Sociologists have been drawing attention to environmental injustices on the basis of race, ethnicity, income, and gender for 30 years, yet the forces enabling such injustices to occur persist. One need look no further than Flint, Michigan, in the centre of the ailing midwestern industrial belt in the U.S. While all lenses of international media are focused on Donald Trump, a classic case of environmental injustice is unfolding in Flint today. At the centre of the story are a major corporation, a conservative Governor, a polluted river, and three outspoken women.
The birthplace of General Motors, Flint was once a bustling middle class city, but today, after the closure of many of GM’s facilities, it is more famous for its high crime rates. The population has dwindled, and among those who stay, 40 percent are living in poverty, and 57% are Black. While things are especially bad in Flint, the entire state of Michigan has been struggling financially for years, giving the State’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, all the justification he needed to support a number of rather austere, and some could say short-sighted, cost-cutting measures.
One cost-cutting measure in particular seemed inconsequential enough, except that it had to do with the ability of the City to supply safe water to its residents. In the Spring of 2014, the Governor supported a switch in Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron, to the much closer Flint River. Shortly after the switch, residents noticed a brown colour and foul odour in their water, complaints that were met with assurances from government officials that all was well. In the ensuing months, growing evidence of hazard was met with alarm among residents.
One such resident, the first of the three women at the centre of this story, is LeeAnne Walters, a 37 year-old mother of four children ranging in age from 3 to 18 yrs. After many complaints about her water, including a laundry list of maladies experienced by her children—like rashes, hair loss and severe abdominal pains—the City sent an employee to conduct some tests in her home. The results showed a level of lead 27 times above the acceptable limit. The City’s first response was to blame the pipes in her home. Unsatisfied with this response, she embarked on her own research on lead, and the City’s management of its water supply. Pouring over the city’s water quality reports, she discovered not only that the Flint River had been used as an industrial dumping ground for decades. She also learned that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to require Flint to treat the river water with anti-corrosion agents, which allowed lead to leach off pipes and into residents’ water supply, and brought this to the attention of a U.S. EPA official. Meanwhile, she became active, attending public meetings and organizing protests in Flint, effectively sparking an organized response from residents.
The first organized sources of warning came from the American Civil Liberties Union in the Summer of 2015, about the same time a team of researchers from Virginia Technical Institute, having been informed of the situation by the same U.S. EPA official contacted by Walters, felt compelled to begin water testing, and handed out 271 testing kits to Flint residents. Growing public outcry led to an initial phase of water testing by state officials too, but although those tests indicated a doubling of lead content since the switch in water supplies, the new level was still below the safety threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and thus further assurances were offered. Meanwhile, however, a paediatrician at a nearby Medical Centre, upon hearing news of water contamination concerns, took it upon herself to review blood levels in children, producing alarming results—the second of the three outspoken women mentioned above. This coincided with the release of another study indicating a 10-fold spike in in cases of Legionnaires Disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia.
The efforts of these two women may have had something to do with the emergence of the third woman who would define this story. Local child psychologist Karen Weaver launched a campaign in Fall 2015 for the office of Mayor, and her top campaign pledge was to fix the water contamination issue. She won, becoming the first female mayor of Flint, and has spent her months in office following through on that pledge, starting with a declaration of State-of-Emergency, which finally brought the national attention this story deserved.
Photo source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/flint-water-federal-appeal-1.3404996
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claimed he was unaware of the crisis until October, 2015, but evidence to the contrary has emerged. Emails exchanged with close advisors indicate he had been receiving warnings of the crisis in various forms for at least a year prior the Fall of 2015. Moreover, as was uncovered by Michael Moore, shortly after the switch in water supplies, General Motors approached the Governor, claiming that the water was affecting their car parts, to which Snyder responded immediately by offering them their own water hookup back to Lake Huron, a clean supply. Also from Moore, Snyder was apparently informed at the time of the switch that the cost of applying anti-corrosion measures for the City’s water supply would have cost a total of $9,000—he decided it wasn’t worth the expense.
Shortly after his concession in October, Flint’s water supply was switched back to Lake Huron, and pipe corrosion control measures were implemented, but that may have been too little too late for Snyder. If there is one thing a large number of the cast of characters currently running for U.S. President have agreed upon, it is a call for Snyder’s resignation, and Congressional hearings on the Flint crisis and the Governor’s potential culpability have begun. Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech research team has initiated a second round of water tests to determine whether the measures taken were effective. Exposure to the tainted water supply lasted for a total of 17 months, long enough to cause permanent damage from lead poisoning among thousands of children.
What is new and different here? Sadly, nothing much. A neoliberal conservative government seeking to minimize public expenditures caters to corporate interests—even struggling ones—at the expense of citizens who have no value in a neoliberal worldview, and thus no voice in decision-making either. On the other hand, the capacity of those citizens to undermine the diversionary tactics of state interests, has, as is so often the case, been under-estimated. Environmental sociologist Robert Bullard has spoken out about the environmental injustice underpinnings of this story, exemplifying the important role we can play in articulating the structural commonalities across so many similar cases.
Selected sources and Additional Reading:
Moore, M. 2016. 10 Things They Won’t Tell You About the Flint Water tragedy. Accessed March 7, 2016, http://michaelmoore.com/10FactsOnFlint/
Lurie, Julia. 2016. Meet the Mom who helped expose Flint’s water nightmare. Mother Jones, Jan. 21. Accessed March 7, 2016. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/mother-exposed-flint-lead-contamination-water-crisis
Bullard, Robert D. 2016. Flint’s water crisis is a blatant example of environmental injustice. The Conversation, Jan. 22. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://theconversation.com/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice-53553