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The Abandonment of Flint

A new book examines the making of a completely preventable health crisis.

Brett Carlsen / Getty Images

About halfway through Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me, which chronicles the industrial decline of Flint, Michigan, the filmmaker encounters a house with a sign in front that reads: “rabbits or bunnies, pets or meat.” In the next scene, the rabbit vendor explains that she uses her backyard hutch to supplement her income, which is sometimes as low as $10 to $15 a week. Then she beats a rabbit to death with a lead pipe. It is a shocking image and one that brought through the central question of the film: How is this possible in America?

Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $30.00

Since 1989, the tragedy of Flint’s decline has been repeated in a number of Midwestern cities plagued with shrinking populations, opiate addiction, joblessness, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. Flint and nearby Detroit remain the worst-case scenarios of once-proud, unionized, and solidly middle class “motor cities” that have fallen into ruin. After the 2008 crisis, both had their local authority stripped away by the state of Michigan, with emergency managers replacing municipal governments. In Flint, the emergency manager terminated a water contract with the city of Detroit, preferring to draw water from the polluted Flint River and send it down aging pipes to city residents, 42 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line. Although federal laws mandate that water should be treated to prevent corrosion, Flint’s water went untreated. It contained between twice and ten times the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of lead.

Anna Clark’s new book, The Poisoned City, chronicles the obfuscation and outright deception that occurred after this fateful decision, leading to the contamination of thousands of residents, which include children who may suffer lifelong harm. It powerfully examines how a city once known for its industrial output—which sent quality engineered products around the world—failed to keep up basic infrastructure and put lives in grave danger. Despite sitting 50 miles from the Great Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, the state of Michigan all but gave up on Flint, precipitating an entirely preventable environmental catastrophe.

The water crisis was partly caused by a spatial problem: The city’s footprint was too big for its contracting population. As residents moved elsewhere in search of opportunities, their former homes sometimes sat vacant. In time, the pipes under these houses began to decay both due to age but also because an over-extended infrastructure grid now lay dormant. The local government had a long time to address this and not only did nothing to help, but actively encouraged flight from the urban center. As Clark shows in admirable detail, General Motors built eight new plants in Genesee County between 1947 and 1960 while closing factories inside the city; the local government obliged them by building new roads to their factories and hooking up water and sewer connections, effectively participating in their own obsolescence.

Following the urban riots of the late 1960s, Flint’s population increasingly fled the city. Racial segregation was pronounced: Flint’s first black mayor, Floyd McCree, resigned in protest in 1968, just months after Martin Luther King was assassinated, when the city commission failed to adopt an ordinance outlawing housing discrimination. As the wealth gap between city and suburbs worsened, so did the quality of services. By 2011, when Flint was put under emergency management, Clark tells us its “infrastructure was in a death spiral. The water rates were expensive because the pipes were bad because vacancy rates were high because the city had been shrinking for so long.” Not surprisingly, the wealthier residents of Genesee County—unconstrained by emergency management—chose not to switch their water source to the Flint River, making lead exposure a problem in the poorer, more African American city but not in the surrounding suburbs.

Within Flint itself, water contamination affected the entire city, but it was more pronounced in the poorest neighborhoods. “People who lived on streets that were pockmarked with the most unoccupied homes and empty storefronts—that is, the poorest of them—generally had worse water,” Clark writes. “People who lived in denser areas were less likely to see, taste, or smell the same problems.” One of her most consistent points is that America’s infrastructure is indeed a national embarrassment, but the places where shame morphs into actual danger are predominantly poor and, often, disproportionately black and Latino. Not coincidentally, these places were not able to attract much interest from the government. In Flint, as in many other cities, problems that are regional in scale are too costly and complex to be handled at the local level but go unaddressed at the state level. Even when the state did step in—in this case, to appoint an emergency manager—their first priority was cost-cutting rather than long-term planning.

