Flint, Michigan, has become a byword for municipal failure. When the government switched the city's water source, residents started to complain that the water tasted strange and they were growing ill. After repeated strong statements from the city and state claiming the water was just fine, interspersed with perplexing boil-water alerts, residents finally took large-scale water testing into their own hands, and a local hospital analyzed its patient data to prove that residents were suffering levels of lead poisoning at an unheard-of scale.
In The Poisoned City—one of our picks for the Best Books of July—Detroit journalist Anna Clark paints not only the broad strokes of the city's history and its economic challenges but also the details of the Flint residents who overcame the lies and bureaucracy thrown in their way. After reading The Poisoned City, you'll never take your municipal water infrastructure for granted again.
We spoke with Anna Clark by phone about The Poisoned City and how the lead poisoning of Flint affects us all.
Adrian Liang: What caused Flint's water problems?
Anna Clark: A few different things. One reason why I would argue that this [crisis] didn't start with the water switch in 2016 is that there had been years of strategic disinvestment from the city that put it in an unusually vulnerable place. It lost more than half of its population in the last fifty years. It lost a great deal of industry. And the infrastructure that was built to support all that didn't shrink along with the population. It's a lot more difficult for them to maintain this system, let alone replace any lead lines or anything like that. Flint was losing 40 percent of its water just through leaks. It's crazy. And the city was literally paying one of the most expensive water rates in the entire country. It's a disproportionately poor city, so that's a real burden. When you rented a place, you didn't just put down a security deposit; you also had to put down a water deposit, meaning your up-front cost to move into a new place as a renter was a lot of money.
People were super upset about this. It was part of why there was some real momentum in town for change. When there was an opportunity to join a brand-new water system…they decided to switch. And then, sort of inexplicably, decided they were going to use the Flint River as a temporary fix until that new water system was built. And within a couple months, the state-appointed emergency manager [for Flint] signed the next two-year budget...and that included more water-rate increases.
And the changed water also seemed to be of less good quality. Most significantly, the treatment plan didn't include corrosion control, which is a violation of federal law, and is what is supposed to help keep the aging pipes, including lead line pipes, to keep from contaminating the water. Why that wasn't included in the treatment plan is partly being discussed in courtrooms right now.
Working on this [story], I got a lot more respect for drinking water, something I love and that I take for granted. And now I'm like, "This stuff is complicated. The people who are in charge of our drinking water, they need to be well-trained and well-paid. There is literally nothing more important." Without it, we die. We have to get this right.
You live in Detroit—not too far from Flint. What was the feeling on the ground like during the first part of the Flint water crisis, when residents were complaining about the water quality but action wasn't being taken by the city or state? Were residents believed, or were their complaints being dismissed?
This is one of the most haunting pieces of the whole story. The residents were doing everything you're supposed to do if there's a problem in your community. They were filing complaints, they were asking questions of their city [management], of the state environmental folks...of the EPA even. They were showing up at public meetings. They were really doing everything you should do to register that something is going on. I think there were a few things going on at the same time. One, there was a sense, for a lot of folks, that this was just one more thing in a city that had a number of urgent things going on at the same time. I think it took a while for officials, and even some residents, to fully absorb the fact that this was really on a different level of urgency. But there's also a strong contingent of community organizers in the city who were on this right away. And then when a number of problems with the water—from boiled water advisories, to GM switching [to another water source]…it just kept escalating the situation. And more and more people started speaking up about it.
Do you think the race and income levels of the residents had an effect on how their complaints were received?
I do, in two different ways. One in a broad way, just in how as a poor and darker city, it's been dismissed in ways that go back decades. I think as a lot of the problems were accumulating with the Flint River water, there was a sense that even if some of their concerns were valid, [they could] just run out the clock and switch to the other water source in time. And [secondly], not just how they were heard among the state but how they were heard among other institutions that might have done more sooner. That includes journalists—and I feel myself implicated in this. That includes environmental groups, universities, and others who might have allied themselves sooner with this community that was going through all these challenges.
One of the most chilling parts in the book for me was when you talked about how when the water was being tested, the samples that showed that the water was bad ended up not being included in the final report's results. They threw those samples out of the reporting. What other ways are there for water testing to game the system or utilize loopholes like that?
This is an important piece of the story. Because these loopholes haven't been closed at the federal level, it's legal. It's totally legal. There are ways that you can sample the water to make it seem that there's less lead in it than there really is. You can do that by only testing in places where the infrastructure has been updated. You're not supposed to do that, but people do it all the time. You can flush the water, either the night before or just before you collect the sample. You can use bottles that have small mouths instead of large ones; that makes it more likely that when you fill the bottle, you're going to turn it on at a slow flow, so you don't splatter. Using a slow flow means it's less likely to shake anything out [of the pipes]. These are all things that make it less likely for lead to show up in the test results, but the problem is that it doesn't actually sync up with how people use drinking water. You go up to your tap, you turn it on at a high flow, you collect the first rush of water, and then you drink it. It doesn't sync with our actual lives.
The fact is, we have lead infrastructure all over our country: lead [service] lines, plus lead plumbing fixtures. And there's no way to make sure we don't have lead in our drinking water outside of getting rid of it. And because it's expensive and complicated [to fix the infrastructure], people have come up with a lot of really creative ways to make it seem as if there's less lead in the water than there really is, even when we already have pretty loose federal standards on this stuff.
Do you have advice for people who don't believe their local government is taking any of their safety concerns seriously?
One thing that I think is truly inspiring about Flint is how people carried out this generational culture of community organizing [and] figuring out what they need to do to support each other and to agitate for change. And they've done this even in the most despairing of circumstances, even while they're suffering with their own health problems or concerns. And I think there's a template that they've offered that others can learn from. That includes taking care of each other. Even before they really knew quite exactly what was going on with the water, they were already having bottled water drives; they were figuring out how to deliver water to homebound residents. And also, of course, what they did to make themselves visible, even in a time when they didn't have the power of their own local votes with mayor and city council [because Flint was under emergency management]. Not just having protests but also driving to the state capital of Lansing and lobbying and showing the maps they made and the documented images that they had been collecting from throughout the community. They figured out how to work with outside experts to make themselves visible, as it wasn't just working if it was they themselves talking. One thing that was heartbreaking but proved its effectiveness is when they started very consciously putting forward as their resident spokespeople those among them who were white, married, and mothers. Because those voices were heard in a way that others weren't.
Flint's reputation on the national stage is just this long, long list of all these things it's lost, from people to businesses to public services. And these are important stories and they need to be reported more, not just in Flint but in cities like it all over the country. But I do think that sometimes that dominant narrative makes people blind to what is in that city and why people want to be there. It's an awesome city. I really enjoy being there. They've got a lot of not just amazing people who are rooted there, but there's incredible architecture and beautiful nature and this really lively cultural center. Revitalizing a city that has been through as much as Flint, even before the water crisis, let alone now.... There's some truly heroic-level work happening, and you can tell. It's a joyful place to be in a lot of ways.
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