(Published January 2016 by Socialist Organizer)
Flint’s poisoned water- a crime against humanity
By John Leslie
The City of Flint, Michigan, already ravaged more than 15 years ago by the closing of local General Motors auto assembly plants, has been devastated once more by the poisoning of residents with tainted drinking water. In April, 2014, in an effort to save money, State-appointed “Emergency Financial Managers,” with the support of local government officials, switched from buying treated Lake Huron water provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to using water from the Flint River.
The corrosive nature of the water from the Flint River led to a disastrous lead contamination crisis. At least 25% of the city’s 100,000 residents have been exposed to lead and copper that leached into the drinking water. Of these, as many as 12,000 have hazardously elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream and experienced severe health problems. An estimated 8,000 children under 6 years old have been exposed to lead, which causes damage to developing brains.
Corrosive river water caused lead from aging pipes to enter the water supply, resulting in dangerously high levels of lead. Officials had failed to use anti-corrosive additives that would have lessened the amount of lead entering the drinking water. Concerns expressed about the quality of the water, ranging from the brown color and bad smells, to the presence of bacteria, to high levels of contaminants, were downplayed or ignored by State officials. It took the efforts of local activists, a local pediatrician, who discovered that levels of lead in children’s blood had doubled over the course of a year, and scientists from Virginia Tech to expose this scandal. At the same time State officials were publicly denying that there was a problem, State offices in Flint were provided with bottled water and employees were told not to drink the tap water.
Flint, a majority Black city, has been under state “supervision” under the Michigan Emergency Manager Law, which has been used to rob Black majority cities of the right to home rule. The alleged purpose of the law is to place financially-troubled municipalities under supervision but, in reality, it has been used disproportionately against majority-Black cities. The harsh reality is that this crisis would not have been allowed to happen in a more affluent white town or suburb. Black lives are expendable in the service of privatization, gentrification and austerity.
“They trash the schools, they trash public housing, and in Flint, they trashed the water – they are capable of anything to drive out those who would forestall the “renaissance.” And since, as Bruce Dixon reminds us, the capitalists have ensured that the only urban renewal idea allowed in America is Black removal, the ethnic cleansers have had the active support of the Black political (misleadership) class in all their destructive endeavors.” Glen Ford, Ethnic Cleansing: The Ultimate Environmental Racism, The Black Agenda Report
Bottled water is not enough
Although admirable, the efforts by celebrities and others to provide bottled water to residents is insufficient to address the depth of this crisis. Faucet filters provided by the State are not capable of removing lead at these elevated levels. There are reports that the approximately 1000 undocumented residents are afraid to seek clean water assistance because of fears of deportation.
While the Flint water system has switched back to Detroit water, the damage to pipes from the corrosive Flint River water is irreversible. What is needed is a major effort to rebuild critical infrastructure in Flint and other cities. Governor Snyder, finally declared a State of Emergency on January 6, 2016 and issued an apology to citizens. Snyder later sent an insulting $28 million to Flint for supplies, medical care and infrastructure upgrades – a drop in the bucket compared to the millions that are really needed.
Safe, clean water for drinking, bathing and cooking is a human right. Worldwide there are more than 1.3 billion people without access to safe water and 3 million die annually of preventable water-related diseases. Here in the US there are concerns about unsafe levels of lead in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Washington, DC, and other major cities.
In Detroit, also under the undemocratic supervision of an Emergency Financial Manager, the price of water was jacked up by 119% over the course of a decade. More than 46,000 low-income residents, already behind on high water bills, were threatened with shut-off by the city. More than 17,000 have had their water shut off and thousands remain without running water in Detroit.
What happened in Flint was no accident. It is a blatant case of criminal neglect and disregard for the people. While some politicians have resigned, including officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Federal EPA, this is not enough. Both the State Attorney General and the Department of Justice have launched investigations. It is imperative that this crisis not get swept under the rug and that those responsible be held accountable. Michigan Governor, Rick “too-little-too-late” Snyder needs to resign for his mishandling of this travesty. The officials responsible for this criminal assault, including Snyder, should to go to jail.
An action plan for the cities
The United States faces a crisis of an aging infrastructure that has been neglected for decades. Water systems in major cities are just the tip of the iceberg. Pipes, including water mains and residential supply pipes, were often installed in the early 20th century and in some cases as far back as the 1800’s. Lead pipes for residential water were only finally banned in 1986.
We need a public works program to rebuild critical infrastructure, rebuild our cities and schools, and provide jobs for all at top union wages. Millions live in inadequate housing. Additionally, a national healthcare system, one that is based on the human needs and not profits, is needed. The capitalist system, a system that is based on the profits of a tiny minority, is incapable of providing for the needs of the vast majority.
The organized labor movement must play a leading role in the fight for safe water. Politicians of both capitalist parties have neglected infrastructure spending for years, preferring to give tax cuts to their rich patrons on Wall Street, claiming that there is no money for improvements while spending trillions of dollars on imperialist misadventures abroad. The two capitalist parties share responsibility. Workers and oppressed people need a party of our own – a party that will fight for the health and human needs of all.