Dark water, darker times: Flint’s water crisis isn’t over — and Donald Trump isn’t likely to help

originally posted on December 15, 2016


When Donald Trump visited Flint, Michigan, in September, he joked, “It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” If voters didn’t warm to this icebreaker about their drinking-water situation then, the future for Flint residents now seems even chillier under the president-elect’s apparent plans to gut environmental regulation.

 The Flint public-health crisis happened because of a combination of government cost-cutting and private sector waste dumping. And if the current EPA did little to help Flint, Trump’s dislike for the Clean Water Rule and his plan to replace federal EPA workers with part-time corporate CEOs does not bode well for largely forgotten poor communities in America. In that sense, Flint is the test case.

To hear Michael Hood, co-director of the disaster relief organization Crossing Water, describe Flint, you would think the apocalypse had already occurred in that city. “It looks like Lebanon in the ’80s after it got bombed,” he said by phone from Flint, where he works with a small, self-funded team to deliver water and connect poor and homebound residents with social services. “There are no jobs in Flint, and because of the water crisis, [residents’] homes are worthless. People can’t move, because no one will buy their houses – they’re worth pennies on the dollar.”

Nearly a year ago, the city of Flint declared a state of emergency, and Mayor Karen Weaver recently extended the emergency declaration, saying in a statement two weeks ago, “The fact of the matter is we still cannot drink our water without a filter.”

While media reports have detailed incoming federal funding to address infrastructure problems, and a Nov. 10 order by a federal judge demanded bottled-water delivery to all eligible families, Hood says the situation on the ground remains tenuous, and water is barely reaching those who need it most. “These are people who are not getting any information. We are most concerned about residents who are homebound — disabled, with no car, or in a wheelchair. “

The city of Flint has long been beleaguered by poverty and the loss of industrial jobs, in a more granular way than its bigger and shinier brother, Detroit. With the decline of the auto industry in the 1980s, Flint began to lose its economic footing. When the larger General Motors plants there closed, things went from bad to horrible. Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger and Me”, which chronicled GM CEO Roger Smith’s cutbacks of plant workers from 80,000 in the late ‘70s to 50,000 by 1992 (and now, perhaps only 5,000, according to NBC News), seems like a distant memory. Flint remains almost destitute.

It was that destitution that led to the 2014 decision in 2014 to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River, a former water supply that had become filled with known pollutants. The failure to put anti-corrosive chemicals in the river once Flint residents were expected to use this water caused lead to leach off the myriad vintage pipes that carry the city’s water. In 2015, large percentages of children who had been blood tested in Flint had elevated lead levels, and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, which is associated with bacteria-contaminated water, also occurred.  That disease has killed 12 people in and around Flint over the last two years. Gov. Rick Snyder and state legislators have so far approved roughly $234 million in Flint aid, but disaster relief workers on the ground like Hood say residents aren’t seeing any of it.

“We go in with rapid response service teams of a social worker, a plumber, an EMT or a nurse,” he explains. “We are the kings of ‘mission drift’ now – we do lots of water education, and this should be the critical part of the response, but some families are low on food, so we drop off food. We do clothing drops, lots of social service and medical visits. We use the water issue to get in the door, so we can establish a relationship to help with other things.”

Attorneys like Christine Ernst of the nonprofit Earthjustice Environmental Law say the remain cautiously hopeful about President-elect Trump’s campaign promises to fund state revolving funds and drinking water infrastructure.  But she adds, “He also ran on a highly anti-regulatory platform. We as an organization are all concerned.”

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