The city of Flint, Michigan, much like the neighboring city of Detroit, embodies the demise of former industrial cities in the American Midwest. The prosperity of the once affluent city depended entirely on large factories of the American automotive industry. From the 1980s, continuous de-industrialization and the closing of most of its factories, which was partly due to relocating production overseas, brought about the city’s massive economic and social decline.
Over the past fifty years, Flint’s population halved, leaving large parts of the city an urban wasteland. Public infrastructure and transit are sorely lacking, the poverty and crime rates are among the highest in the country. For the second time in a decade, Flint declared a financial emergency in 2011, meaning that the city could no longer meet its financial obligations. Vital decisions about the city’s administration and budget were placed in the hands of an emergency manager who was appointed by the governor.
For the past few weeks, the city has been in the spotlight of US media coverage. The story revolves around lead-contaminated drinking water, the failures of public authorities and their subsequent attempts to cover up what is one of the worst environmental scandals in recent US history. So what happened?
In early 2014, Flint’s emergency manager decided to stop tapping into the drinking water system of Detroit and instead use the local river as the city’s source of drinking water. This was supposed to translate into 5 million USD in savings. At the same time, the highly contaminated river water was not treated with the necessary chemicals to prevent corrosion of the water pipes. The residents’ protests that followed immediately were either ignored or played down by every authority in charge. For eighteen months, affected residents complained about the color and odor of the water, which caused skin problems and hair loss in many residents. For eighteen months, they were assured that the water wasn’t harmful and safe to drink. It wasn’t until the fall of 2015, when a pediatrician detected a significantly elevated concentration of lead in the blood of children, that the authorities had face up to public pressure.
In the meantime, several responsible staff members have resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency and the governor of Michigan has issued a formal apology. But the full scale of this disaster is almost impossible to predict: The lead-contaminated water may have permanently damaged the health of thousands of children. All of Flint’s residents now depend on delivered water for the foreseeable future. The cost to the city and the state will be immense. The crisis has triggered a heated political debate on a variety of topics that resonate with Americans far beyond Michigan.
Many citizens feel confirmed in their distrust of state authorities. All this is happening in a political climate in which anything that is considered ‘establishment’ is decried as corrupt and dysfunctional. The reputation of traditional democratic institutions has hit a historic low, from Congress and the government to the free press. These deeply-rooted misgivings about the establishment and the powerful is the same sentiment that makes private gun ownership such a loaded political topic. A local militia has already announced that they would now take charge of maintaining law and order in Flint.
At the same time, Flint is emblematic of a conservative political model that handles public budgets as if they were corporate budgets. Public budgets are often cut solely for the sake of short-term savings and increasing efficiency, with little regard for long-term social consequences and costs. The Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, is a prime example of this kind of politician.
As is mostly the case with environmental disasters, the poorest and weakest members of society are the ones who bear the brunt of the burden. In the predominantly black city of Flint, this also raises accusations of racism, rekindling a debate on “environmental racism” and “environmental discrimination”. Coined in the 1980s, these terms describe the fact that black and poor residents are disproportionally affected by air, water and soil pollution.
Not least, the Flint disaster is another symptom of the lamentable state of American public infrastructure. As is the case throughout the US, many water lines in Flint are over a century old. The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, estimates that over the next 25 years, 1 trillion USD will need to be invested in water line repairs alone. The necessity to invest in public infrastructure, from power lines to roads, bridges and railways, is a well-known fact. And yet, little action has been taken so far, partly because of the polarized political climate which turns any bipartisan budget negotiations into a herculean effort. The public outcry about Flint’s contaminated drinking water will do little to change this.
Republican presidential candidates have been conspicuously silent in the Flint debate so far. Environmental problems and negligent oversight do not seem to fit into their agendas, especially when a white Republican governor seems to be mainly responsible for a disaster in a predominantly black, poor and mostly Democrat-leaning city.
Translated from German by Kerstin Trimble