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The Real Cost of a Water Crisis

A conversation with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Michigan. (AP/Cliff Rogers)

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has now reached the attention of President Obama, who’s declared it a federal emergency and will provide up to $5 million for water, filters, and other supplies. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has offered an additional $28 million from the state. But as Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., this week, that’s “not enough.” As CityLab’s Laura Bliss has reported, it may ultimately be necessary to replace all of Flint’s corrupted water pipes, a process that could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

Weaver took office late last year, well after it became clear that the decision to stop buying water from Detroit and instead draw it from the Flint River was a huge mistake. The situation Weaver inherited has already cost Flint residents countless health problems and possibly as many as ten lost lives. Neither EPA, nor the state, nor the previous mayoral administration can claim clean hands in this travesty.

Which is why Weaver is now telling both state and federal government officials that they need to pay up.

“There’s money there and Flint needs to be made a priority about how these funds are distributed,” said Weaver at the mayor’s conference. “This is bigger than the city can handle financially ... so we know we need some federal assistance. What [Gov. Snyder] talked about is a very good start, but we deserve more support, we deserve more resources, and more finances as a result of this.”

Weaver is essentially calling for reparations, but what dollar amount can be placed on this level of damage, and what needs to be done in the meantime for Flint residents living with the problem? CityLab caught up with Weaver at the conference to learn more about her plan:

Are there any rules or is there any guidance in place at the state or local level that forces officials to examine the racial or economic implications of policy decisions before making them?

It’s one of the things we’re looking at and we need to have that in consideration. I do believe that what is going to happen as a result of this is we’re going to have more economic development going on. And one of the things I want to make sure of is that the people who get contracts and are employed represent the city of Flint. So we want to make sure we have locals represented. We want to make sure we have African Americans represented. We want it to look like the fabric of our community.  

In the federal environmental justice policy framework, agencies can’t make decisions around things like changing water supply without first considering the impacts it would have on populations made vulnerable due to past discriminatory policy decisions. Is there anything like that in place in Michigan?

Well, that that certainly didn’t happen in Flint. And that’s one of things we’re looking at because we’re a predominantly African-American community, and it’s also a class issue. We have a high unemployment level. The due diligence wasn’t done before this happened. It’s just that simple.

Will the people of Flint be compensated for their water bills?

That’s what we’re working on. That’s my next plan of action. That’s how this whole water situation started. We were looking at the costs, because we were paying such astronomical costs for water. And then we started finding out that we can’t use it because there’s a problem with the water, it’s contaminated, even prior to the lead.  

Have you brought this up with President Obama and the governor?

Oh yeah, that’s no secret.

What have the responses been about people getting their money back?

That’s in agreement. Everybody agrees that that’s what needs to happen.  

On the decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River, what were the other alternatives in terms of where to draw water from?

I think that was the only alternative. And really we should have stayed with Detroit’s water because it would not have cost that much. When you look at what happened as a result, this has cost us much more, as far as money and physical harm to people.

There are any number of studies that suggest correlations between high levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams and heightened violence when they grow older. Are you concerned about that for Flint?

Well, yes I’m concerned about that. That’s why when I was campaigning I said I was taking off my candidate’s hat and also speaking as a licensed clinical psychologist. This is a public health issue. So of course we’re concerned about that. It’s going to impact mental health, special education, foster care and adoption, juvenile justice and the list goes on and on.  

Are there reparations due for all of that as well?

Well yeah, that’s the whole plan that we’re putting in place. We’re asking for money for those kinds of things. That’s exactly what we’re doing for all of those kinds of services and support for these children and families. That $28 million that the governor gave is not enough. It’s nowhere near enough.

The population has already been shrinking in Flint. Are you anticipating more population loss?   

Well, for people that can leave, some of them will leave, and we’re trying to put things in place—we don’t want people to leave, we want them to stay, and we want to bring more people here, which is why we have to have this situation taken care of. We have to have clean, quality, affordable water.  

Have you spoken with the previous mayor about any of this?

No, because the former mayor told us the water was good, he drinks it every day, so there’s nothing I need to discuss with him about this. He was part of the problem. He said, “The water was fine, my family and I drink it every day,” so no, I don’t need to discuss this with him. I campaigned against him on all of these issues.

Does he live in a certain part of Flint where his water might be cleaner?

He lives in the same neighborhood that I live in, and when they tested my water it tested high for lead.

Have you or anyone in your family been affected health-wise?

I didn’t drink the water. When they said they were making the decision to switch to the Flint River, I made the decision then that I wasn’t going to drink it.  

Can you talk about the specific legacy problems of the Flint River?

We’re an industrial town, and rivers in the north are much more difficult to treat than rivers down south to make sure it’s clean water. Our water is more corrosive, so it’s difficult to treat.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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