By Ryan Ricks
Six years ago, on April 25th, 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan’s water source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. It was a switch that had been planned and worked on since 2012. The completion of the project was celebrated with a toast by the mayor of Flint along with other city officials. The switch was supposed to save money, but instead it caused one of the infamous public health crises in recent history.
This day is widely seen as the beginning of the Flint water crisis. Residents immediately started complaining about the cloudy appearance of their water, its awful smell, and its metallic taste, but their concerns were met with repeated affirmations from government officials that the water was safe. Soon, over 100,000 Flint residents would be exposed to high lead levels in their water due to the failure of Flint officials to add corrosion inhibitors to the water. Lead and bacteria from the city’s old pipes had leached into the water, causing the effects Flint residents would be complaining about.
The outrage that followed led to changes in leadership, criminal charges, and efforts to change all the lead pipes in Flint.
After eighteen months, in October 2015, government officials finally acknowledged that the switch had been mishandled, and Flint’s water source was switched back to the Detroit River.
But the water crisis in Flint isn’t over. In February 2017, the change in water supply was found to be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia, that killed 12 people and infected 87 others. Additionally, since 2016 there has been an ongoing effort to replace lead service lines in Flint, with over 9,000 lead lines having been replaced as of February 2020. The city expects to finish replacing lead lines by July 2020.
However, this replacement effort, and other projects like it, have done little to restore Flint residents’ trust in government. Tests may show that the water is safe now, but according to a 2019 report by local news source M-Live, many residents still use bottled water to “drink, bathe, and clean.”
Many residents are seeking justice for what was done to them. So far, 15 people who worked in state and local government roles have been charged with crimes related to the crisis. None have served any jail time. Additionally, on April 16, 2020, Vice News published an article containing evidence of corruption and a coverup by former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, and the consequences of the exposé have yet to be seen.
The deadline for bringing charges against those involved in the Flint Water Crisis seems, for many, to be April 25, 2020, when the Michigan statute of limitations runs out. However, the Michigan Attorney General’s office disputes this, saying that “criminal statutes of limitations vary depending on the offense and the date of the alleged criminal act.” In the same statement by Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy, they say that their investigation is “on track” and that they are “delivering on [their] commitment to the people of Flint.” This statement comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also raised concerns about its impact on the investigation of the crisis.
The water crisis has also impacted the mental health of Flint residents. Many have experienced (and still experience), anxiety over the quality of their water. A study by the University of Michigan showed that the lower people believed their tap water quality to be, the less and lower quality sleep they got.
Because the crisis is so recent, some of its effects have yet to be completely identified or understood, such as the effects of the high lead exposure on Flint’s children. However, what affects the lead exposure will have on the children of Flint can be estimated by what we know childhood lead exposure can do to children. Studies have shown that being exposed to high levels of lead as a child causes a reduction in intellectual functioning, academic performance, and problem-solving skills, as well as an increased risk of ADHD, aggression, and hyperactivity.
The total economic cost of the crisis won’t be fully known until Flint’s children grow up. How much less will these children be earning as they grow up due to the effects of childhood lead exposure? How much will be spent in criminal justice, health, and special education system expenditures? That’s where the real long-term cost of the crisis lies, not just in replacing lead pipes and using a different water source.
The Flint water crisis started because of a desire to reduce costs. Instead, it incurred a different and much larger cost. The crisis may not dominate the news cycles anymore, but for residents of Flint, it is just as relevant as ever, and it will continue to be for years to come.
Image courtesy of https://storymaps.arcgis.com/