The Poisoned City

The Poisoned City

Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Anna Clark

what happened in Flint reveals a new hydra of dangers in civic life: environmental injustice, the limits of austerity, and urban disinvestment. Neglect, it turns out, is not a passive force in American cities, but an aggressive one.

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In a way, public drinking water systems are the perfect embodiment of the ideal that we might reach toward. The sprawling pipelines articulate the shape of a community. House by house, they are a tangible affirmation that each person belongs. They tie the city together, and often the metropolitan region as well. If only some have good, clean water and others do not, the system breaks down. It isn’t safe. The community gets sick. But when we are all connected to the water, and to each other, it is life-giving—holy, even.

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the Great Lakes hold about one fifth of the world’s surface freshwater.

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Philadelphia, one of the earliest innovators, got serious about building a water system after an epidemic of yellow fever killed about 10 percent of its population. The city installed miles of iron pipes, and, after a disappointing experiment in moving water with steam power, it upgraded to waterwheels. New York City built an expensive aqueduct from a reservoir in Westchester County in 1842, becoming one of the first in the country to use water from outside its own borders. Today the city draws from three lakes and nineteen reservoirs to move more than 1 billion gallons of water each day, and its crystal-clear quality is among the best in the country.

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Nearly 80 percent of working residents in Flint earned $ 40,000 or less a year. Forty percent of them earned $ 15,000 or less. 18 The United Nations recommends that water and sewer bills be not more than 3 percent of a household’s income. In Flint, the bills were well beyond that.

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In Flint, the average main was more than eighty years old. 24 More than fifteen thousand lead service lines were laid so long ago that nobody really knew where they were. The only way to locate them was to sort through forty-five thousand index cards kept in a big file drawer, deciphering smeared pencil handwriting to read someone’s incomplete notes about which pipes were made of what. 25 Flint’s distribution system included nearly four thousand fire hydrants, the oldest of which was more than fifty years old, and more than seventy-two hundred valves, which were never replaced unless they outright failed.

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during World War II, GM was the chief supplier of the defense industry. No cars at all were made during the war. Instead, the factories were retooled to build aircraft, trucks, tanks, and other machinery that proved to be essential for fighting the war.

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The Truman administration encouraged this with its Cold War–era policy of industrial dispersion, which urged manufacturers to move out of cities so that they would be less vulnerable to enemy attack. 31 Between 1947 and 1960, GM built eight new manufacturing plants in Genesee County, all of them outside Flint, while also shutting down several plants within the city borders.

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On February 20, 1968, more than forty thousand Flint residents voted on whether to repeal the policy of allowing people to live where they chose, no matter the color of their skin. By a hairsbreadth margin—just thirty votes—repeal was denied. Fair housing won.

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Despite being one of the world’s best-known neurotoxins, lead was embraced by fast-developing nations. It was seen as nothing less than the key to their prosperity. Lead was built into the infrastructure of American cities such as Flint, lurking not only in the pipes that carried water, but also in the paint used in houses, businesses, hospitals, jails, train stations, and schools. It became part of the solder and brass fixtures in indoor plumbing, and it powered the automobiles that sped down the highways of a sprawling metro region. And yet no amount of lead exposure is safe. While its effects can be mitigated with good nutrition and health care, there is no known cure.

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The connection between lead paint and childhood poisoning was first made in 1904. Over the next couple of decades, twelve countries on four continents banned the interior use of such paint. 49 But the lead industry worked to defeat a regulatory movement in the United States.

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For any structure built before 1986, there’s a decent chance that lead pipes connect it to the water main. There is also probably lead solder and brass in the indoor plumbing. Newer structures aren’t immune, either. In the original law, lead-free pipes were defined as containing no more than 8 percent lead. It wasn’t until 2014 that Congress reset the limit to 0.25 percent for pipes and plumbing fixtures, and slightly less for solder. 65 Many anti-lead advocates insist that it should be zero.

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The allowance of some lead under the LCR was the EPA’s way of acknowledging that without adequate funding to rebuild America’s massive lead-based infrastructure, not to mention all the plumbing fixtures in individual homes, there was simply no way to eliminate it completely from drinking water. Only a colossal investment, thoughtfully executed, would make zero tolerance possible. The EPA estimated that it would cost up to $ 80 billion to replace all of the nation’s lead service lines, while the American Water Works Association calculated it at about $ 30 billion—or $ 1 trillion, if we repaired and expanded our old water mains, too. 68 This never became a priority. Not yet, at least. In the meanwhile, some communities tried to address the lead problem on their own, mostly focusing on paint.

