The Flint Water Crisis in 2021: Accountability in the Age of Climate Change

 /  April 24, 2021, 10:43 a.m.

Flint Michigan
Flint, MI in July 2010

Even before the Flint water crisis, Michigan struggled with water issues like zebra mussels, dumping from the Wolverine Boot Company, PFAS contamination, and its ongoing fight with Wisconsin for bottling rights. In 2014, these issues came to a head when contaminated water caused an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease in Flint. Coupled with ongoing complaints from city residents regarding their water supply, this led to a state-run investigation into the switching of Flint’s water sources from the city’s original, safer Detroit plant to the local and more polluted Flint River. Now, former Michigan governor Rick Snyder is facing a lawsuit that claims he failed the residents of Flint by approving the switch.

Flint’s water crisis began long before the national media gave it attention in 2014. For decades, companies and individuals used the Flint River as a dumping ground for contaminated materials and general refuse. Flint was once a hub for automotive production, and still is to a degree. However, much of the remaining industry has been closed down due to increases in oil prices and the progressive overtake of American auto companies by foreign competitors. In 2013, Flint went bankrupt because of financial mismanagement and saw a steep increase in joblessness. The city’s financial woes would soon exacerbate its water troubles.

At the beginning of his administration, Snyder appointed a transition team tasked with switching the city’s water source from Detroit to the heavily polluted Flint River. The team, along with the Snyder administration, decided to make the switch because they saw it as cost-effective. Along with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and with direct oversight from the governor’s office, this team implemented the switch while also proposing that a new pipeline from Lake Huron would be built to eventually deliver cleaner water, and that Flint would only temporarily get its water from the Flint River. This switch would prove catastrophic in the months and years to come and is still felt today by Flint residents. However, from the crisis came greater national understanding and recognition of environmental injustice. While Flint’s residents paid a heavy burden, greater sensitivity to the intersection of climate change and racism has emerged as a silver lining.

The Flint Water Crisis

Soon after Flint switched its water source, residents began to complain about strange taste and color in their tap water. These complaints were ignored by both the media and local government officials. The government assured residents that the water was safe to drink, while residents still distrusted their word. The Snyder administration also refused to acknowledge that the water was unsafe. Then in 2015, a Virginia Tech study found that the water was highly poisonous, as the lead levels were much higher than what was legally allowed. Lead levels over 15 parts per billion are unsafe, and the study found an average of 2000 parts per billion, with a low of 300 and a high of 13,000. 

State officials still insisted that the water was safe even after this incriminating evidence. However, the damage was already taking effect, as lead poisoning in children doubled from the initial switch in 2014 to the study late in 2015. The Legionnaires Disease outbreak also happened simultaneously with the switch. Over eighty cases and twelve deaths were recorded, making it one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaires Disease in American history.

Today in Flint, there is still general distrust of the water and government in general, although the water is under the legal limit for lead parts per billion. In March 2021, residents were able to apply for compensatory stipends that aimed to alleviate some of the financial burden the water crisis had on the city. While the city is still dealing with the fallout of exported automotive jobs and an underfunded local government, the worst of the water crisis looks to be over. That being said, many residents still use bottled water out of distrust of the government. Furthermore, those that contracted Legionnaires Disease will deal with side effects like poor lung health and shortness of breath for the rest of their lives.

Prosecuting State Officials 

After the Flint Water Crisis started to garner national media attention, the state attorney’s office began to press charges against certain government members. Among those charged were Snyder, his chief of staff, and his senior adviser. Most cases were prosecuted in 2016 and 2017, with key officials like emergency managers Gerard Ambrose and Darnell Earley charged with multiple felonies. However, like most of the cases, they were dropped in 2019 after the gubernatorial race ended Snyder’s administration.

Prosecutors on the new case brought forth by current Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the state attorney general say that Snyder participated in a five-year-long cover-up of the incident, and that he should be held accountable. Many people that worked on Snyder’s transition team were also indicted. Most of the charges resulted in fines, but in 2017, former State Attorney General Bill Schuette leveraged involuntary manslaughter charges against the head of the transition team. However, like many of the local official charges, they were dropped in 2019 as a new team headed by Whitmer took charge.

Fast forward to 2021. Snyder is now charged with willful neglect, a charge that could mean up to a year of jail time or a fine of $1000. This is not as harsh as the involuntary manslaughter or perjury charges that faced many of the other state officials involved, but is still consequential. As of mid April, the judge has still not made a decision. 

The Growing Movement Against Environmental Injustice

Regardless of whether Snyder is acquitted or convicted, his charge shows that the judicial system is taking environmental crimes more seriously. The Flint water crisis signals that environmental crises and instances of environmental racism are receiving more publicity. The phrase environmental racism is defined as “environmental injustice that occurs within a racialized context.” Certain minorities are more likely to live in areas stricken by poverty, adverse effects of climate change, and pollution, putting these communities at greater risk for environmental crises. For instance, a majority of Flint’s residents are Black. 

The case of Southside Recycling in Chicago reveals how greater public attention is being paid to environmental racism. Formerly known as General Iron, Southside Recycling is being called out for their plan to move a recycling/scrap metal facility to the Southeast of Chicago, a collection of minority neighborhoods. Residents of the southeast side of Chicago filed a lawsuit against the creation of this plant earlier in 2021. This plant would drastically harm the air purity and quality of life for those living in and around the area. Many local news stations and community leaders are opposing the new move, citing environmental injustice among other factors. There is a growing distrust of General Iron because of the closed door meetings the company has had with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. While it might be some time before regulators and local government fully manages the company’s proposed movements, this could be a turning point. Growing backlash to environmental disasters like this one and the Flint Water Crisis might suggest that governments are changing the way they deal with environmental crises and environmental racism.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Andrew Jameson and can be found here.

Henry Branch


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