Everything but Accountability Has Been in Flint’s Water.

I vividly remember being active on social media in 2016–2017 and constantly seeing, almost as if it was a tagline: “And Flint still doesn’t have clean water” after someone brought up a pressing public health, political, or even social issue that presented itself in the United States. To me, it was as if to say, “Yes, we understand their is a tense political climate with the presidential elections or (insert issue here) but why are we ignoring this long running issue in Flint that is robbing people of the basic necessity that is clean water?” I definitely had not concept of the depth of the situation as I sat nearly 1000 miles away from Flint in a small town in Kansas. I knew there was an issue but I had no clue that the issue was more of a political issue than just a natural occurring contamination of drinking water.

Before delving into the Flint Water Crisis, it is important to understand the city of Flint on a holistic level. The population has been at a steady decline over the past 50 years. Down to around only 99,000 people in 2014 compared to 200,000 in 1960. The racial makeup of the city is predominantly black (57%) and about 42% of the total population live below the property line which puts Flint at the highest poverty rate in the United States for a city over 65,000 people. In previous decades, Flint relied on the boom of the auto industry, and in particular General Motor for a majority of the employment in the area. But, as time changed layoff and factory shut-down started to cripple the economy. This loss of jobs in the area caused an exodus of families that were able to relocate due to their personal circumstance. This left behind a population that was under-represented and most vulnerable to economic changes. Flint was in a dire situation and tens of millions of dollars in depth. Because of this in 2011, governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager who set out to solve the problems of Flint by creating policies and making budgetary cuts. The emergency manager is an unelected person that was making decisions for a community without their representation. This goes against the core basis of the United States, but this came to fruition in Flint less than a decade ago. This overall decline and poor decision making by government officials brings the community of Flint to the point just before the water crisis started.

With the decline of the city at its peak, the city’s Emergency Manager made a decision that would prove to be horrendous for the community. In an effort to cut cost, the water supply for the city was changed from the tried and true Lake Huron to the Flint River. This decision was made quickly and little forethought was put into this effort to ensure the process was safe. The Flint River had been polluted over decades from factories in the area and little to no testing was done on how this could impact the community.

Over the next several months, people in the community saw horrifying changes to their water. The water smelled. The water tasted bad. The water LOOKED bad. People began developing rashes and experiencing hair loss. When lead is in the water, the most vulnerable to the negative impacts are small children and even more so, formula fed infants that rely on mixing powered formula with water to create. The children of Flint started to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. An offer was made to the city of Flint to reconnect them to the water supply of Lake Huron. But claiming that there was no issues with the Flint River water, and fearing for higher water costs, this offer was declined. Community concern began to rise. The public looked toward local leadership for directive and were told that everything was fine. The water was safe. You never want to believe that government at any level could fail their people so poorly that they have to suffer for years with unsafe water, but that is exactly how events unfolded.

Flint resident Gayle Williamson-Bunnell holds a jug of water from her home in Flint from Aug. 2014

Over a year after the initial change in the water supply for Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha became involved in what would become one of the largest modern environmental injustices in the United States. A true public servant, Dr. Hanna-Ashitta served the community of Flint as a pediatrician. Along with many of her close colleagues and friends, she started working towards uncovering the truth about how the water in Flint was impacting the community and the very vulnerable population of children that she saw in her office on a daily basis. Her involvement started after she was read through a memo that was leaked from Miguel Del Toral who worked for the EPA. In this memo, the issue of lead in the water in Flint was made painstakingly clear through testing and first-hand accounts of what the community had been experiencing. It was at this time that it became evident that the city was not using corrosion control chemicals in the water that was coming from the Flint River. The lack of corrosion control coupled with the pollution of the Flint River had resulted in the leaching of lead in the pipes of the city’s water system. In the worst possible response, Governor Snyder issued a statement that the Flint water system was “producing water that met all the state and federal standards” in an effort to comfort the community. Del Toral was also reprimanded for his efforts to help the community uncover this issue. No one wanted to take accountability for the problems that the city was facing. Lead was a scary subject. Many people knew of the dangers of lead, but that was mostly from paint in old houses. It was not common to think of lead sneaking into your home through the water.

Once the alarm bells started to ring for people like Dr. Hanna-Attisha there was little anyone could do to stop them. Dr. Hanna-Attisha form alliances with others in analytics and different fields to gather data on this issue, as any researcher would do. After enough data was complied, it was quite obvious that the truth couldn’t be avoided. There was lead in the community and it was translating into the blood of the community. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was ignored by several professional in the public heath sector of Flint. The overwhelming feeling seemed to be “not my job, not problem” from people in the health department. No one wanted to get involved. Official statements continued to pour from leadership offices stating that the water was safe in Flint. This was not true and it had not been true since the water supply was changed.

Over several years, thanks to the efforts of research and advocacy teams that took it upon themselves to define the problem of the lead in the water, measure the extent of the issue and damage, analyze the causes and make recommendations for improvement and control measures there have been actions taken to address the issue of lead in the water in Flint. Accountability for failing a community for years has been slow, but not quite as slow as correcting the issue of the water itself. Governor Snyder asked for disaster declaration from the Obama administration to help with the water crisis, admitting that there was a concern with the water. Further, several state and local leaders have been held accountable for their part in covering up the tragic truth behind the lead in the Flint water. Residents have been given settlements to help heal from the pain caused by years of lead exposure and grief. All of the pain, suffering, and costs in many forms could have been avoided if someone in the community leadership would have been willing to stand up for what is right and take accountability for the water.

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