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eight of the ten cities with the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning, as determined by the CDC in 2003, were shrinking cities: Cleveland, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Providence, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, and Baltimore. (The others were Chicago and New York City.)

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No one—not taxpayers, not school districts, not the state, and not the federal government—wanted to pay to fix an expensive infrastructure problem. Therefore, many preferred not to know if the children in their communities were drinking lead in their water. There was no onus to act if there was no proof.

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Despite the particular vulnerability of children, there was no federal mandate for schools and child-care centers to test for lead in their water. Forty-four states did not require it either. Part of the problem was that if testing were mandatory, what would happen when lead was found, as it was in about half the public schools in Newark in 2016? 70 Do you install all-new pipes, fountains, and faucets, and, if so, who should pay for it? Do you shut off the school’s water and ask the community to donate bottled water? When Camden, New Jersey, found high levels of lead in the water at its schools—New Jersey is one of six states that do require testing—the fountains were turned off. The district went on to spend about $ 100,000 a year to supply the schools with water coolers.

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It didn’t help that Michigan had some of the worst transparency laws in the country. Residents and reporters might have been able to help break the information stalemate by filing open records requests for internal details about Flint’s water switch, but they were limited by the fact that Michigan is one of only two states where both the governor’s office and the legislature were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

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the series of problems with Flint’s water were connected. Since the switch from Detroit, rapidly corroding iron negated the chlorine treatment. Without the disinfectant, the water was vulnerable to bacteria growth. The first of the E. coli bacteria violations had come a few months after the switch. To combat it, more chlorine was added to the water. But this likely contributed to the spike in TTHMs, the disinfectant by-product that forms in reaction to organic matter. (Organic matter is also more plentiful in the river water, especially when it’s not properly filtered.) As the corrosion worsened, lead leached into the water right along with the iron. 46 The excess iron also turned out to be a perfect nutrient for the growth of other types of bacteria—deadly and, for the time being, undetected.

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America is a thousand Flints. —Carl Crow, The City of Flint Grows Up: The Success Story of an American Community (1945)

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The bacterium loves shower heads, medical respiratory devices, and hot tubs, but it’s especially menacing when it proliferates in the distribution lines of large buildings; that’s when it puts a lot of people at risk, all at once, for Legionnaires’ disease, a virulent inflammation and infection of the lungs. It cannot be transmitted from person to person. It is purely a disease of the environment—and a preventable one.

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Rural America was vulnerable, too, especially because small utilities, serving a few thousand people or fewer, are given a pass on lead regulations. (They don’t have to treat the water to prevent contamination until lead is discovered, and even then, they’re rarely compelled to remove it.

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Every dollar that goes into water and sewer projects returns $ 2.03 in revenue. 16 And the benefits for the environment and public health are obvious: for example, the opportunity to stop the 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage that had flowed into Michigan waterways since 2008.

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If utilities sampled water in a way that truly set out to find the worst-case levels, between 54 and 70 percent of those with lead lines in their systems would uncover severe contamination, affecting up to 96 million people. That’s according to a study by the American Water Works Association, and it echoes the sampling that was flagged in, for example, New York City schools.

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anonymous black residents of Flint “have not been recognized as possessing the agency of non-black figures involved in the crisis,” Jackson wrote. “They figured into the national narrative almost exclusively as helpless or hapless victims.… America still too often requires a non-black hero or victim before it can turn proper attention to an issue that primarily affects African Americans.”

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hazardous waste facilities were consistently located in places where people of color tended to live. This fact is so persistent that race is the very best predictor of the presence of pollutants, even when controlled for other factors such as income and property values.

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Public health historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner put it this way: “If the history of lead poisoning has taught us anything, it is that the worlds we as a society construct, or at least allow to be built in our name, to a large extent determine how we live and how we die.” 7 Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities. Another is segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding: this is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes. The cure is inclusion. Flint’s story is a clear call for committing anew to our democratic faith in the common wealth. As the water crisis demonstrates, it is simply not good enough for government officials to say, “Trust us.” 8 For all the inefficiencies and messiness that comes with democracy, the benefits—transparency, accountability, checks and balances, and the equitable participation of all people—are worth it.

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