Clean drinking water is a right. Not a privilege. Unfortunately, a predominantly poor, black community north of Detroit, Michigan lost that right when people in power prioritized short-cuts and special interests over basic survival needs of the people they are supposed to serve.
What happened to Flint’s drinking water is just the most recent example of people in power trampling over the rights of those without that power.
The problem with the water in Flint
If anyone asks whether you would rather drink water from a beautiful lake, like Lake Huron, or from a city river with industrial runoff and sewage, like the Flint River, choose the lake. Every time. Of course, the people of Flint were not given that option. They probably would have said “no thanks” to the industrial sewage.
What makes the Flint River such an atrocious source for water is its high levels of chloride, making it “corrosive” and extremely difficult to sanitize. Further, the corrosive quality of the water acts like a magnet to lead. LEAD. What you once thought was an environmental and health nightmare from the 70s and 80s showed up in the drinking water, the homes, and devastatingly, the children of Flint.
Lead poisoning — even at low levels of exposure — is highly dangerous, causing severe cognitive and development issues in children. There is a reason that people do everything in their power to keep lead the hell away from them. Those in charge of protecting the people of Flint ended up poisoning the city’s children with lead.
In Flint, the warning signs were immediate. Mere months after the city’s water started coming from the Flint River, General Motors decided that Flint’s water wasn’t good enough for auto parts so the company struck a deal to have its manufacturing facility receive water from Detroit instead.
Car parts: 1. People of Flint: 0.
Whose idea was it to switch the water?
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, elected in 2011 and a former CEO of a computer company with little governing experience, had tapped several “emergency financial managers” across the state in cities that had no money, including Flint.
As a way to save money, one of the managers in 2014 chose to switch Flint’s water from Detroit’s source of Lake Huron to the Flint River. To ensure that this switch would not poison people and forever change the lives of thousands of children, a system to sanitize the water would need to be in place. It was not. The “emergency managers” appointed by Governor Snyder made the switch anyway, opening spigots of poisonous water across the city like some alternate plot in a Batman movie. In this version, however, the villains are not masked lunatics and dark-alley criminals, but those in charge of managing a city.
The switch was supposed to save $1 million. If trading the health and safety of children to save money seems like a deal with the devil, it’s pretty close.
The infamous Koch brothers are not the only family that has used its gargantuan fortune to impact policy for the worse. In Michigan, another family has been throwing its money around to support an ideological agenda that led to the Flint water crisis.
Who gave them that idea?
Behind the decision to switch Flint’s water source is a political concept from a think tank funded by a family determined to turn their extremist government-sabotaging ideas into policy. Policies that make government so dysfunctional that it leads to the poisoning of an entire community of children.
The think tank in question here is the Mackinac Center of Michigan funded by the powerful and defiantly conservative DeVos family. In Jane Mayer’s recent book “Dark Money”, she claims that “few played bigger roles than the DeVoses in bankrolling the conservative movement” that the Devoses. The family owes its fortune to the ownership of Amway marketing, which sells everything from household cleaners to nutritional supplements. A fraction of their enormous wealth has been used to fund conservative think tanks like the Mackinac Center, a conservative Michigan think tank and offshoot of the DC-based Heritage Foundation. Along with Charles and David Koch, the DeVos family and their foundations are some of the biggest financial backers of the Mackinac Center and Dick Devos served on its board. Devos made a failed bid for the governor of Michigan in 2006.
In 2011, Snyder was elected governor. In coordination with conservative state legislators, Snyder quickly moved to enact the emergency manager law, which allowed appointed — not elected — city managers to privatize city services, cancel union contracts, and dissolve local governments. Snyder had done so under the influence of the Mackinac Center, and included all of the recommendations from the think tank regarding the power and ability of these emergency managers.
And then one of those managers chose to cut costs by giving the people of Flint untreated water that would later end up poisoning them with lead, a move from which the community may never recover.
So, Flint is no accident. It is the gruesome outcome of systematic racism and people must be held accountable. It is the logical result of an ideological agenda that deliberately sabotages well-functioning government services and basic infrastructure in the name of fiscal austerity.
The same story is being played out — in different ways — all over the country. Government functions that help keep communities healthy — including basic environmental rights and public health services — have been weakened and tossed in the name of bloodless bureaucratic budget cuts. Recalling a few politicians and firing a few bureaucrats — while necessary — is not enough to solve the problem or keep it from happening over and over. The poisonous policies that Devos and Koch-funded groups like the Mackinac Center have been pushing must be exposed and expunged at the same time. And candidates running to replace the toady politicians that serve these social saboteurs need to demonstrate an understanding of the bigger backstory and offer an agenda that treats the causes, not just the symptoms.
This weekend, our Democratic presidential candidates will debate in Flint, Michigan. More than 80,000 people have asked the CNN debate moderators to push the candidates on issues of environmental justice and institutional racism. We expect them to answer that request, telling everyone how they plan to hold those accountable for poisoning a city and how to ensure it never happens again.
For more behind what caused the Flint water crisis, and several other social, racial and environmental injustices in the state of Michigan, please follow We the People of Detroit.