A city of some 100,000 residents, Flint, Michigan has dominated the news in the United States as a tragic story of mismanagement and health consequences centered on a political decision to save funds by changing the city's water supply to a polluted source, resulting in the release of lead from corroded pipes into the homes and bodies of mostly poor and African-American residents. If there is ever to be an example of how water policy can be used to destroy a community, Flint is it.
The facts are mostly undisputed. A governor, obsessed with conservative ideological zeal, replaces city managers and councils in several cities in Michigan, and remains indifferent to consequent reductions in municipal services in communities already in deep trouble. To save a few dollars, his appointed manager diverted the city's water supply, taken from Lake Huron and treated, to the untreated, chemically polluted Flint River. What has followed is appalling.
The residents were aware of the situation, and for two years had complained, demonstrated at public meetings, and demanded testing and response, only to be denied in spite of the obvious discoloration, the proven poor quality of the river, and the lack of maintenance resulting from no money and indifference by every level of state government. That so-called economy has resulted in the following losses:
• The exposure of some 7,000 children under 6 years of age to levels of lead and high risk for brain damage and other sicknesses from lead poisoning. This impact, of course, bears on every resident, regardless of age or race, and essentially constitutes a premeditated act against the health of the city.
• The need for immediate relief aid, delivered water, estimated at $28 million in the short term. President Obama has pledged $80 million in additional federal funds, plus an estimated 1.5 billion to replace the distribution and home systems for safe delivery to be restored to make living there viable again.
• The cost of the loss of life and the treatment of thousands of residents affected, of the further family and community collapse, and of the class action lawsuits and settlements for which the city cannot pay and surely the state will become liable.
In sum, the savings were negligible, the costs incalculable.
There are also some extraordinary back-stories being told. For example, General Motors is based in Flint, and when its management complained to the governor that the polluted water was corroding car parts being washed in the local assembly line, some $440,000 was suddenly available for a special, GM-only hookup back to the original Lake Huron source. Moreover, at one point, it was suggested that the polluted water could be treated by the addition of an anti-corrosive element at the cost of $100 per day - a solution for everyone. Suggestion denied.
Michael Moore, the American documentary filmmaker who lives in Flint, contributed this interesting information recently in his blog: that the wife of the governor's chief-of-staff happens to be the Michigan spokesman for Nestle, "the largest owner of private water sources in northern Michigan. It has been recently reported that Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, all major corporate water bottlers, are rushing 6.5 million bottles to the people of Flint. This is a welcome, however ironic, gesture of little long-term impact."
What can we learn from this fiasco? First, that yet again public services, whether transportation, education, health service, or clean water, cannot be sustained if there are no revenues available or if those available have been diverted to other private interests or tax cuts for political purposes; and, second, that yet again the necessity of water has been revealed as essential to human survival, for everyone, anywhere, any time, and that its pollution or lack of availability can bring an individual, a family, or a city to sickness in a matter of days and to fatal collapse in not many more.
There are petitions to indict this governor and his managers for crimes against the citizens of Flint. But such actions, if successful, can only provide partial satisfaction or compensation for fundamental loss. After-the-fact litigation will not solve the problem of ignorance and indifference inherent in a deliberate decision to put the advantage of corporate or political interests before the health of the governed, or to understand that, without clean fresh water, their town, and our civilization, cannot stand. What a sad, and unnecessary, cautionary tale.
Peter Neill is author of the new book The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society available now.