Flint, Michigan: 100,000 left with water too poisonous to drink or even cook with

David Usborne reports from Flint, Michigan, birthplace of Michael Moore and metaphor for America’s industrial decline, and now the scene of an environmental disaster

Water towers in America usually boast the names of the communities they serve, often with a mascot or slogan; totems of civic pride. Not here. Smudged by driving snow on a recent morning, this one merely proclaims: FLINT WATER PLANT. And this one stands for betrayal, hardship and scandal.

Cast your eyes down to the neighbourhoods beyond; homes with sagging roofs and dilapidated porches, and you will see them, bundled-up figures shuffling down the streets. Some carry their loads in their arms, others push trollies through the drifts. 

The state of emergency is a week old now and this is their new daily grind: fetching bottled water from wherever they can find it.

The novelty of it – police, fire stations and the state National Guard were ordered by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to start handing out water just this Tuesday – is itself a bad joke.

The events that led to this crisis began nearly two years ago. It’s just that no one was paying attention. Now an entire city of 100,000 is barred from drinking its own water – even cooking with it – because of poisonously high levels of lead.

Actually, many of the residents knew trouble was likely as soon as an emergency manager sent to wrestle Flint out of bankruptcy switched the city away from water coming in from Detroit to water drawn directly from its own river. That was April 2014, the moment when the state began poisoning the entire Flint population. All because Detroit water had been too expensive. 

Anyone who has lived here long knows the Flint River’s reputation. It is filthy, not least because of what the car factories, most of them now gone, used to pour into it. “I thought it was a joke,” recalls Rhonda Kelso, who is above all anxious about the health impacts for her already fragile 12-year-old daughter, Kaylynn, who has a heart condition, hearing and speech impediments. She and other residents are lead litigants of a first lawsuit against the state claiming damages; others are sure to follow.

Pastor Bobby Jackson, whose modest homeless shelter, Mission of Hope, is now crammed to the gills with cases of bottled water donated by citizens all across America, couldn’t believe it either. “I grew up by that river. You wouldn’t swim in it, you wouldn’t go near it,” he says. 

“I’ll tell you a story.” He grew up eight houses away from the river. A favourite trick, he relates, was to put water from the river in a bottle and then mix it with dry ice from ice cream carts. The reaction with all the chemicals in the water would invariably cause a small explosion.

Almost from day one, residents began to complain. Water was coming out of the taps the colour of urine. They said it was making them ill. For Kristina McDermott, 45, who now walks six blocks to and from her home to the Mission of Hope daily to fetch a case of bottled water, the symptoms were severe headaches. Traces of e-coli bacteria were detected and periodic boil orders were issued. 

But city leaders insisted that otherwise the water was just fine. They drank it before the cameras to prove it.

They shouldn’t have done. The disaster that has since befallen Flint, the city that gave the world wheels, is a parable of decay and negligence that is the shame of a country which has let its most basic infrastructure fall into decay, whether airports, roads, rail lines or, in this case, water lines. But it’s worse than that. No one here is in any doubt at all, that it would never have happened anywhere else. 

This is Flint, where more than 40 per cent of its population is under the poverty level, illiteracy is over 30 per cent, and violent crime levels are among the highest in the country. It is nearly two thirds black. Flint is dispensable. Flint is poisonable.

The bacteria was one thing. This week Governor Snyder revealed that there has been a spike in Legionnaire’s Disease in the city that has already taken 10 lives. But more alarming is confirmation that because nothing was done to address the corrosive nature of the Flint River water – a simple phosphate additive would have done the trick – it instantly began scouring the city’s mostly lead-based and decrepit network of service pipes. The entire city was thus exposed to lead poisoning.

The city has now been reconnected to the Detroit supply, but it may be a year before the water is safe to drink again. In the longer term, a new pipeline will feed water from Lake Huron.

But meanwhile the question is this: how much did the state’s leaders know and when did they know it?

Among those alleging a cover-up and possible criminal culpability on the part of Governor Snyder and other top officials has been Michael Moore, the film maker of the left, who is a Flint native. This week’s Legionnaires Disease update sent him straight to Twitter. “And now, murder. BREAKING: 10 people dead in Flint from Legionnaires Disease. Flint River water suspected. No arrests yet. #ArrestGovSnyder.” 

Now the truth is out many in Flint are angry and afraid. Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Flint Children’s Clinic, sees it daily in mothers coming in with their toddlers. “You look at the fear and anxiety in their eyes. They don’t know if in five or 10 years their kids are going to have a learning disability or behavioural problems. It is a population-wide trauma.”

Picking up fresh water at the main fire station, Lloyd Michaels, 52, lifts his shirt to reveal a rash across his lower back. His says that his black labrador is losing his hair. 

“I am paying $150 a month for water you can’t drink. You can’t cook with it, you can’t do anything with it. I can’t even give it to my dog,” he says.

Back at the Mission of Hope, Ms McDermott reports that she has disconnected her water entirely. “Just because Flint has the highest crime rate, just because Flint has the highest poverty, it doesn’t mean that Flint should be forgotten this way,” she says. It’s like we live in one of those nasty countries that don’t have anything.”

There are a few heroes here. Pastor Jackson is one, using the mission to get fresh water to as many of his neighbours as possible. 

“We really got kicked in the butt good,” he accepts. But he also pays tribute to all those now shipping cases of water to the mission or sending him cards with cheques stuffed inside. The postmarks are from all over the country.

“I am loving it, because this is the America I know,” he bellows. “I think God makes adversity sometimes so we all come together.” Another hero is Dr Hanna-Attisha. After a team of researchers from Virginia Tech first suggested last summer that lead may be a problem, she began her own investigation, analysing data showing elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children from 2015 and comparing it with 2013. The results were mortifying. The numbers had doubled across the city. In one neighbourhood, 16 per cent of children had elevated lead levels, a tripling in two years. She sounded the alarm in a news conference in September.

To her shock, the state tried to discredit her. “For a good week and a half to two weeks, we were attacked. Which made me feel physically ill,” she says. “But we knew we were right and we went on the offensive.” She calls not adding the anti-corrosion phosphates an act of “criminal negligence”. Only now, with the state of emergency in force, has she been fully vindicated. But it bothers her profoundly that it took so long and, of course, that it happened in the first place. Her conclusion: because it’s Flint.

“It is just a consequence of loss of manufacturing and recession and joblessness and decaying infrastructure. No one has invested in anything. This community is predominately inner city, predominately minority. This would never would have happened in a more affluent community,” she argues. She admits she has to take care not to become too political. 

“I am not suggesting it was purposeful,” she says carefully, “but it was preventable.”

The fall of Flint: Rustbelt’s capital

No city in the American rustbelt embodies all that ails it – the collapse of manufacturing and the shipping of jobs overseas – more than Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors.

It is a story of decline told most famously in Roger and Me, a film directed by Michael Moore, a Flint native. Made in 1989, it documented Moore’s efforts to confront GM’s then chief executive, Roger Smith, about plans to close several of the city’s car plants, cutting its workforce from a high of 80,000 to 50,000 by 1992.

Today, there is only one GM factory left, employing 5,000 people. And, in the meantime, Flint’s population has dropped from a high of 200,000 to about 100,000. Nearly half are living under the poverty line and tax revenue to keep the city alive has all but vanished.

In 2014, the remaining GM plant announced it could no longer use Flint water because it was corroding parts. Ball bearings are apparently more important than people in this city at least.

David Usborne

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