Last Wednesday, five Michigan officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the unfolding health crisis in Flint, Michigan — a crisis that has included at least 12 deaths from Legionnaires' disease, in addition to the possible lead poisoning of a whole population.
These charges are significant, but there are lingering questions as to who else is culpable and why the crisis remains unsolved.
Despite the narrative you often hear, the water crisis in Flint was not discovered by investigative reporters, Virginia Tech researchers, or doctors. The people of Flint were aware that something was wrong from the moment their water was switched over to the Flint river in April 2014. They just couldn't get anyone to listen.
I sat down last month with Flint residents, Teresa Farley and Nancy Burgher, at Camp Promise — a protest camp that sprung up this year in Flint with the aid of protesters from Standing Rock. Farley had just been released from hospital after having a pacemaker inserted. The doctors told her the water caused her health issues.
'Even my dog stopped drinking the water. And it stank. It was awful. We all knew. And we started warning other people, but they were all telling us we were crazy.'
A day earlier, in Detroit, Noah Hall (who has been assisting the Attorney General's Flint Water investigation) pointed out to me that it wasn't just the government that ignored the people of Flint.
'There's this idea that there was a cover up, and the truth is so much worse. Everybody in Flint, from day one, knew. And they were doing exactly what NGOs want them to do. They were holding big public meetings with rooms full of people waving jugs of dirty water in front of elected officials, and that just didn't count.'
It wasn't until data became available from investigative journalist Curt Guyette, local pediatrician Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, that NGOs and the media began taking the Flint Water issue seriously. I ask Hall if this reflects our obsession with data and he nods vigorously.
"When GM said they couldn't use Flint water because it was corroding the car parts, they switched them back to Detroit water. But, when the Flint residents asked to be switched back, because we were being corroded inside, they would not do it." — Nancy Burgher
'Why is it that a room full of people holding brown water gets discounted, not just by government, but also by [NGO and media] institutions? A huge expert bias is very apparent in Flint. That community was just brutally ignored for a year of poisoned water coming out of their taps.' Even after finally admitting there was an issue, officials delayed action for years.
Back at Camp Promise, Burgher (who also had a pacemaker inserted this year due to water related health issues) was keen to point out the disparity between the community's treatment and the treatment afforded to big business. 'What amazed me was that when GM said they couldn't use Flint water because it was corroding the [car] parts, they switched them back to Detroit water that quick. But, when the Flint residents asked to be switched back, because we were being corroded inside, they would not do it. We were dying from it and they told us "no".'
Recently, the mayor called a public meeting to discuss the water issues. Residents crowded into a local church for a rare opportunity to voice their concerns to local officials. But Farley and Burgher were dismayed by the reception they received. 'When we walked into the building there were SWAT police in full body gear. It was very intimidating. Before the meeting even started, the Chief of Police got on stage and said that if anybody acted disorderly or caused any nonsense, they would be immediately taken out and arrested.' Six people were arrested that night, for offences as serious as refusing to remove a hat. None were ultimately charged.
I asked Farley if this crisis has changed the way people in Flint feel about their government. 'I'm sure it has. When President Obama said it wasn't a state of emergency, our hope went. And then the media stopped coming.'
Hall describes the feeling in the Flint community as one of tremendous distrust. 'The mental health issues are devastating. You've got everything from, well, I wouldn't even call it paranoia. I mean, what happens when you drink poisoned water for two years? You're not paranoid.'
After speaking to Burgher and Farley, I wandered up to the Flint town centre to look around. Out front of a diner, a large sign reads: 'We Have Filtered Water'. Inside, I ordered a Sprite. As I tried to drink, it occurred to me that the syrup would have been diluted with local water. Flint water. A metallic taste filled my mouth and I felt a sense of dread creep through my body. I couldn't do it.
Imagine living with that water. And imagine feeling as though the world just didn't care.
Dr Cristy Clark is a legal academic with an interest in the human right to water. She tweets as @cristyclark.
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21 June 2017
Great article Cristy. Of course, the water was not "bad" from the outset, it was slightly acidic and therefore corroded the copper lining of pipes. This is why GM made these comments. People in Australia like to think Obama was a great president, but there are so many examples like this one where he let everyone down.
21 June 2017
They same ignoring goes on from media and government alike when it comes to the water poisoning that goes on in US and Australia from 'fracking' (for coal seam gas). Big money/capitalism is silencing dissent. Churches need to speak out big time against THIS evil exploitation
21 June 2017
Thanks Christy Clark. A story which I hope keeps reaching others, including decision makers. One would reasonable think clean water is a basic human right, however now, consciences in those who might reverse injustice, appear to be missing. In Australia there's a lack of political conscience and a distinct increase in selective hearing. Anyway, thank you for the story. A salutory lesson.
21 June 2017
I'm not surprised that SWAT teams were present. When we've grievously mistreated people, we tend to assume they're committed to doing the same to us. It happens between individuals, it happens between groups. And after a while, if our common humanity isn't recognized, our prophecy fulfils itself.
21 June 2017
It seems rather unlikely that Legionella or the need for a cardiac pacing wire would be related to this river water! This is the classic paranoia that relates to people misunderstanding relative personal risks in daily life. If the water does not look or taste good, they're aesthetic issues in themselves, and if they have high levels of heavy metals then there is long term public health issue. But I suspect that the people of Flint`s overwhelming real health risks relate to poisonous sugary drinks, high fat takeaway food and lack of exercise mainly. Similarly, there is no evidence of health risks from fracking; indeed by providing cheap (and low CO2 emission) energy it stops poor people dying from cold in the winter.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
21 June 2017
Cristy’s very important story about the supply of contaminated water to the people of Flint in Michigan is relevant to many other places where big business, with the connivance of local politicians, has caused pollution of water, soil, air and food which is having deleterious effects on public health.
Well known film–maker, Michael Moore, who lives in Flint, has also written about the crisis.
He has also reported that General Motors was the only place in Flint that was receiving the pure water because the contaminated water from the Flint River was corroding motor car parts.
In addition, Nestlé, the largest bottler of fresh water in the world, has been allowed to pump huge amounts of healthy water from the region without cost. In fact, the company received $13 million in tax breaks from the state to locate the plant in Michigan. The spokesperson for Nestlé in Michigan is Deborah Muchmore. She’s the wife of Dennis Muchmore, the recently retired chief of staff of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder.
It is obvious that the profits of the large corporations are considered by some authorities to be more important than the health and the human rights of the public they have responsibilities for.
For further information, see:
Roy Chen Yee
22 June 2017
Lead contamination is invisible but taste and colour might be indications by proxy, perhaps caused when water from a river that has apparently had a history of being unhealthy is made acidic by strong chlorination and corrodes old pipes (whether in the home or in the network). ‘“….A huge expert bias is very apparent in Flint. That community was just brutally ignored for a year of poisoned water coming out of their taps.’” The expert bias occurs in how water is sampled and tested. If you sample around areas where the city mains have been upgraded, or test newer housing areas or change sample sizes, you might only find permissible amounts of lead. Read Curt Guyette’s article of 15/9/2015 on the ACLU website. The testing regulations are, in fact, quite rigorous and fair. Guyette writes, “The intent of the 90th Percentile Lead and Copper Test is to identify and test homes considered high risk because they have either lead service lines or plumbing inside the house that contains lead.” Were the rules followed so as to produce unbiassed results?