By Rita Samaan
Associate Editor, Vol. 22
To this day, Flint residents cannot trust the water flowing from their taps. Why is it taking so long to get clean water for Flint’s residents? Does it inform our answer if we consider that the city’s majority population is African American and that Flint is one of the most impoverished cities in the country?
In March 2016, Governor Rick Snyder made a statement that he did not know if race was a factor in the Flint Water Crisis. However, the record shows how the concerns of minority and poor residents were dismissed by Snyder’s administration—concerns that wouldn’t have been ignored had Flint been a rich white community.
“I’m sure that if the residents of a more affluent community in Michigan—in Ann Arbor or Bloomfield Hills—noticed that their water was brown and was causing rashes on their children’s skin, that the problem would have been addressed much more quickly. I say that without hesitation because those communities have more political power, more economic power and are more noticed by those who have political power and are more vocal,” said Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland.
Governor Snyder received warnings about Flint’s questionable water quality in February 2015. Governor Snyder received a memo on February 1 dismissing then Flint Mayor Dayne Walling’s plea for state assistance. The memo stated Walling had “seized on public panic . . . to ask the state for loan forgiveness and more money for infrastructure improvement.” The memo was among 274 pages of emails regarding the city’s water. Yet the memo went on to say, “[It is] clear that folks in Flint are concerned about other aspects of their water—taste, smell and color being among the top complaints [but the Safe Drinking Water Act] does not regulate aesthetic values of water.” The memo goes on to concede that there were high levels of total trihalomethanes, which can cause liver or kidney issues. However, these concerns were also dismissed because exposure wasn’t a “top health concern” unless it was long term.
When President Obama came to the city in May, Reverend Rigel Dawson expressed to the President, “It makes you feel like you don’t count. People sometimes feel that we don’t really matter. We’ve had to fight and wait, fight and wait, for things that should have happened but haven’t.”
And Flint’s residents continue to fight on. On October 26, 2016, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Mark Boonstra (who presides over the Court of Claims) ruled that residents could sue state officials over the water crisis. Judge Boonstra said the residents had provided sufficient facts in their lawsuit and if they were proved, they would show the state’s actions were “so arbitrary in a constitutional sense, as to shock the conscience.” The residents sued Governor Rick Snyder, two former Flint emergency managers, and Michigan’s Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services for their respective parts in the water crisis. Flint residents alleged that state officials made false statements and concealed data about the water crisis in efforts to downplay the health dangers. They also alleged that property values have decreased because of the contamination.
On October 20, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inspector general admitted that the EPA should have issued an emergency order to protect Flint residents seven months before it did. The EPA had “the authority and sufficient information” to compel state officials to fix Flint’s water issues in June 2015. Regardless, the EPA didn’t issue an emergency order until January 21—a very delayed response to an entire city’s exposure to high levels of lead. The inspector general said, “[t]hese situations should generate a greater sense of urgency. Federal law provides the EPA with the emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised.”
Why didn’t an emergency order come through sooner? Time and again, poor and minority communities have suffered disproportionately from environmental degradation over the years. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exemplified how racism exists in the structure of political and economic inclusion and exclusion. Two years after the disaster, in efforts to accelerate recovery, Congress waived affirmative action rules resulting in only a small portion of federal aid reaching minority-owned businesses. Moreover, black evacuees faced discrimination in cities where they resettled at the hands of officers who were told to “make life unpleasant…so that they will relocate elsewhere.”
On November 10th, a federal judge ordered state and city officials “to deliver bottled water to all Flint homes, unless officials verify, on a regular basis, the home has a properly installed and functioning water filter, or the residents decline delivery.” While this represents a major victory for Flint residents, it is one small step toward permanent change. There are some residents still seeking clean water and facing difficulty in their search. Some do not even know water delivery service is available. The judge’s order “reinforces how far we still are from fully recovering,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.
This trend of environmental racism has allowed polluters to victimize minority and poor communities, partly because of weak regulations. Flint’s Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said, “There’s a philosophy of government that has been writing these places off—places like Flint get written off. And, to me, even though those people making those decisions might not see it this way, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that race is not the most significant factor.” Hillary Clinton also made a statement that the Flint Water Crisis would have been dealt with differently had it happened in a “white suburb outside of Detroit.”
The facts speak for themselves. The Flint Water Crisis began in April 2014. It has been about two and half years since the crisis began, yet the residents still do not have clean drinking water coming from their taps. In a powerful, first world country like America, it is hard to imagine that one of our cities is being denied a basic right to clean water.