In almost 20 years writing about environmental justice, few times have I dealt with such a heart-breaking story. The 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, especially its Latino population, are experiencing a profound sinking feeling.
"What has been done here is completely shameful because there has been total indifference to the suffering of the community," says Art Reyes, a Flint native and activist with the Center for Popular Democracy.
In Flint, an overwhelmingly poor community of color, the country has witnessed a catastrophic collapse of the fundamental duty of any government: guaranteeing the safety of the community it serves.
It all started in April of 2014 when Flint's emergency manager --an envoy arbitrarily appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to supervise the City Council-- approved switching the city's water supply from the Detroit System to the Flint River in order to save $5 million.
After decades of serving as the local industry's sewage collecting system, the river's water turned out to be extremely corrosive. The ancient lead piping system started to erode and eventually the water acquired very high levels of lead, copper and cadmium. By October of 2014, the local GM plant stopped using the Flint water because it was corroding its auto parts.
Almost two years later, and because of the negligence of a state government that refused to take action, the Flint residents have been exposed to alarming levels of lead poisoning.
"While kids were in schools with water tainted with lead, they were more concerned with the public relations aspect of it than with the health concerns of the residents of this community," says Reyes.
This crisis is especially severe for the small, yet very vulnerable Latino community in Flint. Because many of them are undocumented and know little or no English, they were the last ones to find out they had been poisoning themselves by drinking the water and bathing in it.
"When this made international news, relatives of these families from Mexico and other countries were calling asking what was going on, and in some cases that's how people found out about it," he says.
Civic groups such as Reyes's started translating public notices warning the public that they were to drink only bottled water. Even so, and because an ID was required to collect bottled water and of rumors that undocumented families were being arrested, many rejected this option. Fortunately, local churches later began distributing drinking water without requiring any documentation.
"After some 28 days, detecting lead in the blood is very hard, despite the fact that the damage can be severe", says Reyes. Independent testing in Flint revealed water lead levels up to 900 times higher than the federal limit.
When a child suffers severe lead poisoning, the risk of permanent brain damage -- including learning disabilities, diminished IQ and violent behavior-- is enormous. And Flint residents are witnessing this unfolding tragedy powerless and frustrated by an inept and even cruel state government.
"The toxic water of Flint is one of the country's most expensive", says Reyes. "On average, it costs $140 a month".
Reyes and Flint Rising --an alliance of civic groups working to bring relief and justice to Flint families-- are demanding immediate action to tackle this crisis, including the following:
- Replacing the water-piping infrastructure including that of all Flint homes. The initial savings of5 million will end up costing up to 1.5 billion, according to city officials.
- Providing medical and educational assistance, both in the short and long terms, for Flint's children affected by lead poisoning.
- Reassuring the terrified families of Flint that effective measures will be put in place.
- And making sure that those responsible for this scandal will be held accountable.
Meantime, this profound sinking feeling persists among Flint families.