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Poisoned people fight for clean water and environmental justice

Valerie Lannon

August 21, 2018

Detroit journalist Anna Clark comes honestly to her knack for documenting resistance by ordinary people to injustice. Her great-grandfather was one of the strikers in Flint’s General Motors factory occupation of 1936-37, which played a pivotal role in strengthening the United Auto Workers union. So her interest in the water crisis in Flint Michigan, whose ill effects began appearing in 2014, is a natural fit.

The publication of this book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, in July 2018 is timely, with the negative impacts of neoliberalism and racism continuing to surface around the globe. Clark conducted extensive reviews of media coverage but also relied heavily on hundreds of hours of interviews with affected Flint residents, their medical and scientific allies, as well as the government officials who contributed to the crisis. Clark takes this information and provides us with a fascinating, easy to read history of the water crisis, its causes, its effects and the indominable fighting spirit of Flint residents.

Black resistance and workers’ struggle

One of the most valuable contributions Clark makes to the discussion of the Flint water crisis is to emphasize its history in racism and economic crises, both of which, many of us would argue, are anchored in capitalism. Flint’s economy benefitted from the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern US to the north. As Clark notes, “in 1919, the year that GM (General Motors) produced its millionth car, GM created the Modern Housing Corporation to entice new workers… GM eventually constructed three thousand homes…offered to workers on friendly terms.”

Nevertheless, “segregation was the rule” not only for GM and private realtors but also the federal government’s public housing. Being segregated into crowded, often polluted neighbourhoods helped fuel the anger that exploded in the uprisings by Blacks in 1967 in Flint and in cities across the US—forcing the city to pass the country’s first fair housing ordinance. Today 57% of the population is Black and, as we shall see, environmental racism has made the geographic locations of Black neighbourhoods made most vulnerable to the ill effects of the water crisis.

The history of Black resistance to racism was happening alongside worker resistance to the greed and injustice of Flint’s auto bosses. The best-known example is the 1936-37 workers’ strike, better known as the sit-down strike, where 2,000 workers occupied three General Motors factories. After a long battle the workers won their demands and, more importantly, strengthened their union (the United Automobile Workers) and other unions, for decades to come—before the McCarthy period in the 1950s initiated the anti-union witch-hunts and legislation persisting to this day. This history of both anti-racist and workers’ struggles set the stage for the community’s fight for justice when the water crisis hit.

Clean water for cars, corroded water for people

As Steve Dandereau’s book A Town Abandoned demonstrates, Flint was part of the deindustrialization that affected manufacturing towns all over the US, which accelerated after the year 2000. In 1978, GM employed 80,000 people but by 2006 this number had fallen to 8,000. Lower revenues to the city led to deficits, so the state enforced non-elected “Emergency management” on the city (2002-2004, again in 2011) with expanded powers from the state governor.

As a cost-saving measure the Emergency Manager decided to switch the source of Flint’s water from the Detroit system (Lake Huron and Detroit River water) to a new, yet-to-be-built system (Karegnondi Water Authority) and in the meantime use Flint River water. Flint “flipped the switch” in April 2014. The problem was that Flint’s treatment plant failed to use corrosion control, which was needed to address the unique aspects of the Flint river water. This, in itself, broke federal laws like the 1970s Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and bans on lead pipes.

Complaints emerged almost immediately, including skin rash, hair falling out and compromised immune systems. Most concerns came from the neighbourhoods inhabited by Black people, because the water had to travel more of a distance to reach them, thus increasing exposure to the lead in the pipes. Within four months, the government made the first of several boil-advisory notices. People had to buy bottled water for everything or face the ill health consequences. Lead poisoning was identified as the culprit, with tests showing levels of 104 parts per billion in the home of LeeAnne Walters—well above the federal “action level” for lead of 15ppb.

Meanwhile GM said the water was corroding engine parts, so the company switched back to Detroit water. This provides a painful example of the rich being able to buy their way out of a problem while the poor have to suffer through it. As one UAW member asked, “If it’s too corrosive for an engine, what’s it doing to the inside of a person?”

