The highest-profile public-works tragedy of the past decade has triggered a bigger breakdown in trust—and carries a lesson for post-Covid America. Derek Robertson is digital editor for Indianapolis Monthly. Earlier tests already hinted at good news, and this one confirmed it: In the vast majority of such homes, lead levels were 5 parts per billion or better—far below even the strictest regulations in the country. But a few weeks later, another, equally remarkable thing happened. People flocked to the pickup locations.
When the people of Flint, Michigan, complained that their tap water smelled bad and made children sick, it took officials 18 months to accept there was a problem. By Anna Clark. O n a hot day in the summer ofin the Civic Park neighbourhood where Pastor R Sherman McCathern preached in Flint, Michigan, water rushed out of a couple of fire hydrants.
Puddles formed on the dry grass and splashed the skin of the delighted kids who ran through it.
But the spray looked strange. The shock of it caught in his throat. Something had been wrong for months. That spring, Flint, under direction from state officials, turned off the drinking water it had relied upon for nearly 50 years.
The city planned to a new regional system, and while it waited for it to be built, it began bringing in its water from the Flint River. But after the switch, many of his neighbours grew alarmed at the water that flowed from their kitchen taps and showerhe. They packed public meetings, wrote questioning letters, and protested at city hall. They filled plastic bottles to show how the water looked brown, or orange, and sometimes had particulates floating in it.
Showering seemed to be connected with skin rashes and hair loss. The water smelled foul. A sip of it put the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue. Residents were advised to leave the taps on for a few minutes before using the water, to get a clean flow. As the months went by, the city plant tinkered with treatment and issued a few boil-water advisories. State environmental officials said again and again that there was nothing to worry about.
The water was fine. By making it a commonplace for clean water to be delivered to homes, businesses and schools, untold lives have been saved from cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. In Flint, the water supply was instrumental in turning General Motors — founded in in Vehicle City, as Flint was known — into a global economic giant.
The advancing underground network of pipes defined the growing city and its metropolitan region, which boasted of being home to one of the strongest middle classes in the country.
But in the latter part of the 20th century, GM closed most of its plants in the city and eliminated almost all of the local auto jobs. Smaller companies followed suit or simply shut down for good. Between and alone, nearly of them left the downtown area.
With the shuttered businesses came shuttered houses and schools. More than half the population, which had reached a high point of nearlyindisappeared. Some 22, people left between and The empty structures they left behind were both disheartening and dangerous, not only because they were prone to break-ins and fires, but also because they literally crumbled on to the sidewalks where people passed by.
At the same time, the Flint metro region — that is, the suburbs — grew exponentially. It was a widening circle of wealth with a deteriorating centre. With so much lost, Flint needed help. An emergency plan.
A large-scale intervention of some kind. At the same time, Flint suffered the Great Recession, the mortgage crisis and a major restructuring of the auto industry.
If you wanted to kill a city, that is the recipe. And yet Flint was very much alive. Inthe year of the switch to a new source of drinking water, it was the seventh-largest city in the state. For about 99, people, Flint was home. And they did what they could to fill the gaps. They covered the windows and doors of vacant properties, and paid young men to mow lawns and board up empty homes.
You could see the change. But on that sweltering summer day, there was that water pouring out of the fire hydrant, as children sprinted back and forth through its spray.
Dark as coffee. This is the story of how the city of Flint was poisoned by its own water. It was not because of a natural disaster, or simple negligence, or even because some corner-cutting company was blinded by profit. Instead, a disastrous choice to break a crucial environmental law, followed by 18 months of delay and cover-up by the city, state and federal governments, put a staggering of citizens in peril. The big public utility drew from the freshwater of Lake Huron, a lake so deep and fierce that it once swallowed eight ships in a single storm.
It remained on hand only because the state required a backup water source for emergencies. But while the quality of DWSD water was reliable, its cost was not. Residents had urged their leaders to relieve the burden of pricey water. But at this point it was difficult for the city to do much about it.
