply change was also the cause of an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the county that killed 12 people and affected another 87. 

Four government officials:- one from the city of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and one from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), resigned over the mishandling of the crisis, and one additional MDEQ staff member was fired. Fifteen criminal cases have been filed against local and state officials regarding the crisis. Still, only one minor conviction has been obtained, and all other charges have been dismissed or dropped.  American Civil Rights advocates characterized the crisis as a result of environmental racism (Flint's population is 56.6% African American per the 2010 census), a term primarily referring to the disproportionate exposure of non-whites to pollution as a result of "poverty and segregation that has relegated many Blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments."  

Flint residents themselves have identified racism as a contributing factor to the crisis. In a qualitative study by The Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health (CRECH) at the University of Michigan, researchers investigated Flint youth's perceptions of the Flint Water Crisis. The young Flint residents, with 93% identifying as Black, were asked questions regarding the socioeconomic factors attributed to the crisis. In these interviews, themes of race, genocide, and oppression became apparent as youth expressed opinions on how their "poor Black city" was stigmatized and de-prioritized by those in power. Researchers noted that these results could help academics study the racialized mental trauma and stress among youth who experienced the Flint water crisis.  

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission later reiterated this belief in a 138-page report titled "The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint." Its writers said, "Policy makers, government leaders, and decision-makers at many levels failed the residents of Flint," said Agustin Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. "By not challenging their assumptions, by not asking themselves the tough questions about how policy and decisions play out in different communities, especially communities primarily made up of people of color, those decisions and actions – or in some cases, lack of action – led to the tragedy taking place in Flint." "We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint's water and the slow response resulted in the abridgment of civil rights for the people of Flint," said Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the Commission during the time of the investigation.

"We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of color. Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint. The lessons of Flint are profound. While the exact situation and response that happened in Flint may never happen anywhere else, the factors that led to this crisis remain in place and will most certainly lead to other tragedies if we don't take steps to remedy them. We hope this report is a step in that direction."  

The Governor's office responded: "Some findings of the report and the recommendations are similar to those of the (Flint Water Advisory Task Force and) the legislative panel and the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee," said Gov. Rick Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton. "The Governor takes the reporting of each of these panels very seriously and appreciates the public input that was shared." The findings were no surprise for State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich. "The presence of racial bias in the Flint water crisis isn't much of a surprise to those of us who live here, but the Michigan Civil Rights Commission's affirmation that the emergency manager law disproportionately hurts communities of color is an important reminder of just how bad the policy is. Now is the time to address this flawed law," Ananich said. He said, "The people of Flint deserve the same level of safety, opportunity, and justice that any other city in Michigan enjoys." 

The statute of limitations deadline for felony misconduct-in-office charges was reported in an article published on April 16, 2020, by Vice News as being April 25, 2020. This was disputed by Michigan state authorities, who denied on April 20, 2020, that a deadline was approaching and said that criminal prosecutions would follow.  An extensive lead service line replacement effort has been underway since 2016, with innovative techniques such as machine learning being used to predict the number and location of lead pipes. 

As of early 2017, some officials asserted that the water quality had returned to acceptable levels, but as of January 2019, residents of Flint and surrounding suburbs and officials still expressed doubt about the cleanliness of the water. An estimated 2,500 lead service lines were still in place as of April 2019.  As of February 2020, 25,042 excavations of water service lines had been performed, resulting in the replacement of 9,516 lead lines and the confirmation of 15,526 copper lines. The city expects to finish replacing lead lines by July 2020. 

On January 14, 2021, Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who ran the state, was charged with the crisis that led to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people. Snyder pleaded not guilty to two counts of willful neglect of duty before a judge set bond at $10,000. The former governor was ordered not to leave the state ahead of his next date on Tuesday. He faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.


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