By Lucas Bell & Gigi Saadeldin
When the average American opens their tap, the water which comes out can be described as clean, refreshing, or clear; ever since April of 2014, the water in Flint has been anything but.
The first thing citizens of Flint noticed was the color, ranging from blues to brown. The second thing they noticed was the pungent odor.
In the mid 1980s, Flint fell into a deep economic depression after the closing of a General Motors plant, still affecting the city’s population today. In an attempt for the city to save money, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder changed Flint’s water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage (sourced from Lake Huron as well as the Detroit River) to the Flint River in order to save money. The corrosive river water caused lead from aging pipes to seep into the water supply – inducing extremely elevated levels of lead.
Since this change, between 6,000 and 12,000 children in Flint have reportedly having been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead, and could potentially cause a range of serious life-long health problems and even death.
“We’re America,” Dexter High School history teacher Ryan Baase said. “We’re a civilized society. We’re the most industrialized. We cannot tolerate to treat our own citizens like this.”
Experts believe the water change could be a cause for the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, a type of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria, which has killed 10 residents and affected 77 more.
“Flint is a city that needs a lot of help, and to do this to those people is unconscionable,” said DHS English teacher Mary Mattner, who used to live in Flint. “It’s a national crisis what’s happening in Flint. I think there should be a very thorough congressional investigation into Governor Snyder and the people at the state level who betrayed Flint so badly.”
Flint residents are still being billed for their contaminated, unusable water. If pay is refused, the city of Flint can shut off their water completely, tax higher amounts, and even condemn their homes.
On January 5, 2016, Snyder declared the city to be in a state of emergency. Less than two weeks later, on January 16, 2016, President Barack Obama followed suit, declaring a state of emergency in Flint. With these declarations, the federal government directed $5 million to the city to provide aid.
The disaster that sparked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to act was not one from nature. This devastating catastrophe was allowed to happen by Governor Snyder’s administration in its attempts to cut costs for the state.
“My godfather lives in Flint, so it’s affected him,” DHS senior Alex Sikora said. “It’s affected the way they live; they can’t bathe in the water because it’s so unclean, and it’s affected how much they rely on bottled water.”
The water crisis in Flint, and the governmental failures that allowed for the poisoning of the second poorest city of its size in the entire United States, are arguably matched only by President George W. Bush’s failure to act quicker following Hurricane Katrina.
Governor Snyder and his administration campaigned in 2010 on the principle that Snyder’s background as a Certified Public Accountant would allow the government to run like a business. The fundamental purpose of a business is to make the most money possible. In order to make this a reality, businesses find ways to trim down their expenses. Sacrificing quality for extra profit is an extremely common practice. Government is not a business, however.
The purpose of government is to provide a stable base that, at the very least, can guarantee three things: access to clean air, food for people to eat, and clean, safe drinking water. Without any of these three essential pillars of life, society begins to break down, and can no longer function at a high level.
The Emergency Manager in control of advising Flint suggested the city switch its water source from Lake Huron, one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, to the Flint River. The Governor’s administration, and its business-minded attitude saw an opportunity to save an additional $9,000, so they took it. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem for the government, especially one in as dire of an economic state as those in the Metro Detroit area were at the time, to try and save money.
The Snyder Administration agreed that the city should switch its water source to the river, however; this is where they made the mistake that will go down as one of the most blatantly dangerous governing decisions in U.S. history. The water Flint had been receiving from Lake Huron was pretreated to ensure no leaching of lead from the pipes that the city had been using. Lead, especially in water, is one of the most commonly recognized neurotoxins and has been the demise of many civilizations in the past.
When the water was to be switched, water treatments costing $100 a day for 90 days would be required to ensure that the water from the Flint River wouldn’t leach lead from the pipes. Well, the businessmen turned bureaucrats in Lansing decided to roll the dice on potentially poisoning a city of 99,000 people, and any other person who drinks, bathes, or eats food prepared with that water. As you know by now, that is exactly what happened.
“It seems like the Snyder administration has a lot of culpability in the crisis because it seems like decisions were made by either them or their appointed emergency managers that were solely financial,” Baase said. “It basically cost people their lives and their health to save some money.”
The outrage that has been sparked extends far past the Metro area. The entire state, and now the country, are calling for answers. How could this happen? Would this have happened in Grosse Pointe, Ann Arbor, or any other city not composed of predominantly poor African Americans? What do we do now? How can we help? Who is responsible? What is gonna happen to the people of Flint, all of whom have ingested the poisoned water?
No one knows. The Governor and his administration have seemingly pleaded the fifth when questioned, and have done little other than go on camera and say “Oops. We’re sorry.” The communities around the city have flooded the town with cases of water and monetary donations. Celebrities from around the country have donated incredible amounts too.
Eddie Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam donated $300,000, and inspired friends and fans to donate massive sums as well. Ticketmaster, who is feuding with the band over tick- et prices, pledged $175,000 alongside the group. Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ziggy Ansah and his teammates donated 100,000 bottles of clean water to the city. Ansah, who hails from the west African country of Ghana, told the Detroit Free Press.
“Coming from Africa, I know exactly what it means not to have clean water or not to have water at all.”
While the water and money being donated is no doubt helping to save lives, it isn’t a permanent solution. Everyone is spending money on water bottles, but the problem goes beyond drinking. Showering still remains difficult. Worse yet, the citizens of Flint are still paying their water bills, despite their inability to use the poisoned liquid. Flint only has three landfills, and their only recycling program is voluntarily staffed, and is nowhere near capable of dealing with the volume of bottles they now have.
The environmental impact of the crisis is continuing to be realized. There are companies sanctioned by the military that they have technology capable of helping. With the implementation of a rapid deployment filtration system, similar to those used in war zones, it is believed that the water in Flint could be turned back on while the work started. The replacement cost of the equipment alone is expected to cost the state north of $1.5 billion.
Concerns have risen all over the country about the safety of drinking water.
“I’m just as concerned with the fact we have water and environmental quality issues in Ann Arbor,” Baase said. “There’s a dioxin plume that’s currently making its way towards the Huron River, which is a drinking water source for all the communities that are downstream from us. That’s a huge deal.”
In Ann Arbor, residents began to question the safety of the pipes in the old city. While Ann Arbor has no records of the city owning any lead pipes connected to the water main, individual homeowners may still have galvanized iron pipes in houses built before the 1950s.
As time goes on, the zinc layer on the iron begins to corrode, allowing for a potential buildup of lead in the pipe itself. The city does, however, recognize there are 118 remaining lead connectors in the water system. The city has been removing these “gooseneck” pipes over the years as they repave streets and sidewalks.
“Fortunately, the city of Ann Arbor has an incredible track record when it comes to public necessities like providing clean water,” Ann Arbor resident Takashi Gould said.
Although the damage done to the residents of Flint cannot be undone, measures can be taken to make sure the likelihood of this happening again decreases.
“When you seem to have an abundance [of water] it’s really easy to go, ‘oh, everything’s fine. We’re Michigan. We’re surrounded by the Great Lakes. Water is not an issue here,’” Baase said. “But it is a big issue here. The big wakeup call will be when more cities, municipalities, local governments understand ‘we don’t want this to happen here.’”