Legionannaire’s disease, linked to the corrosive water, claimed the lives of 12 people and affected several dozen more. Up to 12,000 children were exposed to lead in the water; children are especially vulnerable to lead’s ill effects on the brain and it will be years before we know the full impact of this disaster. Because the pipes have not been fully replaced (and may not be until 2020) residents continue to use bottled or filtered water.

Government and corporate complicity

The examples of government irresponsibility in all of this are staggering. After the autumn 2014 boil-water advisories, residents learned that there were high levels of TTHMs, a carcinogenic disinfection by-product. But the Emergency Manager refused to return to the Detroit water system, as usual citing financial costs. The state Department of Environmental Quality also  falsely stated in February 2015 that Flint was using corrosion control, and in July stated that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” As testing for lead continued, the state disputed the results. The Centre for Disease Control also contested early lead readings.

This was reinforced by a history of private sector profiteers who hired scientists to deny the ill effects of lead for decades, fighting every attempt at legislation right through the 1970s and beyond. This included Charles Kettering who was GM’s head of research from 1920-1947, revered by many as a great inventor!

It was not until October 2015, that the state governor was forced to reconnect Flint to Detroit water. By December the Mayor declared a State of Emergency, and a state task force blamed the Department of Environmental Quality as mainly responsible for the catastrophe.

Community struggle

As soon as the ill effects of the water became evident, residents began organizing. Hundreds were meeting as soon as January 2015. The various strands of opposition were coordinated into the Coalition for Clean Water. The exposure to lead and TTHMs happened as residents paid some of the highest water rates in the world.

In a chapter wonderfully entitled “Citizen/Science” Clark reviews how residents attracted allies who could provide the scientific data to explain the illnesses so many experienced. LeeAnne Walters went “over the head” of the Department of Environmental Quality to reach a regulations manager in the department’s Drinking Water Division, Miguel Del Toral. He teamed up with Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor, who had exposed the lead water crisis in Washington DC in 2001-2003—another catastrophe ignored by the Centre for Disease Control. They worked with others and trained citizens to extensively test the water.

By June and September 2015 they showed that earlier city tests were improperly conducted and that there was widespread lead contamination, findings that were disputed by the state. The residents never stopped fighting. And as result of a class action lawsuit the state must now pay $87 million to replace 18,000 lead and steel water lines with copper ones, at no cost to homeowners. Clark quotes one resident: “Flint proved that even while poisoned…we are not just victims. We are fighters.”

Another Walkerton

Flint will stick with the Detroit water system and awaits the replacement of old pipes. Water crises have hit other cities in North America, killing people in the name of saving money or “fiscal responsibility.” As neoliberal governments everywhere impose austerity agendas, cities are left with fewer and fewer resources to fix aging infrastructure.

As Clark notes, “the more that cities are divided by race and class, the more that environmental racism becomes likely.” She argues that “agencies charged with protecting public health and natural resources deserve to be well-funded, pro-active, and oriented solely toward serving the public interest.” 

In Canada we are painfully familiar with both the numerous boil-water advisories in First Nations. We also saw the Walkerton water crisis of 2000 where seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill in after a deadly strain of E.coli polluted the drinking water of the town.

The inquiry into Walkerton found much of the blame for tragedy rested with lack of regulatory enforcement by the provincial Ministry of the Environment, and lack of Ministry monitoring of the inept people “running” the local public utilities commission. This was a result of public service cuts made by the Tory government of Mike Harris. Today’s Ontario premier Doug Ford has a hiring freeze in place and promises millions in cuts to ensure “efficiencies”; could another Walkerton be too far away?

We need people before profits. This will need a broad-based movement, organized to take on various levels of government who are hell-bent on “finding efficiencies” and ignoring the ravages of global warming, which make clean water an increasingly rare resource.

Note: This article was adapted from an earlier publication by the author in

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