Its infrastructure was built to serve Flint when it had twice the people it had now; to maintain it, fewer ratepayers had to carry a heavier burden. The county drain commissioner, Jeff Wright, was fond of portraying the DWSD as a price-gouging monopoly, and he saw an opportunity to develop an alternative. This new water authority was just an idea at first, and seen as a negotiating tactic to pressure the DWSD for better rates. But then the not-yet-existent KWA got a permit from the Michigan department of environmental quality to pull 85m gallons of water per day out of the Great Lakes.
Flint and its neighbouring communities were invited to help build the new water system from the ground up. Unlike the Detroit system, which delivered treated water, the KWA would pump raw water to the communities it served. That meant they would have to treat the water first, before selling it on to residents and businesses. For Flint, it would mean rebooting the old treatment plant and navigating the complexities of water chemistry in-house.
But Wright, the eventual head of the KWA, lobbied fiercely for it, on the grounds of savings, independence and stability. InFlint contracted with the KWA to purchase 18m gallons of water for the city per day. Until it was ready, the other communities that were moving to the new system simply paid the DWSD for continuing water service.
Flint, however, made the unusual decision to enlist a different source of water during this transition period. The city turned to its emergency supply: the Flint River. The Flint River was not an obvious choice. It had borne so much mistreatment from industry and development —chemical dumping, sewage effluent — that locals had learned to avoid it. After a series of floods in the early 20th century, massive concrete barricades were built to channel the downtown section. They were meant to make the riverfront safer, but became a fortress line that barred people from the water.
While deindustrialisation and the rise of environmental regulations had vastly improved the water quality, the community still eyed it with suspicion. Generations of kids were taught to fish in the Flint River, casting lines off the grassy banks in their neighbourhoods, but invariably learned to toss the catfish and carp back into the current. They were told it was too dangerous to eat anything from the water. To treat the river water, the old plant needed a series of upgrades. But getting the facility up to speed was difficult, and while cost estimates varied widely, only a fraction of the early figures proposed by engineering consultants was spent on the project.
If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I love time to adequately train additional staff and to find our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda. But the switch was carried out anyway, marked by a toast as local leaders raised their water glasses at the plant.
Among the people celebrating was Darnell Earley, the latest in a string of emergency managers appointed by the state too Michigan from onwards to lead Flint out of financial distress. The idea of emergency management is that an outside official unconstrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be better able to make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city back on solid ground.
In Flint, that meant that the authority of the mayor, Dayne Walling, and the council had been suspended for more than two years. Their roles were now symbolic and advisory, or empowered and paid only to the extent that Earley allowed. This was echoed by an editorial in the local press that heralded it as a way for the city to reclaim its sovereignty, which had been undermined by disinvestment and emergency management.
Earlier, he had expressed worry about what would happen if Flint used its own flint for drinking water — bacterial problems, dangerous chemicals, additional regulatory requirements. And now Flint was using the river anyway. But at the plant, he seemed tranquil. She had survived cancer twice, forcing her into early retirement, and she lived on a limited income.
He said his doctor says the rash is from the new drinking water, and I told him to have his old document this and he can bring it to the attention of the MDEQ, since lab analyses to date show that the drinking water is meeting all health-based standards.
Asked to respond, the city said the water met all safety requirements and that it was continually monitoring for problems. But in fact there was a problem.
A serious one. But this was breaking federal law. In the years to come, the question of whether the authorities omitted this knowingly or through a terrible misunderstanding of the law would be a matter of intense dispute. Together, this was a dangerous combination. It extends the life of the pipes and, because it prevents metals from fouling the drinking water, it helps protect public health as well. In about half of all American water companies, including the Detroit system, orthophosphates are added to the water at the treatment plant.
These create a protective coating that helps keep metals from leaching into the water as it flows through the water mains and the service lines running to individual houses. The brown water that gushed from the Civic Park fire hydrants, dark as coffee: that was corroded iron.
Flint residents did not yet know all this. But they did know that the water stank.