The Flint Michigan water crisis – corporate criminality and environmental pollution

May 11, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Rupen Savoulian

The emerging details of the terrible water crisis afflicting the residents of Flint, Michigan state, indicate not only the enormously adverse impacts of this case of environmental pollution, it also reveals criminal extent to which the state-corporate authorities have tried to cover up and downplay the detrimental effects of the contaminated water on the community.

From April 2014 until October 2015, the source of water provided to the residents of Flint, Michigan was the Flint river, well known to be polluted with a cocktail of toxic substances. The city authorities of Flint decided to change over from their usual source of water, Lake Huron (which is managed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) over to Flint as a cost-cutting measure. This decision, undertaken by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed emergency managers for Flint, was intended to save millions of dollars, and act at the first step towards the creeping privatisation of the DWSD. A desperate cost-cutting measure, this move placed financial gain above the safety of the public.

Residents of Flint began reporting to their respective county authorities, and to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, that their water was unusually malodorous, reddish-brown in colour, was causing medical problems to those who consumed it, and was unfit for human consumption. Residents began experiencing rashes, hair loss, and vomiting. The contaminated water was used for drinking and bathing. Despite complaints, the authorities assured Flint that the water did not contain any dangerous or toxic elements.

The pollutants from Flint River turned out to be highly corrosive, and leached quantities of lead from the lead-piping system in place in Flint. As the lead accumulated in the water, collected by the corrosive toxic chemicals in the water, this highly potent mix reached the water taps of Flint’s residents. They began consuming water with dangerously elevated levels of lead. Lead poisoning, a potentially lethal affliction that results in disorders of the nervous system and developmental delays, is of especial danger to children and the fetuses of pregnant women. Flint’s tap water had become toxic for the residents.


The United States has a serious and widespread problem with dilapidated infrastructure, and this problem extends far beyond the borders of Flint, Michigan. Chris Sellers, professor of history at Stony Brook University (The State University of New York) wrote an extensive article for The Conversation in which he details the historical legacy of lead piping that is in place in the underbelly of various American cities. Lead was used for the water piping for cities and towns throughout the United States from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the medical hazards of lead poisoning and the neurotoxicity of lead were not fully cognised at first.

While the lead industry grew rich and powerful, public health was adversely affected, with toxic consequences for the people who consumed lead-contaminated water. Federal laws were passed in the 1970s and 1980s banning the use of lead in manufacturing pipes, and laws regulating the quality of water were also enacted to safeguard public health and safety. It was the Reagan administration, a regime known for its strident advocacy of smaller government, that signed into law amendments to the safe drinking water laws that finally saw leaded piping completely banned.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder was made fully aware of the lead-contaminated water flowing through the city’s piping system by numerous emails in late 2014 and through 2015. Email communications released under the freedom of information provisions clearly establish that the governor, and the highest political authorities in Michigan, were fully informed about the extent of lead-poisoning. Yet in the interests of cost-cutting, nothing was done. Governor Snyder had the power to call a state of emergency in the area, and could have responded to the water contamination crisis with the urgency that it deserves. Yet he delayed and did nothing until a public outcry forced the authorities to act. Why is this the case?



Environmental racism


The poison is not just in the water; people in Flint are suffering from the toxic mix of austerity economics, privatisation, the undermining of democracy and the decrepitude of public infrastructure. There is a long and poisonous legacy of environmental racism running through the United States. In an article entitled ‘Flint isn’t the only place with racism in the water’, authors Danyelle Solomon and Tracey Ross, explain that the rise and development of American industrial-finance capitalism is heavily interlinked with environmental racism. Flint’s population is 56 percent African American, and the majority of Flint’s residents are in the low socioeconomic bracket – which means they live from paycheck to paycheck.

Flint, Michigan, the home town of General Motors and once a booming industrial city, has declined to the point where basic infrastructure – schools, public transportation, health care, and now the water system – have fallen into ruins. In the heyday of the motor industry, Flint – and the entire city of Detroit – were booming, and the residents had access to solid social services that kept the community going. However, not everything was rosy – in the 1960s, General Motors, with its plants around Flint, dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Flint river. All this time, the majority residents of Flint were African American.

As Solomon and Ross elaborate in their article:


Environmental racism is entwined with the country’s industrial past. At the beginning of the 20th century, zoning ordinances emerged as a way to separate land uses in order to protect people from health hazards. Over time, however, city planning and zoning ordinances focused less on public health and more on creating idyllic communities, protecting property rights, and excluding “undesirables.” In other words: The least desirable communities were reserved for discarding waste and marginalized people alike. 

