Making It Right in Flint

The Michigan city's water was contaminated with lead—and public officials knew about it. NRDC is heading to federal court to demand justice.

Imagine for a moment that, starting tomorrow, water flowed from your kitchen spigot with a sickening brownish tinge and a vile odor that made you doubt it was fit for drinking. You complained to local and state officials to no avail, only to learn, more than a year later, that the water you and your family had been drinking, cooking with and bathing in was contaminated with lead, potentially impairing your children's ability to think and to learn—for life.

That's the situation for the 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, who were first betrayed, then dismissed and finally lied to by the public officials they depended on to protect their health and provide them with access to safe drinking water.

This is an affront to the people of Flint and to those who care about justice everywhere. It can't be tolerated in this country, in Flint, or anywhere else.

"Our children should not have to be worried about the water that they're drinking in American cities," President Obama said. "That's not something we should accept."

That's why NRDC and its local partners filed suit today in federal court asking that the City of Flint and Michigan state officials be compelled to address this public health disaster now.

That means testing this water and treating it to keep out the lead, making the results publicly available so people at last know the truth and replacing the system that's causing the problem so the people of this city have safe water to drink. It must be done and it must be done now. Nothing short of all that is acceptable. Nothing short of all that will do.

This isn't the first time NRDC has appealed for action in this matter.

Last October, months after this unfolding disaster became clear, NRDC called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to immediately order the City of Flint and Michigan state officials to remedy the problem. The EPA, though, failed to act, finally decided to take emergency action only last week, as its regional administrator, Susan Hedman, announced she would step down under public pressure.

This crisis began when an emergency city manager appointed by the state changed Flint's water source to save an estimated $2 million a year. The origins of the disaster, though, go back much further and need to be understood.

The birthplace of General Motors and once a prosperous hub of automotive manufacturing, Flint saw its fortunes fall when the industry stumbled a generation ago in the face of rising oil prices and wave upon wave of auto imports from Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Plants were shut down, factory grounds were abandoned, workers were laid off and much of Flint was left for dead.

Flint became a kind of urban castaway of 100,000 people, half its population in better times. Most of the residents left behind were people of color--57 percent African-American and another 8 percent Latino or mixed race. Only 11 percent graduated from college and 42 percent live below the poverty line in a town where the median family income is just under $25,000 a year--about half the level of Michigan overall.

And so, in April of 2014, the emergency manager ended the city's five-decade practice of buying water from Detroit, 66 miles away, and started pumping it from the Flint River instead.

The river water, though, was heavily polluted with industrial chemicals, a toxic legacy of the region's once-proud manufacturing past. The water was so corrosive it began eating away lead from the aging pipes that transport water through Flint, putting lead in the city's water and, eventually, the blood of its people.

Within months, a General Motors plant that builds engines for Chevys, Cadillacs and other cars stopped using the Flint River water, saying it was so corrosive it was damaging to parts. A hospital and local university started using bottled water and filters due to similar concerns.

Residents began to speak out, hauling jugs of brown water to local civil gatherings, and pressing urban leaders for action. In March, 2015, with experts with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warning that state testing might be undercounting lead levels in Flint's water, the city council voted to return to purchasing clean water from Detroit. They were overruled, though, by the state-appointed emergency manager, who vetoed the council measure. The water might be too corrosive to wash off engine parts, in other words, but it was good enough for the people of Flint.

Privately, in the halls of the state offices that were entrusted to protect those people, their concerns were being dismissed and even mocked with callous disregard for the people's concerns.

When state officials released 274 pages of emails on the matter last week, reporters were taken aback by the attitudes of some in the office of Republican Governor Rick Snyder. Critics were denigrated as part of an "anti-everything group," their complaints about threats to their children's health ridiculed as "political football," as officials shrugged off public cries for help. And all the while, residents are still being forced to pay a monthly bill for this toxic water that is poisoning their families.

No one put it plainer than President Obama, who said during a visit to Detroit last week, "I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk." It's a reminder, he said, "of why you can't shortchange basic services that we provide to our people."

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said January 20 that the lead contamination wouldn't have happened had Flint been a wealthy suburb instead of a hardbitten and largely low-income city.

And that's the crux of the matter: when it comes to safe drinking water, some Americans have greater rights than others.

We've seen this kind of environmental injustice all too often before, where low-income communities, people of color and other disadvantaged groups live hard by refineries, factories and power plants, or alongside contaminated rivers and lands.

People of West Virginia forced to live with the environmental devastation of mountaintop removal of coal. Families in Southeastern Chicago in the shadow of toxic mountains of petroleum coke. Communities in southern Louisiana and Gulf region of Texas breathing air contaminated by refinery waste. Folks in towns across this country threatened by exploding oil trains. The list goes on.

It's past time we recognized in this country that environmental protection is a civil right. For far too long now, environmental justice has been denied people who lack the access to our public officials often accorded to big polluters and who some of our officials treat with disgraceful disregard.

NRDC is taking action in our federal courts to stand up for the rights of the people of Flint. They, though, aren't the only victims.

The failure of government in Flint at every level has undermined public trust in government at every level. It's undermined trust in our democracy.

That trust now needs to be restored--in Flint and across the country. The starting point is to make this right--and make sure it never happens again.

Join us in calling for Governor Snyder to do his part to make it right--to clean up the city's water supply and stop charging people for this poison.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

President

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