The anguish that is Flint, Michigan

From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters

Flint, Mich.—The crisis in Flint, whose people are still being poisoned by the water coming through pipes into our own homes, has finally received widespread national exposure. People know about the sometimes monstrously elevated lead levels and the epidemic of Legionnaires’ disease that quickly followed Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision, through his dictatorial emergency manager, to switch Flint from Lake Huron water in April 2014 to water from the Flint River.

The state government was trying to balance its budget on the backs of mostly poor Blacks while cutting taxes for businesses and the wealthy. When Flint residents began to experience the lethal consequences of this decision, some of which they shared with N&L, state agencies denied problems and relentlessly attacked those who spoke out.

MONEY SAVED, CHILDREN SICKENED

On April 30, 2014, Flint began receiving water from the Flint River as a way to save money while a pipeline of the Karegnondi Water Authority was being completed, although even the first emergency manager in 2012 had rejected a plan to switch to Flint River water after consulting with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

The former director of Flint public works revealed that the decision to use water from the Flint River over all objections came directly from the governor’s office.

In the next months, tests showed elevated levels of coliform bacteria. In December 2014, tests showed dangerously high levels of total trihalomethanes, which can lead to cancer and other medical problems.

Starting in June 2014 in Genesee County, there was a sharp increase in cases of Legionnaires’ disease, caused by waterborne bacteria. There were 42 cases in 2014 and 45 in 2015, with ten deaths. In the previous four years, 2010 through 2013, there were only four to 13 cases per year.

In February 2015 a Flint resident told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of tests showing elevated levels of lead in her water and in the blood of one of her children. The MDEQ blamed that on the woman’s plumbing. The EPA discovered that her plumbing was actually plastic, but when the lead service line between the water main and her house was replaced, lead levels dropped.

A Virginia Tech team that had done this first test sent 300 kits to people in Flint and received 252 back. Forty percent had lead levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb), the maximum acceptable level. Several exceeded 100 ppb and one after 45 seconds of flushing had 1,000 ppb! The MDEQ claimed much lower lead levels in its own sampling. The Virginia Tech team concluded that it was not possible to safely use Flint River water, because it was far too corrosive to treat safely.

MDEQ DRAGGED ITS FEET

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and an Iraqi immigrant who would have been barred from the U.S. if Trump were president, noticed elevated lead levels in children in areas of Flint. In late August 2015, she heard the Virginia Tech results and subsequently issued a report comparing lead levels in Flint children in 2013 and in 2015. She found an alarming increase from 2.1% elevated lead levels in the 2013 period to 4.0% in the 2015 period, and in some areas an increase to 6.3%.

The MDEQ tried to discredit her. A few months later, they admitted she was right. In December 2015, a task force appointed by the governor informed him that the MDEQ had shown “scorn and derision” toward people criticizing the quality of water in Flint.

Flint finally switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015. Although the Flint River water was flushed out in a few weeks, the effects of corroding pipes and fixtures remain. Nothing short of a total replacement of lead pipes, lead solder and fixtures containing lead will rid the water of lead, and it would be at a much greater cost than what was saved by using Flint River water.

Will what happened in Flint cause those in power to look closely at money-saving schemes and their potential for danger and death? The more general problem is capitalist neoliberalism trying to rescue falling rates of profit by imposing austerity on people who are considered weak and vulnerable.

—Dan B.

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