It has been three years since the city of Flint, Michigan, changed its source of municipal water to the Flint River. With the political decision to put no corrosion control in place with the new source, the river water corroded the city’s aging infrastructure of water mains and residential delivery pipes, releasing years of lead into the water and sparking a public health crisis that continues today. This has led to the local, state, and federal governments declaring a state of emergency in the city and surrounding county, political scandal centering on what local and state officials knew and when they knew it, and protests and angry demands by Flint residents as they deal with exposure to lead, bacteria, and other toxic pollutants in their water. The ongoing water crisis in Flint – punctuated by photos like those below of the city’s filthy tap water and mass deliveries of bottled water to residents by volunteers and the National Guard – is a shocking warning about the erosion of both public infrastructure in aging urban systems and residents’ ability to trust in the public provision of one of the most basic social and physical necessities.
Though emergency measures and repairs, as well as switching back to Detroit’s water system sourced from Lake Huron, have abated the level of lead and other pollutants and toxins in the city’s water, the effects of several consecutive months of dirty water will have long-term impacts on the health of those exposed to it, especially for the young and the poor. Three years without a consistent supply of safe, clean water has led some to make facile comparisons between Flint and the “Third World,” in which the city’s crisis is to be pitied but perhaps set aside as some kind of extreme event in a context of relative American affluence, the result of bad decisions and lack of foresight but surely not repeatable. As this excellent analysis from Kalamazoo College, not far from Flint, states:
“Given the correlation between GDP per capita and access to clean water, Flint stands out as a clear outlier [in a global statistical comparison]. Its income per person … is around $14,000. Countries with much lower GDP per capita have much higher levels of access to clean water.”
In other words, Flint is not like the “Third World”; in many such locales, people can expect much better access to clean water than those in Flint could at the height of the city’s water crisis. And while a particular set of circumstances conspired to produce Flint’s crisis, the conditions under which they occurred are by no means unique to that city. Aging public infrastructure, spotty and unreliable property records, stagnant or declining budgets for public health and environmental management of brownfield sites and pollution cleanup, political disconnect between residents and decision-makers, a kind of “common sense” among political leaders that privatization, efficiency, and effectiveness always go hand-in-hand — these are typical across countless urban settings in the US and Canada. In fact, the news service Reuters found evidence that:
“Flint is no aberration. In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America. In all, Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.”
This is often due to exposure not just to lead-tainted water, but also lead paint and other structural elements found in older housing stock. Federal, state, and local money for testing, prevention, and renovation has slowly but surely dried up, however, with little private or charitable money to take its place. Flint is not unique, but is a preview of what to expect from the kind of post-industrial urban environments that one finds from New England to the Upper Midwest and down to the Ohio Valley, including southwestern Ontario. But it should not be too much to expect elected officials and state institutions would react wth more compassion, vigor, and fortitude than they did in responding to the Flint crisis. Three years is a long time to go without access to safe, clean water when it has become the expectation that you can turn on the tap and not have to worry that it will sicken or poison you. Flint still has a long way to go to recover, and other cities across the “rust belt” have many lessons to learn from this crisis. Whether they will is an open question.