Opinion

Water crisis in Flint isn’t anything new

The city of Flint, Michigan, with a population of 100,000, has been exposed to grievously high levels of lead poisoning through its water supply. The damages are irreparable, and could have been avoided for a hundred dollars a day. Now the city that was already in a financial state of emergency is facing $1.5 billion in damages, according to CNN.

The Flint crisis is another case of a state neglecting a community because it is predominantly poor and black. If this is the first time you realize that some people in the United States are considered more expendable than others, then now is the time to become more aware. We cannot allow black suffering to continue to be normalized. Such normalization causes us to forget about poor and black communities and allows crises like Flint to occur. Had the residents of Flint been regarded as equal to a resident in Wellesley, this crisis would have never happened. Racism caused the state of Michigan to neglect Flint and consequently poison its residents. It’s time to eradicate racism, and it has to start with white people.

How did it begin?

This water crisis began in 2013, according to CNN (the source for most of the information below). Flint was so broke that Governor Rick Snyder’s advisors, in an effort to save one million dollars, decided to change the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water supply to Karegnondi Water. The problem? The pipeline to bring the water from Karegnondi was not built; therefore, Snyder made the decision to obtain water from the Flint River. Residents believed this was joke, upon hearing Snyder’s decision. Rhonda Kelso, a 52-year old resident, says, “I thought it was of those Onion articles. We already knew that the Flint River was toxic waste.”

The Flint River water is nineteen times as corrosive as the Lake Huron water, Detroit’s water supply. Additionally, the city was not treating the corrosiveness of the water, a treatment that would have only cost a hundred dollars a day.  The water corroded the city’s old pipes, leaking iron into the drinking water and turning the water brown. The biggest tragedy is that the city’s pipes contained lead, poisoning every child and adult in Flint.

Despite all this, officials tried to convince residents that the Flint water was safe. Virginia Tech even conducted a study on Flint that found elevated levels of lead in the water, but officials did their best to keep this hidden from the public.

Then, Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha, a tireless young pediatrician, investigated why children were experiencing more rashes and hair loss. She realized that Medicare requires states to record the lead levels in toddlers. In Flint, lead levels in toddlers doubled and in some cases, nearly tripled.

After she made her research public, the state spent weeks denouncing her work. However, the state had the same information she did. Lee Anne Walters, a Flint mother, had growing concerns for her children’s health. She contacted Miguel Del Toral, a water expert at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and he found that Flint was not using proper corrosion controls. As a government branch, the EPA cannot release a memo until the results are completely finalized. However, a draft of del Toral’s work was released. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would not respond to Del Toral’s memo, however, until the EPA released a final draft.

According to Detroit News, “An EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February [2015], confirmed the suspicions in April and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo. The state decided in October to change Flint’s drinking water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit water system.”

Flint has since switched back to Lake Huron water, but the damage to the city’s pipes is irreparable.

This crisis is a part of a larger problem of institutionalized racism in three ways:

1. They had already been exposed.

What is easy to overlook is that, water from the Flint River or not, Flint residents had already been exposed to lead poisoning. Flint is northwest of Detroit, a city that has filed for bankruptcy. Detroit residents are incredibly poor, and 90 percent live in housing built before the 1980s. These houses likely contain lead paint because the residents cannot afford to make their homes kid-safe,  according to the Huffington Post. As a result, these children have grown up with nervous system damage, intellectual disabilities, behavioral problems and so much more.

It is commendable that there has been so much coverage in the news about Flint. However, there still needs to be more coverage concerning poverty and health in America. The Flint crisis stems from systematic racism, years of draining black neighborhoods of funding and exposing them to the most hazardous conditions.

2. Systematic racism is dangerous.

The city of Flint is 51 percent black and 47 percent below the poverty line. The amount of lead found in Flint water is 150 parts per billion. The safe amount of lead is 15 parts per billion, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nine thousand Flint children have been being exposed to ten times the safe amount of lead in the water, and the effects of lead poising can never be undone.

Dr. Hanna-Atisha says, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” She says that lead causes drops in IQ, has been linked to criminality, and has multigenerational effects. The effects of lead can be combated with early education and a healthy diet, but the city’s school district is broke, and there is not even a grocery store in Flint. In addition to lead poisoning, families in Flint have little access to doctors and health care services. There’s only one nurse for every 5,500 students in Flint.

The problem of lead poisoning goes beyond Flint. A study showed that between 1999 and 2004, black children were three times as likely as white children to have high levels of lead in their blood. As Dr. Hanna-Atisha said, this problem is multigenerational. What have generations of environmental racism done to a people’s development?

3. Let’s not be shocked that Flint residents were considered expendable.

Governor Snyder likely knew that the water was toxic as early as 2014. In 2014, General Motors discovered that Flint water corrodes car engines. Governor Snyder spent $440,000 to connect General Motors back to Lake Huron water. Meanwhile, the residents drank Flint water, tainted with the company’s decades of industrial run-off. Car engines were deemed more important than lives.

Governor Snyder did not willfully set out to poison the city of Flint. But he knew that these people would be considered more expendable because of their poverty and their blackness. Take places such as River Rouge, Michigan, a predominately black neighborhood built next to factories. River Rouge experiences “black rain,” high levels of fine particle pollutants, burning people’s lungs.  Or consider “Cancer Alley” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a black neighborhood that is home to more than 150 chemical-processing plants and refineries. And, in a case similar to Flint, the state of Florida decided to dump medical waste into the black community of Mulberry. Poor black people continue face environmental racism at disproportionate rates, opening the door for health crises to happen.

Finally, this crisis could have been avoided had the people of Flint been regarded as worthy of the extra one hundred dollars to properly treat the water. The disregard for poor and black lives must end, and the only way to do this is to deconstruct the way we think, question why poor and black people live in the worst conditions, and then find ways to combat this. A place to start is through protesting and holding legislators accountable for their failures.

 

 

Photo: Children of Flint, Michigan, carry bottled water. Photo source: Reddit.