Gentle Readers, you might remember that I hail from Michigan, right about the first knuckle on the index finger. That puts me live rather north of the Michigan that makes the news, including Flint. I think that I have gone there no more than half a dozen times, though I’ve driven past it more often on the interstate. I don’t have any strong memories of the place. I think that had someone seized me and forced toxic waste down my throat, I’d remember it. I’d probably call the police too. Most anybody could say that, unless you live in Flint. The series of events that led to the poisoning of Flint have been summarized elsewhere. I will only repeat the essentials.
Flint, like many rust belt towns, has long had money problems. For the past few years, Michigan has had a law on the books that lets the state assume control over local governments to sort those problems out. That all may sound fine on paper, but for a litany of ugly reasons headed by white supremacy the cash-strapped communities usually have majority black populations. Something on the order of half of the state’s black population live in municipalities where the state has taken over. Emergency managers come in with full plenary powers. They can do whatever they like to set the financial house in order, which largely means cutting services. In Flint’s case, they also cut thousands of throats as surely as if they bent screaming children over altars and drew the knife across them like the villain of an Indiana Jones movie.
People don’t behave like that. Nobody will put up the altar and do the deed so flagrantly. We prefer to keep our hands clean. Thus the rhetoric about tough choices and how communities with depressed tax bases and people deeply in need of services need to learn to live within their means. Nothing helps a person learn to walk quite so much as cutting off their legs. They need to take personal responsibility. Other people always do. Flint took responsibility, thanks to its satrap from Lansing, by cutting itself off from a longstanding arrangement that delivered its drinking water from Detroit. That deal cost Flint money and Flint had a perfectly good river, loaded with industrial waste and farm runoff for generations, running right through town. What could possibly go wrong if the city switched to that water supply until, a few years down the road, it could get its water from Lake Huron?
By the fall of 2015, news began coming out of Flint about undrinkable water, kids getting sick and a stonewalling state government. I headed back to Flint for a week. I saw orange water running from a hydrant. I read FOIA’d e-mails that prove the city and state decided not to chemically treat Flint’s water, something required in every town, village and city in America. There was the woman whose water tested for lead at a toxic-waste level. This was after officials told her she was nuts, even though her daughter lost chunks of her hair in the shower, while her four-year-old son remained dangerously underweight and his skin became covered in red splotches any time it was exposed to the water.
These things happen, right? Sometimes people have allergies or whatever. The authorities declared the water perfectly safe.
An old friend disagreed, but for a different reason. General Motors announced it was discontinuing use of Flint water in one of its plants, because the high level of chlorides found in the polluted Flint River could corrode engine parts. So while the state was saying the water was still safe to drink, GM was saying it wasn’t safe to be used on car pistons.
Flint River water proved so corrosive that it ate into Flint’s aging pipes. Lead paint in a house counts as a dangerous hazard one must disclose if trying to sell it because lead poisoning debilitates people, especially children, for life. Lead water? Not a problem. Drink away.
The state denied anything had gone wrong to the bitter end, finally forced to admit wrongdoing by dedicated activists and aggrieved, injured residents. Now the National Guard passes out bottled water. We have a state of emergency and money coming in. We tell ourselves that we will do right by Flint for once. Had we done right in the first place; we wouldn’t be here. The state went so far as to cook test results, an action inexplicable unless they knew full well what had gone wrong and sought only to cover it up:
While the state downplayed the poison levels in Walters’ house through an assortment of tricks, including taking a sample at a trickle rather than a steady flow, Edwards took 30 samples with steady water flow. The average came in at 2,300 ppb, and one came in at a nearly unbelievable 13,500, well above the EPA standard for toxic waste.
The state’s reputation cost more dearly than the lives of those it allegedly served. In the usual way, others paid the cost of that reputation.
I’m sure many of you, Gentle Readers, know all about this. It made the news, as well it should. I can’t improve greatly on the numerous articles about Flint’s plight, except on one point. Most of the pieces I’ve read on it have this strangely detached attitude. They speak of Flint’s plight almost like a natural disaster. Natural disasters just happen. You can’t blame someone for a hurricane. You can’t prevent one either. Failing that, journalists grope in the dark and do their best to spread blame so liberally you would think the entire state, select parts of the federal government, and perhaps a menagerie of fictional characters all came together to poison Flint. No one decided, so we have no one to blame. That we elect people, from Michigan’s governor on down, who did decide and inevitably left a paper trail doesn’t enter into it.
The people of Flint haven’t suffered a natural disaster. Nearly a hundred thousand people just like you and me didn’t get caught in a storm. People poisoned them. These people had every responsibility to see to their welfare and used the vast powers granted them, allegedly to that end, to pour toxic waste down their throats, burn their hair away, and poison their children. I don’t know if they acted first out of ignorance, itself inexcusable, or indifference but that doesn’t change the result. You don’t do this kind of thing if you think the lives of the people affected are worth anything. We once experimented on black Americans, giving them syphilis and then not treating it just to see what happened. Now we have used the water system for an experiment of far greater magnitude.
In light of this, I must conclude that the elected officials of my state differ from a lone mass murderer in two important ways: They have greater ambition than both and will likely never see the inside of a prison. If they did, people might conclude that they had done something wrong.
Want to help Flint? The Huffington Post has a list of resources.