In Places Like Flint, Who Is to Blame?

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Pam Linn

Before news of lead poisoning from city water tarnished the name of a Michigan town, Flint had already lost half of its 200,000 population and had 80,000 abandoned houses.

To blame the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, for the decision to switch the city’s water from the Detroit River and Lake Huron to the Flint River is possibly to point a finger in the wrong direction. 

Michigan’s top environmental regulator has already resigned over failure to ensure that Flint River water was treated with phosphate to impede corrosion of the city’s lead service pipes. The time for that relatively cheap solution has passed, and now it may require replacement of all lead pipes.

Nobody seems to be sure, however, which areas of the city have lead service lines. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the state to create an inventory of Flint homes with lead service lines. The agency also said last week that it would take over lead sampling and directed the water treatment plant to increase phosphate levels to prevent further leaching. Many of the abandoned homes — now owned by a local bank — have been scheduled for demolition.

The decision to switch water sources was made to save money by a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who was running the city government. The impoverished city had been under state supervision since 2011, but was returned to local control in April of 2014. 

Residents started complaining about water quality almost as soon as the switch was made. It smelled bad, it was an ugly color, and it appeared to be causing people’s hair to fall out, skin rashes, headaches, nausea and other maladies. But the specter of lead poisoning, found in at least 2,000 children’s blood samples, added a whole new dimension to the problem. 

Lead poisoning is forever and even chelation therapy probably can’t solve the problems that will pursue affected children through adulthood; brain damage, ADHD, hypertension, anti-social behavior and other ramifications of lead exposure are believed to be irreversible.

Had this problem occurred in a more affluent community (think Malibu or even Los Angeles), chances are that the first residents to complain would have been taken more seriously instead of being assured the water was safe to drink even when it wasn’t. But the problem wasn’t spoken of or written about in the media or publicly addressed by Snyder until September of last year. The residents of Flint were stuck with that poisoned water for almost two years. To be fair, The New York Times and the Detroit Free Press reported on this story, but not until the ramifications became critical.

To understand the plight of this population, 41 percent falls below the poverty line; they can’t afford even temporary filtration or bottled water, they can’t afford to move to a safer city, and their homes are now virtually worthless.

If there were a hero in all this, it certainly would be the local pediatrician who tried to convince city officials early on, and was ignored and even silenced. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatric residency at Hurley Children’s Hospital, never gave up trying to bring the problem to the attention of public officials. She has now been tagged to lead the local response to the crisis of lead poisoning.

So far, phosphate has been added to the water to coat service pipes and prevent leaching lead into the water supply, according to city Mayor Karen Weaver. But experts claim that eventually all the lead pipes would need to be replaced, to the tune of $1.6 million, because the 1,600 miles of water and sewer mains — not just water service lines — have aged the equivalent of 10 years in just 18 months. 

Flint, located about one hour north of Detroit, was the birthplace of General Motors (GM); however, only 8,000 GM jobs remain there. How could this happen when the auto industry just finished one of its best years ever, at least since 2006 recovery efforts revitalized the Big Three? Is this just another manifestation of income inequality?

Whenever a crisis hits a vulnerable area, people ask why they were allowed to build houses in such a place. But these folks moved to Flint for auto-industry jobs and what appeared to be security. Most of those jobs are now gone and they’re suffering the loss of income and now their health. 

Snyder is only guilty of waiting too long. Perhaps he deserves another chance. But when will we all learn to pay closer attention to what happens to people?