By the summer of 2014, the signs that something was badly wrong with Flint’s water were difficult to miss. State authorities, many of whom have since been convicted of criminal negligence, were hard-pressed to ignore foul-smelling tap water, and the residents’ troubling symptoms of rashes and hair loss. At first, they maintained that the quality of the new water source was fine; but they had only tested the water at the treatment plant, not in a home after it had been exposed to the miles of lead pipes that leached metal due to the more corrosive river water. The evidence grew nonetheless. In October 2014, a 1.2 million square foot GM factory switched from Flint River water to water from Lake Huron because the engines they were building had begun to rust. While concern for metal car components necessitated quick action, the people of Flint would not be helped for another year.

Clark shows that even when confronted with mounting evidence, the State of Michigan did its best to deny water quality problems; it even went so far as to attempt to discredit studies by a research team from Virginia Tech and an independent EPA official. A lack of transparency on public health issues in Michigan allowed this to continue even longer; in the state, the legislature and governor’s office are exempted from freedom of information requests. Beyond Michigan, there is a national sense that crises like Flint’s water poisoning are routinely kept under wraps in order to obscure the full picture of America’s failing infrastructure. The National Resources Defense Council reported in 2016 that 5,300 water systems violated federal lead rules. In Flint, when it came to basic harm reduction like purchasing water filters for homes at the beginning of the crisis, the Chicago office of the EPA thought “buying filters would not send a good message to all cities that properly manage their water and sewer fees.” Another EPA official added: “I don’t know if Flint is the kind of community we want to go out on a limb for.”

Environmental harm is not evenly distributed—nor is the loss of democratic control that residents suffer when emergency management is imposed up on them. Both are products of long neglect. The financial insolvency or deficits of cities like Flint were not often treated as the outcomes of structural problems—such as de-industrialization or state retrenchment—or of the mistakes of politicians in those places. Rather, they were blamed on the choices of local residents, portrayed as spendthrift and lazy. As such, emergency management was intended not just to fix the problems in these communities, but to punish the local residents too, ensuring—in the manner of 1990s welfare reform—that the poor receive only what they “deserve.” Emergency programs slashed public programs and sold off, privatized, or downgraded state assets like public housing, libraries, and, in this case, water infrastructure.

As Clark points out, living under this kind of government is not randomly assigned. After the 2008 financial crisis, the State of Michigan sent emergency managers to both Flint and Detroit, which are the state’s poorest and blackest cities. “If you lived in Michigan,” she writes, “there was a 10 percent chance that you lived under emergency management at some point between 2009 and 2016. If you were black, that possibility jumped to 50 percent.” While managers can potentially accomplish a great deal because they are given a mandate to make sweeping changes outside the messy political process, they more often than not act as outsiders who deliver painful, and often unjust, news. They slash pensions, close schools, sell parks, and delay cost-of-living raises. They accomplish downsizing and privatization in one fell swoop, and leave town for the next urban reorganization before any concrete data about the social and health effects of their efforts can be tabulated.

In the end, Flint’s river water did more than corrode the city’s pipes. It ate away at the already thin trust that existed between citizens and the government. What’s more, it cast doubt on state water scientists who not only failed to properly monitor Flint’s water but chalked up the personal experiences of citizens as worthless antidotes. Without faith in science or government, people living in vulnerable places are left on their own. Water infrastructure is left to rot; coastlines are unprotected from ferocious storms and a rise in sea levels; and renewable energy never gets invested in. The struggle between collective action and individual freedom has always been a hard sell in the United States, and, as Clark disturbingly illustrates, the future of Flint could look something like the past:

When it came to safe drinking water, then, people had to fend for themselves. It was a far cry from the spirit of collectivity that once built the infrastructure of American cities. It was more like the early days when citizens were expected to dig their own wells, even if they drained their neighbor’s well as they did so.

The Flint crisis is an important opportunity to ask how far punitive cost-cutting and privatization will go. Republicans, like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, love to commend citizens on their resilience and ingenuity in the face of hardship. For many small-government, pro-business conservatives, there is always a way to do things that does not involve the state. But clean drinking water—the definition of an essential good—is still something the government needs to provide.