Every few months, a popular publication runs a story reminding the 49 other states that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan is still far from resolved.
This week, a federal appeals court ruled that Flint residents exposed to lead-contaminated water can now sue the state of Michigan and Flint city officials for the “state-created danger.”
In 2014, emergency managers appointed by the state to tackle chronic financial distress in the city of Flint stopped using Detroit Water & Sewerage Department water, sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, opting instead to use the Flint River as their water source. However, officials did not properly apply corrosion inhibitors, causing lead from the city’s pipes to flake off and contaminate the water. Around 100,000 citizens, including 6,000–12,000 children, were thought to be exposed to the heavy metal neurotoxin capable of devastating effects on children such as learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. Children with high blood-lead levels are more likely as adults to commit crimes, be imprisoned, be unemployed or underemployed, or become dependent on government services. Exposure to lead in childhood may increase risk of late-onset neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, even after the body is free of lead.
In January 2015, city officials — already faced by the city’s General Motors Flint Truck Assembly plant publicly discontinuing use of Flint tap water due to its chlorine levels literally corroding engine parts — refused an offer to source water from Lake Huron as they had before, citing costs.
Later that month, residents attended a town meeting bearing bottles of their discolored tap water and reporting health problems in their children. Scientific studies confirmed these concerns, finding that the percentage of city kids with elevated blood-lead levels rose from 2.5 percent to 5 percent between 2013 and 2015. Both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in January 2016.
Earlier this year, in February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the city’s water had contributed to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease (Legionellosis) which killed 10 and sickened 77. The illness, caused by breathing in mists of water infected by a bacterium called Legionella, leads to high fever, chills, a cough, and sometimes muscle aches and headaches.
Flint residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for any and all purposes in mid-2014 and will likely be required to do so until at least 2020; the city returned to using a regional water system this year, and the water quality is, as of March 2017, reportedly adequate and safe to drink if properly filtered. However, the lead pipes that have contributed to the crisis will not be replaced for at least three more years. The state of Michigan will pay up to $97 million to replace the water lines reaching approximately 18,000 Flint homes by that time.
Some civil rights activists speculate that the crisis, and especially the slow response to it, is partly due to environmental racism (“poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments”), as the city is 56.6 percent Black. “We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement of civil rights for the people of Flint,” said Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the Commission during the time of the investigation.
“The presence of racial bias in the Flint water crisis isn’t much of a surprise to those of us who live here, but the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s affirmation that the emergency manager law disproportionately hurts communities of color is an important reminder of just how bad the policy is. Now is the time to address this flawed law… The people of Flint deserve the same level of safety, opportunity and justice that any other city in Michigan enjoys.”
— State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, in response to The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s 138-page report, The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.
Four government officials have resigned over the mishandling of the crisis, and there have been 13 criminal cases filed against local and state officials for it. This number can only be expected to rise due to the new ruling. Many have called for Gov. Snyder’s arrest as a result of his slow response and refusal to be completely transparent about the crisis and release all documents pertaining to it and its handling by officials.