REVIEW: How Flint, Michigan Became America's Poisoned City

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The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark  

Metropolitan Books 320 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

Water. One of the four basic elements of antiquity. 71% of the earth’s surface and 60% of the human body. We use it to cook, clean, cultivate, and drink until our crystal clear elixir sputters out of the tap in a brackish, noisome discharge. There is perhaps no greater symbol of violated public trust than when the supply of potable water becomes suspect, when citizens recoil from a basic necessity of healthy society.

The Poisoned City, a new book by Detroit freelancer Anna Clark, chronicles the multiple catastrophic missteps and corruptions that led to the injury of thousands of Flint, Michigan’s residents by their water system. Clark has written a marvelous study of the labor, racial, and environmental history leading to the Flint water crisis, as well as the public response and resistance to it. She makes a strong case for Flint as a historical bellwether of American social upheavals, including battles over organized labor, civil rights, fair housing, and urban blight brought on with the subsidizing of suburban “separatism.”

What started in Flint as a bankrupt Midwestern borough looking for a cheaper alternative source of potable water turned into an environmental health disaster. As deadly toxins including e coli and lead poured out of family faucets, local and state government officials ignored citizen complaints and covered up scientific data when swift action to prevent harm was of the essence.

Flint headed downward in the 1990's, with the substantial relocation of General Motors’ auto production and the subsequent flight of working families. With that exodus, Flint lost the tax base necessary to sustain an infrastructure originally built for many more thousands of residents. Later, when the mortgage market crashed and the national economy tumbled into recession, Flint’s population decline and rising unemployment led to the deterioration of existing housing and utilities.

Simultaneously, Michigan's Republican-controlled state legislature cut tens of millions of dollars from large cities rather than raise taxes necessary to maintaining basic infrastructure. As those services became more and more expensive, paid for by fewer and fewer taxpayers, water costs to the city and to individual home-owners skyrocketed.

Flint had long gotten its drinking water from Lake Huron, by way of Detroit’s public works, but city officials hoped to reduce costs by rehabilitating Flint’s abandoned treatment facility to draw its own water. While that project was underway the city temporarily transferred its main source of drinking water to the Flint River, long an ecological embarrassment.

When the city failed to appropriately treat the river water against bacteria and corrosive elements that degraded Flint’s aging maze of iron and lead piping, a series of public health afflictions ensued, including skin rashes, lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ Disease.

Assurances from city officials that the water was safe—and manipulation of test results that countered that narrative—covered up the dire situation even as residents cataloged its discoloration, foul odor, and gastrointestinal side effects.

Clark traces responsibility back to Flint's loss of self-rule under Michigan’s Emergency Management laws, a Republican brainchild that strips democratic representation from minority communities in operational crisis. Emergency managers, appointed by the Governor and unassailable by the electorate, are vested with tremendous unilateral executive power. Their decisions—like transferring a city’s water supply from a Great Lake to a tainted river—are made and carried out without public input or accountability.

Students of 21st century Republicanism will recognize the gambit of Flint’s water management officials—conceal and obfuscate, then accuse those who disseminate public information of manufacturing facts. Through projection, they make perpetrators out of victims. Meanwhile, Clark discloses the multiple instances of public servants mismanaging their responsibilities, neglecting due diligence, and lying about viable solutions.

This dark story is not without heroes.  Clark lauds the defiant efforts of parents and preachers, scientists and journalists who perpetuated the Flint tradition of refusing to let truth become a casualty of profit and political ambition. Despite city officials’ malicious manipulation of water testing procedures and results, local citizens dove into the details of what was occurring to expose those responsible.

The book stands not only as an excellent piece of political and environmental investigative journalism, but also as a study of urban American racial politics. Clark traces the impact of early 20th century redlining, overcrowding, and sub-standard infrastructure on the crisis. It should come as no surprise that the tainted water's deleterious effects were most severe in poor, black neighborhoods that were deliberately created through segregationist housing policies when the city was thriving. 

As the dominoes of middle-class flight and urban blight toppled, a series of unforeseen consequences revealed once again that government subsidization of suburbs leads to the dilapidation of the inner city that is left behind. Clark cites multiple American cities that have suffered similar deterioration as governments redirected money from majority-minority urban hubs to majority-white suburban spokes.

Since the dawn of industrialization, air, earth, water—and humanity—have been under assault. While the advancement of mankind may inevitably brings costs, they always seem to be imposed on the least fortunate. In an increasingly Dickensian America, we the surplus population, whether in Flint, Michigan or Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, must continually fight for our fair share of American abundance.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.