Originally published in Shelterforce.
Like the water itself, the situation in Flint, Mich., should be crystal clear: elected and appointed officials, at the state and federal levels, have done harm, some even irreparable, to the brains and futures of thousands of kids.
A disastrous choice by Gov. Rick Snyder’s hand-picked city overseer to switch water sources brought lead, copper, fecal coliform bacteria, trihalomethanes (THMs) into the faucets of the homes of many already-struggling Flint families.
The health of the children and adults of Flint has been irremediably compromised and can never be calculated, while the bills for this short-sighted bureaucratic bungle will pile up and burden taxpayers for years to come. But the more staggering and unforgivable cost is the health of the children and adults of Flint. Residents report skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss and depression. Over the years, long term health concerns issues such as cancer and liver, kidney malfunctions from exposure to coliform bacteria and trihalomethanes will likely emerge. And the worst pollutant, lead–which has been the focus of local and federal lead paint remediation efforts for years–undeniably results in permanent brain damage. Flint’s lead poisoned girls will do more poorly in school and its lead poisoned boys will be more apt to enter the pipeline to prison.
And we cannot ignore the issue of race. Is anyone surprised that 56 percent of Flint’s population is African-American, and that 41 percent live under the poverty line? The obvious and heart-rending question from many is: Would officials have acted so callously and recklessly in Ann Arbor, Grosse Point, or another majority white suburb?
Unfortunately, officials have a history of ignoring the very people they have a hand in poisoning. Residents began organizing immediately after public officials decided to use the Flint River for drinking water. Several small groups were initially formed that later banded together as the Coalition for Clean Water. They have one clear goal: To return to Detroit water, at least until a new pipeline is installed. National groups like the Center for Health, Environment and Justice worked with these fledgling activists, providing coaching and scientific technical assistance. Very early on, Flint’s residents knew their water was a problem and proved it through their own technical experts, like Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards.
It will cost more than a billion dollars to solve the problem that Governor Snyder’s team created. In a move to reportedly save $12 million, they switched from the more expensive but wholesome Detroit-supplied drinking water to water from the Flint River, and in the end, this choice will cost more than $1 billion–with a B. All of Flint’s water pipes must be replaced because of damage from the corrosive water and mismanagement by public officials. In the name of efficiency, the state has directly hurt 99,000 people in Flint for years to come while federal officials passively sat back and responded slowly and ineptly.
As an aside–why is our country’s response to food poisoning so much quicker and more effective than the response to Flint water and the growing number of toxic waste dumps? You could argue that far fewer people are affected: Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak has affected about 500 people total nationwide. Meanwhile, more than 11,000 people live near a burning radioactive landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. About 400 properties in Birmingham, Ala., have toxic soil that prevents kids from playing outside. When a major corporation’s (Chipotle) livelihood is on the line, a situation that affected significantly fewer people was dealt with swiftly and effectively. In the meantime, families across the country affected by unhealthy water, dirty air and toxic waste dumps are waiting years, even decades, for solutions to dangers in their neighborhoods. Every health threat deserves a swift, equitable response to keep people safe; it’s our responsibility to hold corporations and the government accountable for more than just our fast food.
We need to reorder our priorities. Keeping all children, no matter their wealth, race, or zip code, safe from polluted water, air, and soil must be the first order of the day. Whether the health threat is chronic and permanent or acute and temporary, our goal needs to be ensuring that the next generation is protected from environmental threats.
Meanwhile, let’s send in the Army Corps of Engineers as soon as possible to install new water pipes in Flint, MI to make their water crystal clear and the Department of Justice into Lansing, the state’s capitol, to make the governor answer for this crime.