By the 1930s, federal leaders began to make large investments in creating stable, affluent, and white communities in the suburbs, while giving local governments the autonomy to neglect low-income communities and communities of color. New highways and waste facilities were constructed in marginalized communities, where they cut through businesses or homes and exposed residents to excessive pollution.


Black communities were left with the legacies of toxic waste and pollution. This reflects the reality of class power in the United States; Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University, Carl S. Taylor, explained that Flint represents a class and race issue – dumping pollutants and contaminants in the midst of communities that are poor and black is nothing new in the American capitalist experience. Lawrence Ware, professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University Ethics Centre, explained that environmental racism – the disproportionate exposure of minority and poor communities to contaminated, polluted air water and soil – is occurring yet again in Flint, and combine that with the closing merging sectors of industrial developers with local political authorities, and the result is the legacy of pollution and contamination that Flint’s residents are struggling with today.



Private greed and public welfare


Professor Marc Edwards, an academic from Virginia Tech University, is an expert in environmental and water resources engineering. He had already exposed the high levels of lead toxicity in Washington DC’s drinking water back in 2003, and he was approached by Flint residents to examine the water supply in Flint. Sure enough, he found dangerously elevated levels of lead, which had been corroded from the city’s lead piping, by the pollutants in Flint River. Edwards and his team conducted extensive testing, and found that levels of lead in the water had reached 15 parts per billion (ppb), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that a level of only 5 ppb be applied, even in high-risk homes.

Yet, as the Socialist Worker magazine’s Dorian Bon explained:


In April 2014, Flint’s emergency manager was instructed to reroute the city’s water supply to use the highly polluted Flint River as the source. The river water corroded pipes, causing lead to leach into the water that came out of residents’ faucets.

Multiple regional and state government bodies, including Snyder’s own office, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, proceeded to deny and distort the truth about the ensuing lead poisoning crisis that afflicted Flint children most of all. Meanwhile, state employees in Flint quietly received $4,200 in bottled water at the state office building in Flint, and the local General Motors plant stopped using the river water because of the damage it caused to engine parts.


The bodies that are charged with ensuring the quality of the water supply to Flint’s residents, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the state authorities in Michigan, failed in their duty. Why is this the case?

Professor Edwards, in an article for Common Dreams online magazine, explained that private greed has distorted and perverted science, and the latter no longer serves the public welfare. Edwards expressed concerns that in academia, perverse financial incentives are used to pursue fame, funding, build up a reputation, rather than serving the public good. If academics, working in conjunction with corporatised government entities, do not take responsibility for ensuring that vital social services are provided, then cases like the Flint environmental contamination and subsequent poisoning of the city’s children, will happen again. However, there is one entity that is doing very well in the midst of this crisis – General Motors. The company has posted record profits for 2015 – $9.7 billion.

Bruce Clark, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investment service, commented that General Motors’ strong fourth quarter profits reflect the current health of the American auto industry. Perhaps he should reflect on the health of the residents of Flint, Michigan – such as Nakiya Wakes, who was advised that Flint’s water supply was safe to drink. She ingested high levels of lead, like thousands of other Flint people. She lost both twins she was carrying after consuming the water that authorities insisted was safe. Two days after her second miscarriage, she received a letter from the state authorities advising her not to drink the water.


In 1986, in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its consequent environmental pollution, serious questions were asked about the actions of the Soviet authorities in Ukraine at the time. Did they react quickly enough? How efficiently did they handle this crisis? It took the Soviet government a full day to understand the enormity of the nuclear catastrophe, 50,000 people were evacuated, and for a full seven months, extensive decontamination efforts were taken to restore the affected areas. The fallout from that disaster still resonates until today. Serious questions were asked about the Gorbachev administration, and how he could have better handled this crisis. Be that as it may, Chernobyl still stands as a reminder of the consequences of environmental contamination.

What does it say today, about the state of American capitalism, that the home town of a large corporate empire, is unable or unwilling to fix a serious water contamination issue that affects the lives and health of thousands of residents, while the corporation that resides in that town continues to accumulate staggering profits? Not only should Flint’s problems be at the forefront of American political discussion in this election year, but the barbarism of neoliberal capitalist austerity should be under serious public scrutiny. After poisoning a city, and leaving its victims to their own devices, it is surely time to hold Governor Snyder – and the doctrine of capitalist austerity that he implements – accountable for criminal depredations.







Rupen Savoulian

I am an activist, writer, socialist and IT professional. Born to Egyptian-Armenian parents in Sydney, Australia, my interests include social justice, anti-racism, economic equality and human rights.


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