Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As the National Guard descends on the city, the evidence suggests officials waited to act after they’d learned of Flint’s serious water quality problems.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder activated the National Guard Tuesday night in the city of Flint, where a tainted water supply has escalated into a lead poisoning emergency not seen in a decade. Aided by state police, the guard will go door-to-door handing out bottled water, water filters, and testing kits to residents.
“As we work to ensure that all Flint residents have access to clean and safe drinking water, we are providing them with the direct assistance they need in order to stretch our resources further,” Snyder said in a statement released late Tuesday.
In addition to the National Guard activation, as well as the state of emergency declaration made earlier this month, Governor Snyder has requested FEMA support in developing an emergency response plan.
But for many residents, the government response comes too late. Test results from an independent team of Virginia Tech researchers show sharp spikes of lead in children’s blood dating back to summer 2014. That was shortly after the city’s state-appointed emergency manager switched the water supply to the corrosive Flint River, a cost-saving move that’s turned into full-blown tragedy.
What’s worse, Michigan state officials were aware of the budding crisis even as they insisted that the water was safe to drink, according to Marc Edwards, the lead Virginia Tech researcher. One example: A July 2015 internal report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, obtained by Edwards through a FOIA request, alerted officials that lead poisoning rates "were higher than usual for children under age 16 living in the City of Flint during the months of July, August, and September, 2014."
But it wasn’t until October 2015 that the county issued an emergency advisory, and the state helped Flint connect its water supply back to the city of Detroit, its original source.
Other documents suggest that employees of Michigan’s Environmental Quality Department and federal EPA officials also failed to act after they were aware of the lead levels—and that MEQD representatives actively denied that they had received memos about the contaminated water.
“Flint has suffered a very serious water lead contamination event that was completely preventable—representing a tragic failure of state and federal government,” Edwards tells CityLab by email.
Residents have filed a class-action lawsuit naming Governor Snyder, the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, and other officials. Others are calling for Snyder’s resignation. The U.S. Attorney’s office has launched an investigation into the water’s contamination, and the U.S. Department of Justice is probing the handling of the crisis.
But the trauma will linger most with the children of Flint. Young, developing brains are especially vulnerable to the health effects of lead poisoning, which include increased blood pressure, severe neurological damage, and decreased IQ. In December, local pediatricians found that the share of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since the city switched to Flint River water.
Some kids are taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this week, a Girl Scout troop from a neighboring town gathered to learn about the safety of their own water and to write letters to the governor.
“I am so mad what happn in Flint,” one Brownie wrote (spelling her own). “They don’t have clean water to drink for almost two years. I hope you fix this problem.”
What officials at all levels of government should have done was prevent the problem, and it seems that they could have. Why didn’t they? For now, that remains a question with an infuriating lack of an answer.