Analysis Human Rights

Report: Flint Crisis Couldn’t Have Happened in Whiter, Wealthier Cities

Auditi Guha

The water crisis is "the end result of systemic oppression through the decades,” said Project Flint's Karina Petri.

If you filled a glass today at your kitchen sink, you might not have thought twice about whether it was safe to drink.

That’s not the case for the roughly 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, many of whom continue to face a water crisis that has corroded the city’s pipes and sickened people who are already paying the highest water bills in the country.

But the crisis did not begin on April 25, 2014, when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River. Instead, as pointed out by local activists and a new report, the city has long grappled with inequality and segregation issues through decades of corruption. The recent crisis added to, and was exacerbated by, Flint’s long history of environmental disasters and political dysfunction.

Flint’s inequity “is rooted in a dysfunctional state department,” Dr. Richard Sadler, an assistant professor doing public health research through the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health, said in an interview with Rewire. Sadler assisted with the 2015 study undertaken by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha that blew the whistle on the elevated blood lead levels found in children.

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In its recently released 130-page report, The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission echoed Sadler’s findings and cited his work. On January 25, 2016, the commission unanimously passed a resolution to hold public hearings to determine whether the water contamination in Flint had involved civil rights violations. After three hearings, several neighborhood visits, and expert testimony on Flint history, the commission came out with its report last month. It blamed the water crisis on systemic and institutional racism, and recommended rewriting the state’s emergency manager law and instituting bias training for state officials.

“Government, particularly state government, was slow to recognize the emergency that existed in Flint’s lead-poisoned water. Evidence was ignored and facts denied. Victims were ignored, advocates demeaned. Delay in responding exacerbated the harm significantly,” the report stated.

In a February 17 letter to the people of Flint, included as a preface to the report, the commission wrote, “The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.”

The majority of Flint’s residents are Black; roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and many are undocumented. The report stated there was no single cause for a crisis like Flint’s, but that it could not have happened in the wealthier, whiter Michigan communities of Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand Rapids.

The report’s authors rooted the water crisis in the city’s racist past; in discriminatory housing policies that allowed white people to own homes while consigning Black residents to deteriorating, overcrowded neighborhoods; in “white flight,” which led to decreasing property values and a shrinking tax base; in the creation of separate and unequal school systems; and other consequences of a biased system built to produce racially disparate outcomes.

“The conditions that allowed the Flint Water Crisis are rooted in a time when racial separation and discrimination was intentional and expressed. A time when racism was not only accepted, it was official government policy but continued as accepted practices, processes, norms and rituals even when such policies were no longer official,” the report said.

“Perpetuating those results without attempting to remedy past harm, and without consciously ensuring we don’t cause new harm, isn’t colorblindness, it is racism,” the report went on.

The report’s seven recommendations, which include creating a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to rebuild trust, are “intended to ensure that ‘another Flint’ does not happen again—in Flint or anywhere in Michigan.”

“When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices—as a matter of public right—must never be stifled or quelled again,” the report concluded.

Karina Petri, founder of the grassroots organization Project Flint, told Rewire in a phone interview that the water crisis “is the end result of systemic oppression through the decades.”

Flint has been “systematically and intentionally poisoned,” she said, echoing the commission’s report. She noted that the Flint River is so corrosive, in part, because factories like a massive General Motors operation have been dumping chemicals into it and the surrounding land for over a century of exploitation. She suggested that General Motors, along with other companies that have poured contaminants into Flint’s land and water, be asked to pay for the cleanup and mitigation costs.

“There has been so much abuse and neglect that we are finally beginning to see a glimpse of it, not just in Flint but everywhere else. Little by little, it’s all unravelling. People think it’s not real but it is. It is factual,” she said.

The lead poisoning and subsequent Legionnaires’ disease outbreak—both a result of the tainted water—brought expert Scott Smith to Flint. As chief investigator with the nonprofit Water Defense, he said he has experience in over 60 water-related contamination disasters, including BP’s 2010 Gulf oil spill.

“Flint has the most contaminated politics I have ever seen along with unprecedented complicity in covering up the truth amongst state elected and appointed officials,” Smith told Rewire in an email. “State agencies, elected officials, ‘scientists’ and ex-media people now in public relations have sold out the community of Flint for their own personal profit while continuing to promote false narratives which only serve to further damage the residents of Flint.”

As with other environmental disasters, Smith said, officials have propagated false narratives such as declaring the water safe and have pushed back against those who investigated or asked for more details. When the crisis first came to light, for example, a number of figures were quick to shift the blame for the disaster to others. And, more recently, many residents who are still suffering with tainted water have taken issue with reports about how the lead levels have come down in Flint. Activists told Rewire the tests were not conducted to federal standards and only involved a handful of homes. Local officials have admitted that although Flint’s drinking water itself is now in compliance with federal regulations on lead and copper content, it could take a year or more before residents can drink from the tap.

Some of the report’s findings are similar to those of other legislature-sponsored task forces, said Anna Heaton, spokesperson to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), in an email to Rewire.

Snyder takes these reports and the public input “very seriously,” she said. According to Heaton, Snyder has appointed an Environmental Justice Work Group to build on this work and do a statewide review, has conducted implicit bias training in different departments; and is open to revising the emergency manager law—which instated the officials who made the decision to change Flint’s water source—through the legislature.

“We have been and continue working to build strong relationships between state government and every community we serve, and adding accountability measures to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never happens again in Michigan,” Heaton said.

Activists, however, continue to be critical of Snyder’s administration. They note that responsibility must extend to local officials too.

So what is the answer? Change the pipes and change the government, say residents.

Supporters from Detroit, Cleveland, and other cities who attended a neighborhood meeting at the Flint Public Library downtown in February suggested organizing more; educating residents better about their rights; and electing people to local government who will advocate for everyone.

“Let’s vote out the city council and get in people who care about all people and children,” said a local resident during the meeting. 

“There is massive corruption and lots of nepotism,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of the grassroots organization Flint Rising, which began with 100 canvassers knocking on doors of undocumented residents to educate them about the lead issue.

“We are organizing to educate people, create space to talk about this issue and share the encyclopedia of knowledge we have accumulated. We are creating a game plan so we can move ahead, lead more people into this fight,” she said at the library meeting.

Residents are continuing to fight inequitable bottled water distribution issues, soaring water bills, and water shutoffs for those who cannot pay.

Keith Pemberton wore a “Flint Lives Matter” t-shirt to a City Hall rally last month protesting the bills and shutoffs.

“The city treats us like criminals because we want clean water,” he said, pointing to the half-dozen police officers present during the peaceful rally but no other public officials. “We’re not going anywhere because we are dealing with this every day.”

While neither Flint Mayor Karen Weaver nor any city council members attended the public meeting or rally last month, the city has organized an environmental justice summit starting March 9 at the Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church to “engage residents in a collaborative problem solving process to develop a plan to ensure the inclusion of residents from low income communities, communities of color and others, as leaders work to rebuild Flint’s damaged infrastructure and recover from the man-made water disaster,” according to a press release.

Neither Weaver nor her staff responded to a call and an email for comment from Rewire.

“Environmental justice is an issue that must be discussed and addressed,” Weaver said in a press release in the wake of the report, although she said she did not totally agree with the commission’s findings. “The residents of Flint have long suffered from social and racial injustices and as captured in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission report, the Flint water crisis epitomizes such racism.”

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