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Government / Local politics

Flint, Michigan, accidentally poisoned its water supply. Its story holds lessons for other cities

Flint, Michigan, has always projected a distinctly gritty and often grim image to the rest of the United States. It’s one of the few cities that Detroit, 60 miles to the southeast, can look down on. It’s a city where even the good times seem to be hard times.

But times have been particularly hard in Flint since April 2014, when local and state officials carried out a dubious plan to use the Flint River to supply drinking water for the city. Locals were aware of the disastrous effects of the decision from the start; in recent months, it’s exploded into a national controversy.

Now, as the US and international media pick over the fallout from the city’s water crisis, citizens of Flint (or “Flintstones”, as they like to be called), find their town an unlikely poster child for the importance of building and maintaining proper urban infrastructure – and what can go wrong when cities do not.

Founded by a fur trader in the early 1800s, Flint’s population took off after General Motors was founded there in 1908. Though GM would later move to Detroit, Flint remained a booming automotive centre.

Not all of the windfall profits seen by GM’s management trickled down to the average Flintstone, however. In 1933, the city was the site of a memorable sit-down strike that formed the basis of the United Auto Workers, a powerful union.

All that came crashing down in the 1980, when GM’s flagship plant in Flint closed up shop. Thousands of workers found themselves out of a job, and the local economy plummeted. Over the coming decades, the city’s population dropped from a high of nearly 200,000 to less than 100,000.


And this decline hit city coffers hard. By 2014 officials, desperate to find some way to cut costs, were looking to the city’s water supply.

Since the 1960s, the city had been pumping in water from Detroit – an effective but costly source of water. So the city’s mayor, in conjunction with a special “emergency manager” appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, decided it would be better to begin pumping water out of the nearby Flint River.

While the measure succeeded at cutting costs, the negative effects to the health of average Flintstones were felt immediately. In June of 2014, residents began complaining of displeasing smells in their drinking water. Soon after, faucets in Flint began spouting brown and yellow tap water. By February 2015, it became clear that the water was tainted with an even more deadly contaminant: lead.

Though the contamination of the city’s drinking water had been caused by switching to water from the Flint River, it was just as much a product of the city’s decaying network of water mains. The system, comprised mostly of cast iron piping over 75 years old, reacted poorly to the warmer water from the river. It became a breeding ground for E. Coli bacteria, while also causing higher levels of oxidised iron to break from the pipes, causing the water’s unsightly brownish tint. And, as a research team from Virginia Tech revealed in September 2015, high chloride levels in the water caused lead to seep from the aging pipes.

Flint finally resolved to return to Detroit water in October 2015. But the damage had been done. And even after returning to its original water source, the city’s pipes continue to seep lead.

A resident carries bottled water, surrounded by volunteer militia.  Image: Brett Carlsen/Getty.

As the crisis over Flint’s water blew up over the last few weeks – including a federal emergency being declared and a visit from Obama – it has become the focus of a torrent of commentary from the nation’s media. But surprisingly, few seem to be holding up the city’s crisis as a crucial example of just how important it is to maintain urban infrastructure.

While the debate over the situation in Flint rages on, roughly 663m people worldwide don’t have access to reliable sources of water. Some developing world cities continue to experience a debilitating lack of water infrastructure – but others have made steady gains in creating reliable supplies. The results of the successes or failures of these projects are felt directly by people in these cities; infrastructure often occupies a prominent role in these cities’ politics.

But in the United States and other developed countries, generations of access to reliable infrastructure has all but erased it from the public psyche. Few people remember a time before having access to water was as simple as opening a household tap. The crisis in Flint is an example of just how dangerous this lack of attention can be.

To be sure, there are many lessons to be taken from Flint. Many have pointed out that Flint’s large population of African Americans is further evidence that the country’s deeply entrenched racism dies hard. And in an article at Vox, Flint writer Connor Coyne argued that the crisis was worsened by Governor Snyder’s imposition of “emergency managers”, who undermined the local decision making process and prolonged the crisis after Flintstones sounded the alarm.

But the level of apathy toward such fundamental services as clean water has undeniably been one cause of the crisis.

After nearly two years of dangerous drinking water, Flint’s story may have a happy ending – sort of. A new pipeline is set to be completed in June 2016 that will supply the city with water from Lake Huron without the need to pay the steep rates charged by Detroit. So far, though, little has been said about upgrading the city’s dilapidated water mains that played a key role in causing the crisis.

As Flint recovers from this devastating crisis, cities around the world fortunate enough to have good functioning water infrastructure should take note. While cutting maintenance funds for this infrastructure may be seem like a good idea in the short term, it comes with a high price tag down the line. 
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