By Erica Flock
“Don’t worry,” my friend proactively reassured me as he handed me a glass of water. “Our filter gets everything.”
I was visiting with friends over the holidays in Flint, Michigan where the new mayor had just declared a state of emergency due to high levels of lead in the city’s water supply. The announcement thrust the struggling Rust Belt city into the international spotlight.
While the rest of the world was just learning about the city’s water crisis, the people of Flint had been living with the problem for well over a year. When my friends moved into their home in 2014, they immediately installed an expensive filter for drinking water. Somehow they knew they couldn’t trust the water.
And they were right. Despite the state’s repeated assurances that the water was safe to drink, Flint residents suspected otherwise. Only after independent researchers discovered corroded city pipes and unusually high lead levels in children’s blood; only after advocates and the press began raising their voices, did state officials finally admit that the water was indeed poisoned.
As the second-poorest city in the nation, many Flint residents cannot afford the expensive filter my friends had installed. Significant portions of Flint’s population, many of them children, were exposed to lead, a metal that can cause permanent brain damage and other health problems when ingested.
How could this happen in a state surrounded by the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth? And how could it happen in a country with safe drinking water laws?
When the fateful decision to switch water from Lake Huron to the Flint River was made in 2013, the city government was under the authority of the state’s contentious “Emergency Manager” system. This system allowed state leaders to usurp local authority in cities that were struggling financially.
Switching from lake to river water was expected to save the city $50 million, but no one considered what the engineering or health impacts might be, not even the state and federal agencies that were supposed to monitor those things.
As the truth came out and implicated parties began pointing fingers at one another, EarthShare member Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stepped in to advocate on behalf of Flint residents. In January they joined the ACLU to sue the city and state governments for failing to protect residents under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“Changes in leadership and public health proclamations are not enough,” said Anjali Waikar, staff attorney for NRDC's Environmental Justice Program. “Flint residents need answers, accountability, and changes in the way that our nation's safe drinking water laws are implemented in Michigan.”
While Flint stopped drawing from the Flint River in late 2015, the damage is already done: you can’t erase over a year of exposure or corroded infrastructure.
As it turns out, Flint isn’t the only city threatened by lead and other toxins. NRDC’s report What’s on Tap? warned about threats to Americans’ drinking water back in 2003. The report came on the heels of Washington DC’s own lead crisis starting in 2001, affecting hundreds of thousands of residents and leading to a spike in stillbirths.
Marc Edwards, the researcher who discovered lead corrosion in both Washington, DC and Flint, says that this is unlikely to be the last time a city is affected. Crumbling infrastructure and poor oversight by local, state, and federal officials create a toxic environment. Cities around the country use lead pipes to transport drinking water and chemical additives are the only things keeping them from leaching.
The banner hanging from a church near downtown Flint proclaims, “Water is a Human Right.” It’s not only a despairing appeal for this beleaguered city, but for all of us. Our basic rights to clean air and water are under threat even in a prosperous country like the US, and require constant vigilance.
Learn more about Flint’s water crisis:
Unleaded Please, NRDC
Michiganders Call on Feds for Help in Flint Water Crisis, Food & Water Watch
Key Considerations In Flint Water Situation, Clean Water Action
Flint Water Response Team, State of Michigan