How Did The Flint Water Crisis Begin – When residents of Flint, Michigan, complained that their tap water smelled bad and was making children sick, it took officials 18 months to accept that there was a problem. By Anna Clark
On a hot day in the summer of 2014, in the Civic Park neighborhood where Pastor R Sherman McCathern was preaching in Flint, Michigan, water came out of several fire hydrants. Puddles of water formed on the dry grass and splashed the skin of the children who happily ran through them. But the spray looked strange. “The water came out as dark as coffee for hours,” McCathern recalls. Shock caught in his throat. “Something is wrong here.”
How Did The Flint Water Crisis Begin
Something has been wrong for months. That spring, Flint, at the behest of state officials, turned off the drinking water it had relied on for nearly 50 years. The city planned to join the new regional system, and while it was being built, it began bringing in its water from the Flint River. McCathern paid little attention to the politics surrounding all this; he was worried enough about his busy parish.
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But after the change, many of his neighbors were shocked by water running from their kitchen and bathroom faucets. They organized public meetings, wrote letters of questioning and protested in city halls. They fill plastic bottles to show how the water looks brown or orange and sometimes has particles floating in it. Bathing seems to be associated with skin rashes and hair loss. The water stinks. One sip of it puts the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue.
But authorities “said everything was fine and it was safe to drink, so people did it,” McCathern said later. Residents are advised to leave their taps open for a few minutes before using water to get a clean flow. As the months passed, the city plant changed its treatment and issued several boil water warnings. State environmental officials have stated many times that there is nothing to worry about. The water is good.
Whatever their senses tell them, whatever the whispers around town, whatever Flint’s troubled history with powerful institutions telling them what’s best for them, this really isn’t hard to believe for people like McCathern. The public water system is one of America’s most heroic achievements, one so successful it is almost invisible. By making clean water commonplace for delivery to homes, businesses, and schools, countless lives were saved from cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever. In Flint, water supplies helped turn General Motors — founded in 1908 in Vehicle City, as Flint is known — into a global economic giant. A thriving network of underground pipelines defines the growing city and its metropolitan region, which has one of the most powerful middle classes in the country.
But in the latter part of the 20th century, GM closed most of its factories in the city and eliminated almost all local jobs. Smaller companies followed suit or simply closed for good. Between 1998 and 2013 alone, nearly 150 of them left the city center. With businesses closed, homes and schools closed. More than half of the population, which peaked at nearly 200,000 in 1960, has disappeared. About 22,000 people left between 2000 and 2010.
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The empty structures they leave behind are frightening and dangerous, not only because they are vulnerable to burglary and fire, but because they literally collapse onto the sidewalks where people walk. The historic tree-lined streets of Civic Park have been plagued by empty lots. At the same time, the Flint metro region—that is, the suburbs—has grown rapidly. It is a spiral of increasing wealth with a declining center.
With so much to lose, Flint needs help. Emergency plan. A type of large-scale intervention. But in fact, the state of Michigan is making Flint’s problems worse by dramatically reducing the money directed to its cities. Between 1998 and 2016, Michigan diverted more than $5.5 billion in tax revenue — which would normally go to places like Flint to light street lights, mow parks and plow snow — and used it to plug holes in your own budget. At the same time, Flint experienced the Great Recession, the subprime crisis, and a major restructuring of the auto industry.
If you want to kill the city, here’s the recipe. Yet Flint is still alive. In 2014, the year it switched to a new source of drinking water, it was the seventh largest city in the state. For about 99,000 people, Flint is home. And they do everything they can to fill that void. When Pastor McCathern and his congregation at Joy Tabernacle realized that Civic Park was not on anyone’s priority list, they launched their own initiative to fix the neighborhood. They board up the windows and doors of vacant properties and pay young men to mow the lawns and spray the vacant houses.
“The community at one point was ignored by everyone,” McCathern said. “But because young people stood up, now everyone has stepped up.” You may feel a change in momentum. You can see the change. “There’s more Flint coming.”
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But on that hot summer day, there was water pouring out of the fire hydrant as the child ran 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’s not because of a natural disaster, or simple negligence, or because of a company blinded by profit. Instead, the poor choice to violate an important environmental law, followed by an 18-month delay and shutdown by city, state and federal governments, put large numbers of citizens at risk.
In a city with so many pressing issues vying for attention—poverty, vacancies, schools, crime, jobs—one thing Flint won’t have to worry about before spring 2014 is its water quality. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been providing Flint with good water for nearly 50 years. The great public utility comes from the fresh water of Lake Huron, a lake so deep and violent that it once swallowed eight ships in one storm. Flint’s own treatment plant, which was used to treat its river water before joining the DWSD in the 1960s, remains inactive. It remains on hand only because the state needs a backup water source for emergencies.
But while DWSD’s water quality is reliable, its cost is not. Residents urged their leaders to ease the burden of expensive water. Flint’s monthly rates are among the most expensive in the country, yet 42 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. And the fares keep going up – a 25% increase here, a 45% increase there. Many residents cannot afford to pay their bills. But right now it’s hard for the city to do much about it. Its infrastructure was built to serve Flint when it was twice as large as it is now; to maintain it, fewer taxpayers have to shoulder a heavier burden.
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County Sewer Commissioner Jeff Wright likes to describe DWSD as a price-gouging monopoly and sees an opportunity to develop alternatives. He called it the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), using the name for Lake Huron used on many 17th-century maps. This new water authority was only an idea at first and was seen as a negotiating tactic to pressure DWSD for better rates. But then the KWA, which did not yet exist, received a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw 85 million gallons of water a day from the Great Lakes. Flint and surrounding communities have been invited to help build a new water system from the ground up.
Unlike Detroit’s system, which delivers treated water, KWA pumps raw water to the communities it serves. This means they have to treat the water first before selling it to residents and businesses. For Flint, that means restarting an old treatment plant and navigating the ins and outs of water chemistry internally. It is quite unusual today for a public water system to be built from scratch. This is especially true if the water source is depleted or toxic. But Wright, the eventual head of the KWA, lobbied hard for it on grounds of austerity, freedom and stability.
Michigan’s state treasurer approved the change (even though it meant Detroit’s water department would lose revenue to its second-largest customer as the city came close to filing for bankruptcy). In 2013, Flint signed a contract with KWA to buy 18m gallons of water for the city every day. But the construction of KWA’s new system has not even started and will not be able to supply water for at least several years.
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