Flint water crisis

Clean Water is a Human Right

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 12

The Flint water crisis is a story of environmental injustice and political incompetence that led to death, disease and destruction in the United States city of Flint, Michigan.

The outcomes of this crisis are yet to be finalised, but there is a clear timeline of events that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded was a ‘result of systemic racism.’

So what exactly happened? Here we will explore a brief timeline of events early in the crisis.

Between June 2012 and April 2013, Flint city officials started their search for a cheaper water supplier. The incumbent provider, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) would be replaced by the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), with Flint manufacturing their own pipelines.

In April 2013, the DWSD was informed of this decision which would come into effect a year later. Fast-forward to April 2014, and Flint’s own pipelines were yet to be operational. An interim measure is proposed - the Flint River.

Despite concerns from residents about the safety of water from the Flint River, city officials pressed ahead, and water started flowing into the city on 25 April 2015. An accompanying press release states:

“The quality of the water being put out meets all of our drinking water standards, and Flint water is safe to drink.”

Despite claims from city officials that “there have been numerous studies and tests conducted on its water by several different independent organisations”, the water coming from the Flint River into residential homes was not treated.

Water treatment is essentially the process of removing contaminants to ensure that the quality of the water is appropriate for use.

Not even a week later, Flint residents started to complain about the smell and colour of the new water.

In August 2014, the detection of E.coli bacteria prompted city officials to advise residents to boil their water. Additional measures by the city included the increase of chlorine levels in the water. Chlorine is added to water to kill bacteria and other microorganisms.

In October 2014, the company General Motors stopped using water from the Flint River due to concerns over corrosion of their machines, explaining:

“We noticed it some time ago, and the discussions have been going on for some time.”

In January 2015, Flint was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act due to the high levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), which are essentially byproducts of the disinfectant actions of chlorine. These TTHMs are formed when chlorine interacts with organic matter and are thought to be potentially carcinogenic. In response, government offices started providing bottled water for use by employees.

In February 2015, tests on the city’s water revealed hazardously high levels of lead in residential homes. Later an independent test done by researchers at American research university, Virginia Tech, found lead levels of 13,200 part per billion (ppb) - water is considered hazardous waste at 5,000 ppb.

Despite this, in July 2015, city officials retorted:

“Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”

In September 2015, another study found elevated blood lead levels in 4% of children aged 5 and under. Flint city officials responded that any increase in blood lead levels could be attributed to ‘predictable seasonal spikes.’

In October 2015, Flint officials switched back to their previous Detroit water suppliers and, in a statement, explained:

“It is clear that residents of Flint have more confidence in this water source.”

In December 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency over continuing elevated lead levels in the city’s water.

The following month, the governor of Michigan and President Barack Obama both declared states of emergency.