How a lack of transparency poisoned Flint, Michigan

February 3, 2016 — by Saya Sivaram

We have been warned of the power that water holds over us all, and yet somehow, history has started to repeat itself — this time in a city called Flint.


History textbooks suggest that lead poisoning from the waters of Ancient Rome eventually led to its downfall. One of the greatest empires in the world was brought down by tainted aqueducts. It seems ridiculous, and we have since been warned of the power that water holds over us all, and yet somehow, history has started to repeat itself — this time in a city called Flint.

Flint is a city in Michigan that is populated mostly by low-income black families. The state’s governor, Rick Snyder, and the majority of the state legislature is white. Recently, it was discovered that the public water supply of Flint has been contaminated with lead and E. Coli, among other chemicals and toxins.

Officials have ascertained that the lead found in the water supply is a result of corroded pipes, and, according to the New York Times, has led to such high levels of contamination that it is more than twice the amount at which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies water as hazardous waste. How is it that a city in today’s world is facing the same problems as one from centuries past?

It is no coincidence that Flint is a poor community, with 40 percent of its inhabitants living below the poverty line, according to CNN. The question must therefore be asked: Did the Flint water crisis occur because of environmental racism?

The poisoning of an entire city’s water supply is not something that is commonly heard of in the U.S., and it’s hard to imagine it happening anywhere where the demographic was not so dominantly poor and black.

Perhaps  the reason behind the Flint water crisis has been negligence and the perpetuated racism that still pervades society and government.

Imagine if the water in Saratoga suddenly began to come out of taps with a blue tinge and a metallic taste. The community would barely have to lift a finger to get the issue properly corrected. Furthermore, each and every inhabitant would immediately receive some sort of compensation. This is an assumed truth, taken for granted by the majority of affluent communities.

But in Flint, people have had to live with this putrid water for over a year after an appointed, all-powerful manager made the switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a cost-cutting measure. Residents were assured again and again that the water that was clearly contaminated in some way was perfectly safe for drinking. Now, young children of the community face the threat of brain damage from the powerful neurotoxins in their water.

It is hard to imagine this happening in a community with any other demographic than that of Flint. After a year of police shootings and strained race relations, it’s difficult not to assume that the government’s negligence was caused by subtle racism.

The government was willing to sacrifice the safety of thousands for the sole reason of cost cutting, but ironically, this catastrophe will end up costing them millions.

If anything, this debacle has to galvanize change somehow, whether it be a more transparent government or scrutiny into the government’s interaction with its citizens.  

People deserve a clear line of sight into the governmental affairs that concern them — one that is not obstructed by bureaucracy. The parents of the poisoned children in Flint deserve to know how and why this catastrophe was permitted to occur. Even more crucial, what happened in Flint can never happen again to any community in the United States.

Government officials shouldn’t dodge legitimate complaints and hide behind the protection of ambiguity. Learning from the debacle that occurred in Flint is the least they can do.

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