Undrinkable and Unthinkable

Our handling of Flint is a shame upon the nation

Photo via Pixabay

In April of 2014, the people of Flint, Michigan were forced to switch water sources to the highly corrosive and polluted Flint River. Despite it being well-understood by community and city officials that the Flint River was heavily polluted and potentially dangerous, the switch went ahead as planned in order to act as a money-saving mechanism to indirectly fund large tax breaks for the wealthy and for corporations.

By May of 2014, citizens of Flint began voicing serious concerns over yellow and brown water flowing through their pipes and into their homes. By August of 2014, the citizens’ concerns were verified as the first official warnings about Flint’s water were made by the city resulting from the discovery of E. coli in the citizen’s water supply. In response, the City of Flint issued a water boil advisory and began treating the water with high amounts of chlorine. In October, as a result of the corrosive water’s effects on car parts, General Motors voiced concern over the water supply.

Despite these first warnings, complaints, and apparent recognition that the water was, in fact, too corrosive for use even on car parts, the people of Flint continued to rely on the polluted water of the Flint River. In the wake of this concern, in February of 2015, lead was discovered in the water supply and was traced back to the pipes that supply water to Flint residents. It was the beginning of a crisis that not only could have been avoided, but was suppressed by officials and has wreaked absolute havoc on the people of Flint for years.

The Lives of the Citizens

It is now nearly three years since the people of Flint were forced to switch water sources to the Flint River, and yet they continue to live with lead-contaminated water. No solution is apparent, and any discussion of the crisis is slowly grinding to a halt. In the minds of many Americans, the people of Flint have become all but invisible.

As the media coverage of the crisis disintegrates and the stories and lives of the people of Flint disappear, public consciousness and aid for the situation evaporate. Despite this, in the heart of the richest country of the world, Flint, Michigan is without clean drinking water.

What are the people of Flint drinking?

For most of the citizens of Flint, the water that they drink and bathe with does not come from their pipes. As many have fallen ill (citing erratic blood pressure, thinning hair, rashes and far more serious effects such as memory loss and brain development issues) from the lead-contaminated, polluted water, using the water in any way has become unthinkable. As a result, the city of Flint has supplied and installed water filters in many homes. These filters, according to the EPA, are 99.9% effective in restoring the water to safe, drinkable levels.

However, the filters can be difficult to install and many are consequently ineffective. And many other citizens do not yet have filters installed in their homes. These citizens who do not have the benefit of a filter instead receive deliveries of bottled water (despite city officials fighting the federal order to do so) or must report to stations for water to drink and bathe with. Despite this, many citizens state that the struggle to receive and access this supply of safe water is so great that they have gone back to drinking the contaminated water in their faucets. For many, there are far too many roadblocks to receiving the water and filters supplied, and it is simply not possible for them to access the aid program’s clean water. As the director of aid program Crossing Water stated, more than half of the homes that Crossing Water visits do not have filters and are instead bathing, drinking and cooking with the lead-contaminated water.

Despite this glaring failure, the City of Flint states that their “commitment remains to the City of Flint and bottled water, filters, and testing kits will continued to be provided until the water is deemed to meet quality standards.” With no solution visible, this may be a commitment that the City is forced to uphold for many more years.

What is life like in Flint?

Currently, many of the citizens of Flint live in a desperate state. The effects of drinking and bathing in the contaminated water have wreaked havoc on the community. While the entire population is susceptible to the aforementioned health effects, children have been especially affected through long-term brain damage and developmental issues related to their consumption of lead through Flint’s water supply.

What is the government doing?

As the media’s focus on the Flint crisis dwindles down to zero, aid to the people of Flint also declines dramatically. As a result of little more than a moment’s notice from America’s erratic and hyperactive media spotlight, discussion of a solution for the people of Flint has become silenced, and many are unaware of the realities of the government’s crisis relief aid.

Initial Reactions

As the crisis was originally uncovered and the need for aid was first found, these reports of contamination and lead-poisoning were denied and suppressed by city officials. When a memo stating a need for concern over lead-contamination was leaked to the public, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) quickly stated on public radio that there was no contamination in the water supply and people should “relax”. Shortly after, Michigan Radio also reported that the MDEQ intentionally omitted lead-contaminated samples from their report. Following these denials of an apparent issue, outside agencies and institutions such as Virginia Tech University became involved to let the people of Flint know the truth about their water supply. What they reported was dangerously high levels of contamination and lead in Flint’s water, eventually all but forcing Flint to issue a lead advisory to citizens.

Current Aid and Plans for a Solution

As Flint citizens continue to live without a clean water supply, aid efforts are severely lacking in support. Take, for example, the recent announcement that the State of Michigan, which originally offered a tax credit for water charges, will actually now force citizens to pay for contaminated water that remains undrinkable and unusable.

Sadly, this lack of aid is anything but unusual for the people of Flint. While filters and bottled water are still being supplied to citizens, many citizens, such as Michael Hood, feel that the aid effort is far too little, stating that “It doesn’t seem like anyone with the power and authority to change this gives a damn”. As a recent budget proposal shows, he isn’t wrong.

In 2016, Flint’s mayor stated that it would cost $1.5 billion to fix Flint’s pipes and lead-contaminated water supply. In response, the United States Senate passed a 170-million-dollar funding package to be spent largely on continued relief programs — clearly far too little to even come close to the amount needed to fix the complex situation in Flint. And while Governor Rick Snyder has created funding plans, no tangible action has been taking in fulfilling the plan. The only evidence of progress is the fact that the state of Michigan just recently announced it will be paying nearly $100 million to fix some contaminated water sources. This occurs only as a result of a lawsuit settlement demanding the payment, and will cover only a fraction of the $1.5 billion estimate from the Mayor of Flint. Furthermore, this settlement may result in some residents losing access to clean, bottled water. As a result, any progress towards a tangible solution is extinguished and Flint residents continue to live with lead-filled water indefinitely.

What is taking so long?

For so many of us, we look on in frustration and ask: what is taking so long? How is it possible that the people of Flint, in a country of so much extreme luxury, are still without clean water to drink? While finding a solution is inherently difficult, definite plans of action have already been created and have existed for nearly 12 months. What the people of Flint now need is federal funding and governmental leadership to recognize and fight for the people of Flint. While the President calls for far more than the 1.5 billion necessary for Flint to pay for a taxpayer-funded border wall, the people of Flint look on without clean water.

The money, aid and plan of action necessary for Flint could be secured and this crisis could finally come to a close. In a country with tremendous resources, it is not infeasible to do so. However, the people of Flint are members of what to many in power is an invisible, disposable community,a community that is predominantly African-American and low-income. In the United States, as the citizens of Flint are painfully aware, the marginalized communities of America are often tossed aside and left to figure out how to survive with crumbling infrastructure that leaches lead into their water, skyrocketing unemployment, and broken schools. And when they ask for assistance from their government and fellow citizens, their cries go unheard.

Sadly, this apparent invisibility of the people of Flint and the Flint Water Crisis is nothing out of the ordinary. Other national crises such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy have shown that when disaster strikes, the most marginalized communities will be the last to receive aid, their pleas for help will be ignored, and life in America will press on without them.

We can not stand idly by any longer and let this situation persist. We must keep fighting for Flint by calling on officials to take action, refusing to remain silent and taking advantage of any ways to help Flint that we possibly can. To do otherwise is to allow the continuation of a tremendous shame upon the nation.