Insult and Injury!
The current water crisis in Flint is adding insult and injury to the wounded city beaten down by 40+ years of economic decline. In a city with an African American majority population and where over half the children are living below the poverty line, polluted water supplies have resulted in mass exposures to toxic lead poisoning and possible deaths from Legionnaire’s disease. Once again the rallying cry, Black Lives Matter rings true.
A federal state of emergency has been declared but this is not your ordinary disaster precipitated by the wrath of Mother Nature. The principal cause rests unambiguously in the hands of Republican state governor, Rick Snyder and his staff. He wrested control of the local governments in Flint, Detroit, and other Michigan cities and appointed emergency financial managers accountable to him and not the voters.
Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley initiated this man-made disaster by switching the public water source to the polluted Flint River to save a few dollars, but state officials continued to mishandle the problem in every conceivable way including turning a deaf ear to the problem when it was discovered six months ago, outright lying to the public on the seriousness and magnitude of the crisis, and dragging their feet on a decision to take action.
Finally, after repeated local protests and under the spotlight of national attention, Snyder had no choice but to request help from the federal government. President Obama immediately ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide assistance and other federal aid is likely on its way.
Here’s what happened: Flint had been (and is now once again) receiving its water from Lake Huron through Detroit’s water utility system. A new pipeline for that clean water source has been under construction, but rather than wait a couple more years for its completion, state officials gave the green light to a temporary cost saving measure that introduced polluted and corrosive water from the Flint River. They never bothered to treat it to remove the high levels of chloride, a corrosive element which destroyed layers of protective coating on the pipes and caused lead in the aging pipes to dissolve (leach) into the water supply. The chloride levels are the result of run-off and storm sewer input from roadway de-icing salts. Even after switching back to the Lake Huron water, exposed lead in the pipelines continues to leach and pollute the water supply. It’s not safe for drinking or even bathing.
A secondary but perhaps arguably root cause of the current crisis however, dates back further and requires a big picture look at the history of Flint. The city located 66 miles northwest of Detroit , was the birthplace of Buick and later General Motors Corp. after the turn of the 20th century. It was a thriving industrial city with more than 80,000 GM factory jobs in Flint at its peak in 1978.
But fueled by GM’s abandonment of its loyal work force in favor of cheaper, non-union workers in Mexico, they closed plant after plant in the 80s and 90s so that the current GM workforce in Flint is around one tenth that amount. Flint’s population continued a steady decline from its high of about 200,000 residents in 1970 to just over half that in 2010. Unemployment soared to over 23% in 2013. After Obama’s controversial federal bailout of a bankrupt General Motors, the company made a miraculous recovery and is making record profits once again.
Obama’s intervention certainly stopped the bleeding and saved many U.S. jobs which was a critical move for our economy. And of course, owners of GM stock are sitting pretty. But the U.S. government loans did not require GM to reinvest taxpayer money on our own soil and the majority of working class people in Flint saw no relief. The city whose budget has been in the red seven of the past ten years, is to this day continuing to struggle for survival. The lack of jobs and corporate tax revenues leaves city coffers empty and leads to a vicious cycle of urban decay. It was in this environment that the short sighted, ignorant, immoral and criminal decision to save money by sacrificing the safety of the city’s water supply was flushed. So while corporate greed or racism are not directly responsible for poisoning the city’s water supply, they are culpable by about one degree of separation.