On a hot summer day in the summer of 2014, Pastor Sherman McCathern beheld a shocking sight: Water the color of coffee was coming out of a couple of fire hydrants around the Civic Park neighborhood of Flint, Mich., spraying up into the air and all over the children, and not just initially, “but for hours,” he recalls. “Something was wrong here,” he surmised.
Something was wrong all right, not only with the water, but also with the political, economic, and social institutions of this shrinking Midwestern city.
In this meticulously annotated, brutally honest (she names names), and compassionately narrated account of a disgraceful American crisis, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy takes us from point A to point Z, showing and telling and explaining all that happened through the words of those who lived it.
Be advised that this is not easy reading for two reasons. For one, a crisis of this magnitude does not lend itself to enjoyable prose, nor do the facts and circumstances play out in any kind of neat or logical order, case in point: “How do you even measure the toxicity of lead without purposefully exposing human beings to its potential dangers?” But also, the breaking of “environmental law, followed by eighteen months of delay and cover-up by the city, state, and federal government put[ting] a staggering number of people [mostly children] in peril” makes you want to throw the book across the room and start making phone calls.
So what happened? In an effort to keep costs down and to prevent more residents from leaving (Flint had lost half its population in recent years and had among the highest water rates in the nation, even with 42 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line), the emergency manager (EM), Darnell Earley, appointed in 2011 to lead Flint out of its financial doldrums, thought it wise to disconnect from the “price-gouging monopoly” Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD), which had supplied Flint with its water for over 50 years, and go it alone – create its own water system. That system, once complete, would be called the Karengnondi Water Authority (KWA), and would connect Flint directly with Lake Huron water. Because Flint was under emergency management, Earley, as EM, could make decisions of this magnitude on his own without input or approval from the city board. But he went ahead and asked for their vote on it anyway, to give them a sense of ownership for the new project. With only one dissenting vote, they approved it.
However, there was a problem: “KWA hadn’t even begun yet. The new system wouldn’t be able to deliver water for at least a couple more years.” In the interim, they decided to draw their water from the Flint River, and to do that they would have to treat the water at the old Dort Highway plant, which needed lots of upgrades and improvements, an expensive proposition to say the least. In the end, only a fraction of the upgrades proposed by the engineering consultants were done. Michael Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, didn’t believe the plant was ready in April of 2014. He emailed three people at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) ... with a warning, “‘I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction.’”
Nonetheless, the water was released, and it was celebrated by “men in jewel-toned ties [who] grinned and held their clear plastic cups high, each filled with water poured from an insulated pot… ’Hear hear!’ They tilted their heads back, marking the moment when, for the first time in two generations, the people of Flint would drink water from their namesake river.”
In Ojibwa, the river is called biwanag sibi or flinty river. It was merely flinty when GM moved into town early in the 20th century. But in no time at all, that river swelled with contaminants. As a 1933 Time magazine article described: “The industry consumed so much iron, lead, steel, rubber, oil, plateglass, upholstery leather, tin, cotton, mohair, copper, glue, cork, turpentine, silicon, cadmium ... that the national economy blossomed with robust car production.” So by the time Flint residents got to using it for drinking water in 2014, the byproducts of the aforementioned list had made the water corrosive.
So corrosive, in fact, that by the summer of 2014, just three months after the switch over, GM workers noticed that there was rust forming on the engine
crankshafts and blocks that they were manufacturing. It was the water. GM instantly switched over to Lake Huron water, and the problem was solved ... for the engines. But not for the people. (The GM engineers concluded that the corrosion was due to the fact that they reused the same water four or five times in a row. The corrosive elements, management assured the folks at The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), were getting concentrated because of that process. So officials like Mike Prysby, the district engineer for MDEQ, “assured everyone that there was no need for worry.”)
In reality, the corrosion had gone to work releasing the lead from the old pipes into the drinking water. And not only lead, but trihalomethane (TTHM) – a chemical byproduct of chlorine disinfectant. And on top of the chemicals and heavy metals, Legionnaires disease was discovered. Biwanag sibi had become a witch’s brew of toxicity.
Meanwhile, LeeAnne Walters “couldn’t figure out where the rashes were coming from. Her whole family had them, but on different parts of their bodies.” The Flint residents were drinking the water even as the employees at GM were provided bottled water while on duty. Hearing this, Leanne Walters had her water tested by a scientist out of Chicago’s EPA District 5 office, Miguel Del Toral. Her water was deemed to be seven times higher than the 104 ppb levels set as acceptable by the national Lead and Copper Rule. Del Toral in turn connected her to Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor out of Virginia Tech and a MacArthur genius grant winner. “The alliance of these three would make a citizen scientist out of LeeAnne Walters and a detective out of Miguel Del Toral” in addition to bringing Del Toral some kind of redemption from a failed attempt to correct a similar crisis that occurred in Washington, D.C. 10 years before.
Just for the record, “brain swelling, fatigue, anemia, vomiting, abdominal pain, irritability, aggressive and antisocial behavior, slowed growth, hearing problems, learning disabilities, diminished IQ, reduced attention spans, kidney failure, seizures, coma, and, in extreme cases, death” have all been tied to lead accumulation. Residents of Flint were suffering from any and all of these, children especially.
Yes, there was a lot of blame to go around, including Charles Kettering, who helped develop leaded gasoline; Stephen Bush, a district supervisor for the MDEQ, who falsely claimed that the water was treated with corrosion control when it wasn’t; the bond attorneys for the KWA program who exerted excessive pressure to get the program moving; and the governor, Rick Snyder, who admitted his failures in the crisis. One example of Snyder's missteps was his false claim that many of the citizens of Flint who had their water independently checked “spliced and diced the data.” His state was ranked “dead last in the State Integrity Report Card from the Center for Public Integrity, with particularly low marks for public access to information.” (Snyder is still governor of Michigan.)
But for every bad guy, there was a good guy. These include folks previously mentioned: Pastor Sherman McCathern, LeAnne Walters, Miguel Del Toral, Marc Edwards, and Curt Guyette, the mission-driven reporter for the ACLU, who bull-doggedly followed the story, as well as all the demonstrators, and independent investigators who pursued the truth. In the end, it was the neighbors, rather than the agencies, who did the right thing.
"The Poisoned City" is a cautionary tale for every town and city across the land. Clark’s admonishments of “the toxic legacy of segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding” that disproportionately victimized low-income and minority groups and of the government officials who repeatedly said, “Trust us” should be taken quite seriously, as well as her assertion that “[a]gencies charged with protecting public health and natural resources deserve to be well-funded, pro-active, and oriented solely toward serving the public interest.”
(Oh, and by the way, Michelle Wolff’s mic-drop comment at the Correspondence Dinner this past April: “Flint still doesn’t have clean water!” was no joke….)
Richard Horan is an award-winning author of two novels: “Life in the Rainbow” and “Goose Music,” and two non-fiction books: “Seeds” and Harvest.” His latest work, “Notes from the Nuthouse,” a play in three acts, is in the running for the Relentless Award.