Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The Michigan city’s switch to local river water has resulted in a civic scandal, a public health emergency, and an alleged violation of constitutional rights.
So “egregious and so outrageous that it shocks the conscience”: That is how residents of Flint, Michigan have characterized the actions of city officials handling a water supplies tainted with dangerous levels of lead.
20 months after the city began sourcing its water from the highly corrosive Flint River, Mayor Mayor Karen Weaver (who won the November election against predecessor Dayne Walling, in a campaign dominated by the issue of water) has officially declared a state of emergency in hopes of attracting federal support.
“The City of Flint has experienced a Manmade disaster,” Weaver said in her official declaration.
At this point, it’s not even about the water itself. Avoiding Flint tap water was already “a way of life for the city’s residents,” writes the Washington Post. And after rising suspicions over the water’s taste and appearance, damning results from an independent, scientific survey, and little meaningful action on the part of city officials, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced in October that Flint would stop sourcing from the river and connect to Detroit’s water system, as it had done prior to April 2014.
No, the emergency in Flint is about the consequences of lead exposure, which can last a lifetime. Weaver said that the health effects on children will increase the “need for special education and mental health services and an increase in the the juvenile justice system.”
Flint Mayor declares state of emergency pic.twitter.com/8cpSduQ6Sq— Dave Bondy (@DaveBondyTV) December 15, 2015
Young children are particularly to the toxic effects of ingested lead, as they absorb four to five times as much as adults, according to the World Health Organization. In particular, WHO states:
[L]ead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.
In Flint, local doctors recently presented findings that the share of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has practically doubled since the city flipped the valves to Flint River water.
“I was hysterical,” Lee Anne Walters, a resident whose son was found to have had heightened lead levels in his blood after the switch, told the Free Press. “I cried when they gave me my first lead report.”
Whatever the declaration of emergency may bring, it may not suffice for many outraged residents. In a federal class-action lawsuit filed in November against Snyder, the state, the city and other public officials, Flint community members claim that these representatives “ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed the Plaintiffs and the Plaintiff Class to extreme toxicity.”
"They knew this. Through the Freedom of Information Act, we have all sorts of documents that show that they knew, and they lied to us," Lila Pemberton, whose family members are named as plaintiffs, told Fox News.
The lawsuit alleges that the actions of government officials violated the residents’ 14th Amendment rights to life, liberty and property.
It’s a shamefully familiar argument elsewhere in Michigan, where crumbling infrastructure and declining urban tax bases make water unduly expensive. Currently, more than 50 percent of Detroit’s 200,000 water customers are at least 60 days past due on their bills, which is part of the criteria for service shut-off, according to the Detroit News. The other part is owing the utility more than $150. Currently, 9,200 customers are eligible for shutoff. Thousands of residents already live without running water.
In 2014, Detroit’s “unprecedented scale” of water shut-offs attracted international attention and a visit by UN human rights experts, who declared, “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” Days before, a federal judge ruled against advocates’ request for a restraining order that would stop water shut-offs made on the basis of delinquent pay. Like the Flint residents, the Detroit plaintiffs had alleged that the city had violated residents’ 14th Amendment rights.
Certainly, the hazards of living without safe drinking water access are a matter of degree, not opinion. In Flint, the reverberations of lead exposure will continue long after the lawsuit is over, after the federal government intervenes (or doesn’t), after lead pipes are replaced (if they are), and after children leave home (or don’t). As the Post suggests, residents, and especially parents, are now at the start a lifetime of wondering: Would things have turned out differently, if it hadn’t been for the water?