The reckless disregard for the people of Flint, Michigan


Over the course of a career as an environmental lawyer, with a focus on energy-related issues, I’ve seen a lot of changes. There have been oil booms and oil busts, especially in my home state of Louisiana. Coal, nuclear, natural gas have fallen out of favor, only to come back and then in some cases fall out of favor again. Some elected officials take a slightly more active approach in stopping pollution than others. But one thing has remained depressingly the same when it come to the issue of pollution: Both government and corporations frequently display a stunning disregard for the health and welfare of everyday citizens.

That said, this week I heard of a case of official neglect and disregard that is particularly stunning. It involves the city of Flint, Michigan. In the middle 20th Century, Flint was a thriving automobile town — and the birthplace of the modern labor movement. In recent years, however, Flint has fallen on hard times; in fact, its decline was famously the subject of the Michael Moore movie, Roger and Me. Today, Flint has very little revenue to spend on public infrastructure — including its water system, which for decades has received most of its resources from another struggling Michigan city, Detroit. Early last year, city officials — citing maintenance problems and money problems — said that Flint would begin taking its tap water instead from the nearby Flint River, despite concern over its long history of pollution during the Industrial Revolution.

Some experts wondered if the new city drinking water would be safe. They had no idea:

Almost immediately after the city started drawing from the Flint River in April 2014, residents began complaining about the water, which they said was cloudy in appearance and emitted a foul odor.

Since then, complications from the water coming from the Flint River have only piled up. Although city and state officials initially denied that the water was unsafe, the state issued a notice informing Flint residents that their water contained unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases.

Protesters marched to City Hall in the fierce Michigan cold, calling for officials to reconnect Flint’s water to the Detroit system. The use of the Flint River was supposed to be temporary, set to end in 2016 after a pipeline to Lake Huron’s Karegnondi Water Authority is finished.

A petition lobbying for the ending the city’s Flint River water supply garnered 26,000 signatures.

Through continued demonstrations by Flint residents and mounting scientific evidence of the water’s toxins, city and state officials offered various solutions — from asking residents to boil their water to providing them with water filters — in an attempt to work around the need to reconnect to the Detroit system.

Talk about a slow-motion train wreck. These are some of the most toxic substances known to man, and a recent test showed that the number of children in Flint with lead pollution in their bloodstream has nearly doubled since the 2014 water switch. The bad news finally forced the state of Michigan to find the dollars to switch back to the Detroit water, but the ill effects of the lead poisoning are likely irreversible. Here’s a bleak analysis of the situation:

No, the emergency in Flint is about the consequences of lead exposure, which can last a lifetime. Weaver said that the health effects on children will increase the “need for special education and mental health services and an increase in the the juvenile justice system.”

Young children are particularly to the toxic effects of ingested lead, as they absorb four to five times as much as adults, according to the World Health Organization. In particular, WHO states:

[L]ead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.

This is a case of governmental abuse on a massive scale, and it’s no surprise that this happened in a struggling low-income community, where residents’ cries for help fell on deaf ears for months, until it was essentially too late. Poor communities like Flint are always the first to get dumped on, and the last to get relief from government — if it ever comes at all. If there’s any justice in this world, the tragedy in Flint will be a warning to other public officials about the price of inaction.

Read more about the new state of emergency in Flint from the Washington Post:

Find out more about the health and environmental impacts of the Flint water crisis:

Learn more about my fights against polluters in low-income neighborhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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