One of the most worst cases of environmental pollution in US history is taking place in Flint, Michigan — a suburb of Detroit that is majority African American.
The citizens of this small city of 100,000 have been deliberately poisoned through their drinking water for more than a year. The worst exposure has been to lead, a known neurotoxin that, once in the body, cannot be removed.
Lead harms everyone exposed to it, but it hits children especially hard. It causes permanent damage to the brain and other parts of the nervous system.
Karen Weaver, a clinical psychiatrist, told independent news outlet Democracy Now! on December 17: “For children under five, including of pregnant and nursing mothers, it causes irreversible cognitive deficits, cognitive delays, learning disabilities and behavioural problems. This costs a generation of youngsters.”
The criminals responsible are officials at the local, state and even federal level.
Detroit and its environs, including Flint, was the long-time centre of the automobile industry and the United Automobile Workers (UAW). In the mid-1930s, a series of “sit-down strikes” – factory occupations - were key to the newly formed UAW's entrenchment.
The most famous sit-down strike was in Flint, which led to a major battle with the police. This was part of the labour upsurge that led to the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO).
The restructuring of the auto industry that began in the 1980s lead to the severe decline of the industry in greater Detroit and widespread impoverishment. Large numbers of Blacks had migrated to Detroit to work in the car industry and cities like Flint are predominantly African American.
This is the background to the events leading up to Flint's water crisis. In 2010, Republican Rick Snyder was elected Michigan governor in a wave of Tea Party-backed victories in several states. Snyder, citing economic problems as an excuse, put Detroit and many other cities under “emergency management”. All but one of these cities is majority Black.
Emergency rule was declared in Flint in November 2011. Under these decrees, all power is concentrated in a “manager” appointed by the governor. The manager usurps the powers of elected mayors, city councils, boards of education and other officials. The manager can break all labour contracts and city laws.
In April 2014, the Flint emergency manager, Darnell Earley, switched the city's water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River “to save money.”
The Flint River was already notorious for its high pollution, having served as dumping ground for abandoned cars and even bodies. The brown water is filled with all kinds of chemicals. People could also observe “floaters” in the river — the nature of which I'll leave to the imagination of readers.
Immediately, residents began to complain that the water from their taps was yellow or brown — and stank. City officials claimed that their tests showed that the water was safe to drink and bath in. It has now come to light that these same officials joked among themselves that all this was just an “aesthetics” problem.
Then-Flint mayor Dayne Walling, without any power and just a lackey of the Snyder-appointed manager, called on city leaders to “toast” the switch to the Flint River by raising glasses of the water. There is no report on how many actually imbibed the filth.
Soon residents noticed rashes, hair loss, muscle pains and cramps. After reports of spreading sicknesses, the city water authorities admitted after a few months that the water contained coliform bacteria. They told residents to boil the water, but that it was otherwise still safe.
Residents began showing up at city council meetings with jugs of brown water. A state legislator wrote to Snyder that his constituents were “on the verge of civil unrest”.
Then in October 2014, one of the remaining auto plants in the city, a General Motors engine factory, stopped using Flint water because it was corroding parts. This was proof that the water was highly corrosive, but still the authorities claimed the water was safe.
At this point, the authorities should have known that lead was being leached from old water pipes into the drinking water due to corrosion. Either they failed to test for lead, or covered it up.
In January last year, there was an investigation into potentially harmful levels of disinfection byproducts used to deal with bacteria. These byproducts are known carcinogens. Again the water was declared safe.
Then on March 27, Flint officials once more said tests showed the water was safe.
But the big bombshell happened when two studies showed the extent of lead poisoning. In August, a Flint paediatrician Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha had dinner with a friend, who told her that Flint water is not treated with an anti-corrosive. She was immediately concerned, because she knew that lead could be leached from lead water pipes, posing a danger to children.
She started an investigation into lead levels in Flint children, and found high levels in the blood of many children.
Meanwhile, a different investigation by Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Teach, an expert on corrosion-caused lead in water supplies, found high lead levels — some way off the charts — in water in Flint homes.
When Hanna-Attisha presented her findings at a press conference in September, she was attacked by state and local authorities. They accused her of faking her data and vilified her publicly. State regulators insisted the water was safe. Edwards also announced his findings at a press conference, to similar responses.
But so great was the outrage by Flint residents and beyond that Snyder finally admitted at the end of September that lead in the water was a problem. Authorities began to take some measures in response. Snyder has sought to deflect, blaming underlings, but there is now a huge outcry demanding his resignation.
Public outrage has forced Snyder to release secret emails from state officials that showed they were aware of the situation months ago.
Water authorities in Flint, at a state level and even a leading official at the federal Environmental Protection Agency have resigned in disgrace.
Since the water switch, Flint has been hit by a sudden spike in Legionnaire's disease, which can be fatal. The bacterium that causes it is found in the river water. The corrosives in the water also leach out iron, which eats up the chlorine put in the water to kill the bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease.
The scandal in Flint has combined with one in Detroit — the collapsing system of public education. It turns out that Flint's emergency manager, who sent the polluted Flint River into the water system, has a new job: unelected emergency manager of Detroit schools.
He is now in charge of destroying public education in the city, furthering a process underway for the past 25 years under both Democratic and Republican governors. He is set to cut off funding for Detroit schools next April.
Conditions have become so bad in Detroit's schools that teachers in January staged “sick outs” — they cannot legally strike — in protest of underfunding, crumbling buildings infested with black fungus and rats, leaks of rain, smells and inadequate staffing.
There was an outpouring of support for the teachers from students and parents. The city retaliated, seeking court-ordered punishment of the teachers.
Two generalisations can be made. Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union who has helped lead the fight over Flint water and Detroit schools, says of both scandals: “What we are seeing here is really the imposition of austerity. This is what austerity looks like.”
That is, we see in Detroit and Flint the same “solution” to capitalist-caused economic hardship we see throughout the world — austerity imposed on the workers and oppressed. The victims of capitalism's crisis are made to pay the price.
The second generalisation is reflected in a New York Times headline: “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint.”
Blacks and other people of colour have been protesting for years across the US against the disproportionate funnelling of pollution into their communities — and away from white areas. This type of racist disregard for peoples of colour is evident in Flint and Detroit.