Flint River, photo by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers
There is something terribly disturbing about the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan. When state leaders can’t even deliver basic services such as safe drinking water, they have failed.
The background to the tragic situation in Flint is an austerity politics that seeks to cut back basic government services in the name of cost-cutting.
The city of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron (which is where Detroit gets its water) to the Flint River in April 2014. It was a move designed to save a very economically depressed city some money. It was the wrong move. An Emergency Manager appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed off on the decision. Rather than putting the interests of citizens first, the unelected, all-powerful Emergency Manager was charged with making hard-headed “business” decisions. That approach—in Flint and elsewhere around the country—has had disastrous results.
Right away, children and residents got sick from drinking the water, even though the city managers assured them it was safe. By August, the water tested positive for E-coli and by September 2014, citizens had been advised to boil their water before drinking it by local officials.
In January 2015, residents were lining up daily to get free bottled water and the city was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The number of children testing positive for elevated levels of lead had skyrocketed since the switch from Lake Huron. By April 2015 city officials were demanding that the water source be changed back but had no power to make it happen. State officials, led by Governor Snyder, dragged their feet and did not take the unfolding disaster seriously. It got worse.
By July 2015, the governor’s office still did nothing substantial to deliver safe drinking water to the citizens in the city. Children continued to suffer. It was only just recently, after months of delay and failed leadership, and calls from citizens for the arrest and indictment of Governor Snyder, that the Snyder administration finally declared a state of emergency.
The state now is providing access to clean water to the citizens of Flint. Governor Snyder apologized twice to the city for his mistakes. Yet doctors say it will take years to determine the extent of damage to children in the city due to exposure to lead. The children who sustained brain damage will never recover.
The water crisis in Flint did not have to happen.
Just as Michigan did not have to cut corners on safe drinking water, politicians around the country are putting cost-cutting ahead of the health of thousands of citizens in their states by refusing to accept the federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
This is no way to serve the people. The people of Flint and others deserve a government responsive to their basic needs, not one beholden to an anti-democratic ideology.
Poet Brian Gilmore’s latest book is We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.