Two Years of Tragedy in Flint

The Flint River weaves through downtown Flint, Michigan on Jan. 6, 2016.

When Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply on April 25, 2014, it sparked an unprecedented public health crisis. Its residents are still in dire need of help.

The water in Flint, Michigan, is still unsafe to drink— two years after the crisis was set in motion. Badly needed federal assistance has been marooned by a handful of congressional Republicans. And the larger national problem of lead in too much of our drinking water is yet to be addressed.

The tragedy in Flint, and the largely feckless response so far, make for a sorry testament to government’s falling short on this issue at every level — state, local, and federal. These failings, though, are not an excuse for government inaction or a reason to hamstring our national response, as the usual critics of commonsense safeguards have claimed. The situation, instead, calls us to do better going forward. We owe that to the people of Flint. We owe it to Americans everywhere.

The residents of Flint need emergency help right now. In the longer term, we need stronger measures to safeguard our drinking water, more assertive public oversight, and responsible investment in the systems we rely on to deliver safe drinking water to every American. We need to take seriously the connection between protecting all of our people and our larger quest to build a more just society. And we need to recognize the vital role that citizen watchdogs, faith groupsindependent researchers, and environmental organizations play in standing up for the public interest and holding our elected officials to account. What has happened over the past two years in Flint makes all of that abundantly clear.

The situation speaks, also, to the kind of environmental injustice experienced far too often by low-income people and communities of color. Among Flint’s 100,000 residents, after all, 57 percent are African-American, another 8 percent are Latino or of mixed race, and 42 percent live below the poverty line. Two years on, it’s time to renew our commitment to environmental justice for every American.

On April 25, 2014, Flint’s drinking water supply was switched from the Detroit city system to the heavily polluted Flint River. The change, on orders from an official the state appointed to manage Flint’s fiscal crisis, was meant to save the beleaguered city an estimated $5 million over two years. The Flint River water, though, was highly corrosive. Federal law requires that such water be treated to make it less corrosive, but city officials failed to do that. The result: Lead leached out from aging pipes into thousands of homes in Flint.

A bridge and building are reflected in the Flint River.
Credit: Photo: Laura McDermott/The New York Times/Redux

Some 9,000 children were exposed to drinking water contaminated with toxic lead, which is especially dangerous to infants and young children. It can reduce intelligence, impair learning ability, and make it difficult for kids to control their impulses.

Signs of trouble emerged within months, and by March 2015, the Flint City Council voted to return to buying water from Detroit. The emergency manager overruled the council, and residents continued to be exposed to lead in their water.

“The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice,” the independent Flint Water Advisory Task Force reported last month in a scathing indictment of the handling of the situation. Last week, two state workers and a Flint city employee were charged with criminal wrongdoing in the case, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told reporters, “There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.”

Rigorous public investigation into what went wrong and an accounting for those responsible are essential to our response. Here, though, is what else is needed.

First, this needs to be made right for Flint’s people. The city has returned to the Detroit water system for its water supply, but tap water is still contaminated with lead. The state has ponied up $70 million for emergency aid — chiefly bottled water, filters, and test kits. The real fix, though, will mean replacing, at no charge to homeowners, lead pipes and fixtures in the city water system. Flint has tens of thousands of small water pipes that connect large main pipes to individual homes. At least eight thousand of these smaller service lines are made of lead.

A corroded water pipe sample from Flint being studied at Virginia Tech’s environmental engineering department.
Credit: Photo: Travis Dove/The New York Times/Redux

Legislation in the U.S. Senate that would provide emergency assistance for the people of Flint, including money to replace lead pipes, has been held up for months by a few intransigent Republicans. That goes beyond obstructionism; it’s a national disgrace. It’s time the people of Flint got the assistance they deserve.

The problem with lead in our drinking water, though, goes far beyond Flint. Elevated levels of lead have been found in thousands of water systems across the country, including in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, South Carolina, and even our nation’s capital. To address this, we need to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects our water, and the Lead and Copper Rule, which provides specific safeguards against lead. And we need to do nationally what we must do in Flint: finally get rid of the lead connection pipes — an estimated 6.1 million nationwide — that continue to put our people at risk.

When it comes to providing public services, few things are more fundamental than clean drinking water. What happened to the people of Flint should never have happened. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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