Health & Science

What We’re Reading About the Flint Crisis

The tragedy tells us a lot about America in 2016. Here are some key points.

What We're Reading About the Flint Crisis

American Red Cross workers drive through Flint's north side distributing cases of water to residents on January 23, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Water is being handed out for free to citizens of Flint following a federal state of emergency being declared due to the city's water supply becoming contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Over the last month, we’ve watched as the story of Flint’s desperate water crisis burst into the nation’s consciousness. The failure of institutions demonstrated by the crisis — and the inequality it lays bare — connect to many larger issues confronting us in this election year. Here are some key points.

What’s happening in Flint is a clear example of the racism woven into the fabric of American life. John Eligon at The New York Times:

For civil rights advocates, the health crisis in Flint smacks of what has become known as environmental racism. Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.

Brentin Mock notes at CityLab that African American communities have suffered from substandard water for more than a century — W.E.B DuBois studied the problem back in 1899.

The EPA is supposed to guard against situations like this, but hasn’t. Zoe Carpenter writes at The Nation that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights “has received over 300 discrimination complaints since it was established in the early 1990s.

The agency has never once issued a formal finding of a violation. Instead, nine in ten communities that seek help from the EPA have had their claims rejected or dismissed, in many cases without an investigation, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. In one case, the EPA took over a decade to address a complaint that Latino schoolchildren in California were disproportionately exposed to a pesticide that can cause cognitive disorders.

Michigan’s response to the crisis, too, demonstrates racial and economic inequality. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed the emergency manager who made the disastrous decisions that poisoned Flint’s water, but emails released by his administration reveal a reluctance to respond to the concerns of citizens in the very poor and mostly black city — even as the administration was trucking in water for state employees in Flint.

The crisis has been particularly hard on undocumented immigrants. At Grist, Aura Bogado writes that because of the language barrier, many have difficulty understanding the nature of the problem and accessing both safe drinking water and lead testing. Casey Tolan reports for Fusion:

Officials at some fire stations — where the National Guard is distributing free bottled water and filters — have asked residents for a form of identification. Immigrants in Michigan without legal status are unable to receive drivers licenses or state IDs. A half dozen undocumented people said that either they’ve been turned away from free water or are worried that they’ll be deported if they try to get help.

The amount of time it took for the crisis to receive national attention demonstrates the changing state of American media. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a piece critical of the newspaper’s coverage — or lack of coverage. In defending the paper to Sullivan, one Times editor pointed out that their handful of Chicago-based reporters were stretched thin, with several important stories they were covering in 2015: “The Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, problems in the Detroit schools, the aftermath of racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Rahm Emanuel’s re-election in Chicago, among others.”

Other national news sources also dropped the ball, although Michigan papers did some digging, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow devoted quite a bit of attention to the topic. NPR’s On The Media notes that much of the muckraking work was done by Curt Guyette, an investigative journalist working for the ACLU. “Perhaps most disturbing is that there are likely hundreds of troubling events unfolding around the country at any time that are getting very little if any attention from the media,” Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy told Margaret Sullivan. Indeed.

This could happen elsewhere. “Blink and you could be standing in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Camden, New Jersey, watching a similar tragedy unfold. Factories close, the middle class takes flight to the suburbs to build better schools and tend to pristine lawns,” writes Goldie Taylor at The Daily Beast. At In These Times, Jacob Lederman provides some political context:

In a climate of austerity at both the state and national levels, and with Tea Party conservatives dominating the Republican Party, cuts to cash-strapped municipalities opened the door to claims that cities like Flint and Detroit were living beyond their means. With city budgets in the red, state authorities imposed new forms of market-based discipline on struggling municipal governments.

Michael Moore, perhaps Flint’s most famous resident, goes further in a column at The Huffington Post arguing for Gov. Rick Snyder to be arrested:

It was done knowingly, enacted by a political decision from a governor and a political party charged by the majority of Michigan’s citizens who elected them to cut taxes for the rich, take over majority-black cities by replacing the elected mayors and city councils, cut costs, cut services, cut more taxes for the rich, increase taxes on retired teachers and public employees and, ultimately, try to decimate their one line of defense against all this, this thing we used to call a union.

This isn’t the only serious blunder by a Michigan emergency manager. The state-imposed rush to cut costs for Michigan’s poor, post-industrial cities has backfired in other ways, writes Art Reyes III in a piece for TalkPoverty that’s also posted at our website.

In Muskegon Heights, an emergency manager dissolved the public school system and turned it over to a for-profit charter school, only to have the company bail on the contract because, as the emergency manager put it, ‘the profit just simply wasn’t there.’ In Pontiac, emergency managers privatized or sold nearly all public services, outsourcing the city’s wastewater treatment to United Water months after the company was indicted on 26 counts of violating the Clean Water Act, including tampering with E. coli monitoring methods to cut corners on costs.

What now? Hard to say. A report by Rachel Maddow looking toward Flint’s future found that:

The pipes will have to be addressed in stages. In the short term, they’ll need to be re-coated with a film to hold in the lead. In the long term, the only fix is ripping them out — every mile of them. No American city has ever done it.

But lead is a toxin that causes permanent damage. For the estimated 9,000 children under the age of six who have been exposed, there may be no reversing the lifelong effects of this disaster.

John Light


John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.