WASHINGTON -- The contaminated water disaster flowing through one of Michigan’s poorest, blackest cities is tainted by poverty and racism.
Since April 2014, residents of Flint, a city that is almost 57 percent black and incredibly poor, have been drinking and bathing in water that contains enough lead to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “toxic waste.”
No single person shoulders the blame for this situation, but thanks to widespread mismanagement a largely black and brown community now faces the disproportionate effects of systemic neglect. And to many, Flint’s water crisis fits into a historical trend of environmental racism in the U.S., which for decades has allowed polluters to prey on communities of color, in part because of weak environmental regulations.
“There’s a philosophy of government that has been writing these places off -- places like Flint get written off,” Flint's Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told The Huffington Post. “And, to me, even though those people making those decisions might not see it this way, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that race is not the most significant factor.”
At the first democratic presidential debate of the year, Hillary Clinton issued a rallying cry for Flint's predicament, saying that the crisis would have been handled differently if it happened in a “white suburb outside of Detroit.”
While state offices and presidential candidates have rushed to criticize Michigan's handling of the Flint water crisis, the legacy of environmental injustice and racism in the once-thriving city stretches far beyond lead pipes and discolored tap water.
In 1966, Flint’s automotive industry was booming. Buick City, a 235-acre factory that produced Buicks for General Motors, churned out thick clouds of smoke, which floated over Flint’s poverty-stricken, predominantly black North End neighborhood.
At a state Civil Rights Commission hearing on the environmental impact of the plant, which opened in 1904, North End resident Aliene Butler testified to the horrid conditions residents faced.
“The houses in this district are eaten up by a very heavy deposit, something like rust," she said. "You can imagine what we go through down there breathing when this exists on just material things."
Butler, a throat cancer survivor who lost her husband to the same illness, had highlighted one way de facto segregation leads to environmental injustice.
That same year, Buick City dumped 2.2 million gallons of waste per day into the Flint River. The year before, the eight GM plants around Flint had dumped about 26.5 million gallons of industrial waste into the river each day.
The city used the Flint River for its water supply until 1967, when it began buying water from Detroit and treating it with an anti-corrosive agent. A December 1966 EPA study showed that the water quality in Flint was poor decades before people were talking about lead pipes and poisoning.
“It’s both a class and race issue. When you have companies there, they dump everything into the water and into poor communities.”
Carl S. Taylor, a sociology professor at Michigan State University who built a national reputation as an ethnographer of poor communities, said the pattern had been there for some time.
"It’s both a class and race issue. When you have companies there, they dump everything into the water and into poor communities,” he told HuffPost. “You can’t go dump it into affluent communities. They wouldn’t tolerate it on their land.”
Poisoning a community's water supply was particularly common, Taylor said.
“Those large rivers, during the industrial age, particularly manufacturing, it’s not unusual to see that damage that’s done to the land or to dump them on poor communities,” he added.
Buick City didn’t close until 1999.
In December 1992, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit to build Genesee Power Station, an $80 million incinerator slated for construction beside a poor black community on the city’s north side.
The incinerator opened for business in 1995 and sits to the east of an elementary school. The plant would release lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other chemical compounds into the air, all products of burning wood covered in lead-based paint. In 1994, several community members filed administrative complaints with the EPA, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which occurs when state environmental agencies allow polluting industries disproportionately in communities of color. They maintained that the plant would be a danger to public health in a community already exposed to large amounts of pollution.
While the permit for the incinerator requires overall lead emissions to be at least 100 times less than the national allowable limit, Michigan’s DEQ did not gauge the amount of lead already present in the community. Nor did it study the potential environmental and health impact.
Community complaints piled up at the EPA, creating a severe backlog. As of last year, the agency still had not responded.
Environmental racism happens nationwide, but Paul Mohai, a professor who founded the University of Michigan's environmental justice program, said Flint is unique.
“It’s been a lot harder to say, ‘Oh, your lead poisoning is due to your bad diet, or too much second-hand smoke’ or anything like that,” Mohai said. “Some of these other environmental justice conflicts ... when people raise lifestyle choices or lack of access to health care, [those alternate explanations] seem plausible. But in this case I think it’s harder to discount the source of the problem.”
And the national media attention is bringing Flint an onslaught of support.
Michigan’s lawmakers and political figures have seized on the opportunity to speak out about other issues that disproportionately plague Flint's majority-black population. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a ranking member of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on the Interior, called for a congressional hearing on the high concentrations of lead in Flint’s water supply.
On Wednesday, witnesses including EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality representatives, attend, but State Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and Darnell Earley, the former Emergency Manager who oversaw the city's switch to the Flint river in 2014, won’t be present.
Lawrence said it was Congress’ responsibility to address a “man-made disaster created by the poor policy decisions of elected and career government officials.”
“I want to get the facts, then I want legislation or policy to ensure we are closing those loopholes that obviously the Flint community fell through,” Lawrence told HuffPost. “As a member of Congress, I’m enraged. My thing is not to point fingers but to find out what happened and where did we fail so that we will never do it again. We [should] never have this conversation about children being developmentally impacted because of poisoning of the water that they drink.”
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a January conference call that what’s happening in her city demands more than momentary support at the height of the crisis. Flint needs federal and state assistance, Weaver said, and for people to be held accountable for what’s happening.
Weaver’s comments support Taylor’s theories about Flint. The emergency in “Auto City” will last long after the city’s faulty lead pipes are gutted and water supply reinvigorated.
“It’s not just about black lives mattering here. Poor people’s lives don’t matter [in Flint],” Taylor said. “Flint didn't just get bad. The water just made everyone notice. Everyone is acting surprised, but it’s real simple. This is a big part of American history. No one wants to talk about it, but the chickens have come to roost.”
The state showed Flint the cold shoulder argues Virgil Bernero, the mayor of nearby Lansing, Michigan, who ran against Snyder in 2010. Snyder’s administration rated the city’s officials useless and incompetent, Bernero said. They wanted to make the decisions for the city, which led to the lack of reaction when the water crisis was taking shape.
“The response was muted. The state response was sluggish and irresponsible. That does have something to do with the people being voiceless,” Bernero told HuffPost. “When those voices started saying, ‘This water is discolored, it doesn’t smell right, I’ve got a rash, my kid isn’t responding properly,’ those voices were not heard. And that does have something to do with being poor and a minority, frankly.”
Researchers at Virginia Tech discovered in 2015 that the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron. A November 2015 class-action lawsuit describes how Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality wasn’t treating the new water source with an anti-corrosive agent causing the water to get more and more discolored.
Adding that agent would cost $100 a day, according to CNN, and 90 percent of the problems with Flint’s water could have been avoided. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech corrosion expert who helped expose the high lead levels, in Flint’s water, told HuffPost that not implementing corrosion control was not an honest mistake.
Edwards’ presentation on his research results, obtained by HuffPost, shows that if Flint had maintained corrosion control from the moment the city switched water sources, the lead poisoning would never have happened.
The decisions to delay assistance to Flint painted the city as America’s latest, tangible example of environmental racism. The state administration doesn’t need to dictate what Flint needs, Kildee admitted. The help Flint needs is beyond the reach of the state of Michigan, because it was Michigan that failed Flint in the first place.
“I just don’t believe, in my heart, that if this had happened in a more affluent that was not a majority-minority community -- I don’t believe that the state [would have] ever let it get this far,” Kildee said.