Environmental Injustice: The Flint Water Crisis

Public health crisis exposed Michigan city to lead and bacteria for years.

Flint River, Flint Michigan
Flint River, Flint, Michigan. DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income when it comes to the development and implementation of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

All around the country, vulnerable communities are taking the brunt of environmental pollution in ways that they simply can’t escape. When the Flint water crisis began in 2014, it started what environmental justice experts would later call “the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism” in recent U.S. history.

Environmental Injustice Definition

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as follows:

“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies can have negative consequences on the environment, and no group of people should have to experience a disproportionate share of those consequences because of their financial situation, race, or other factors. What’s more, the public community should have an opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect their environments and their health, and their concerns should always be considered when it comes to those decisions. Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

Numerous studies show that low-income and BIPOC communities largely bear the brunt of the country’s pollution problem. In 2018, an EPA study found that Black Americans are subjected to higher levels of air pollution than White Americans, even regardless of economic status. According to the study, those in poverty are exposed to particulate matter air pollution 1.35 times more than the overall population, while Black Americans had a burden 1.54 times higher.

Over 1 million Black Americans live within half a mile of oil and natural gas facilities, while 6.7 million live in counties with refineries, exposing them to high levels of toxic air emissions. Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Black and Hispanic minorities bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure to fine particulate matter air pollution, respectively. Fine particulate matter exposure has been found to be responsible for 63% of deaths from environmental causes and 3% of deaths from all causes in the United States.

Anjali Waikar, a staff attorney at the NRDC Environmental Justice Program said it best: “Environmental justice really reflects the fundamental reality that vulnerable communities are all too often subject to the disproportionate burden of pollution and contamination. At the end of the day, when we're talking about environmental impacts, at the heart of it are real people's lives.”

The Flint Water Crisis

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, 2018
The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, 2018. Michael Barera / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The city of Flint, Michigan, was no stranger to struggle even before its infamous water crisis began. The once-prosperous birthplace of General Motors faced a significant population dip and a massive unemployment period when the auto industry found itself in decline around the 1980s. By 2019, over 38% of the entire population in Flint lived below the poverty line.

In 2013, city officials made the cost-saving decision to stop pumping treated water from Detroit and instead use water from the Flint River to supply its citizens. When the city failed to treat the water properly, lead started leaching into the Flint water supply; despite complaints from residents of bad-tasting, murky, and foul-smelling drinking water, officials continued to tell them that the water was safe.

Flint didn’t switch back to the old Detroit water system until October of 2015, but by then the damage had already been done. The untreated river water, corrosive to the city’s older lead pipes, was leaching lead into homes. Free water bottles and filters were provided to residents, but people still struggled to live without full access to one of humanity’s most basic needs. Water service lines were repaired throughout the city by the end of 2017, but the governor’s office didn't confirm clean water again until 2018.

Flint Water Crisis Timeline

  • April 2013: After a Flint city council vote to stop buying water from Detroit in favor of a new pipeline project (potentially saving the city at least $100 million over 25 years), Detroit notifies Flint that it will end its water-selling contract as of April 2014.
  • April 2014: With the new pipeline project not yet completed—and rather than negotiate a new contract with Detroit—the state-appointed emergency manager makes the decision to source the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. Almost immediately, Flint residents begin to complain of poor-tasting and foul-smelling city water, many opting to buy bottled water instead. Local and state officials tell local residents that the water "meets all standards."
  • September 2014: Almost five months after the switch, a series of positive tests for coliform bacteria prompts the city to issue multiple boil water advisories. They add more lime and chlorine to help soften and disinfect the water.
  • January 2015: The city mails a notice to water customers saying it was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act due to an elevated level of trihalomethanes (disinfectant byproduct chemicals that can cause central nervous system issues and cancer in excess amounts). Detroit offers to sell water back to Flint, but the city declines, reportedly to avoid a potential $4 million reconnection fee.
  • September 2015: A Flint pediatrician found that elevated blood-lead levels in children had nearly doubled since 2014. A research team at Virginia Tech revealed that 40% of Flint homes measured above five parts-per-billion (ppb) of lead in their drinking water (the EPA limit for federal action is 10% over 15 ppb), while some homes measured more than 100 ppb.
  • October 2015: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder steps in and announces a plan to reconnect Flint with the Detroit water supply. The plan called for a $6 million contribution from the state, $4 million from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (Mott was the co-founder of General Motors), and $2 million from the city.
  • January 2016: Both Governor Snyder and President Obama declare a state of emergency, freeing up funds for federal support, while the EPA issues an emergency order to take action on the crisis. Gov. Synder would eventually testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: "This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials—we all failed the families of Flint."
  • December 2016: Flint receives at least $100 million to fund the replacement of lead service lines delivering drinking water to the city. By the end of 2017, over 6,000 service lines were replaced.
  • January 2019: Flint residents file a class-action lawsuit, in which nine officials (including the governor) are charged with 34 felony counts and seven misdemeanors. 
  • January 2021: A federal judge gives preliminary approval to a $641.25-million settlement of civil lawsuits against the state of Michigan and defendants—the largest class-action settlement in the state’s history.

The Flint River

The Flint River’s high pollution level was attributed mainly to the General Motors (GM) automobile company, which was founded in Flint in 1908. In 1966, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a report on the Great Lakes region, finding that GM’s eight Flint plants were dumping at least 10 million gallons worth of waste into the river each day. In the years that followed, pollution in the Flint River was also connected to the early logging industry, pollution from road salts, and heavy use of fertilizer.

Lead in the Water

President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint water crisis
President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint water crisis. Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons

The Clean Water Act in the 1970s eventually helped to address industrial pollution, but the Flint River continued to hold high levels of bacteria even after environmental reform. When the city began sourcing its water from the Flint River in 2014, they treated it with chlorine to counteract the bacteria, which in turn reacted with the water’s organic material to make it more acidic. Normally, water treatment plant operators would use an anti-corrosive agent to prevent the drinking water from reacting to the metals, but Flint never did. As a result, the acidic water corroded the city’s old lead pipes, seeping heavy metals into the public drinking supply.

Young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning because its effects can occur at lower exposure levels (lead bioaccumulates in the body over time). Even low levels of exposure in children can damage the central nervous system, leading to learning disabilities, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. It’s also been connected with premature birth in pregnant women as well as cardiovascular issues, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems in adults.

The Safe Drinking Water Act sets a limit for lead in drinking water, and the federal government is required to step in if more than 10% of tap water samples exceed the lead action level of 15 ppb. The first media coverage of lead in the Flint water supply occurred in February 2015, when the city found lead at a concentration of 104 ppb in tap water samples from a local home.

Does Flint Have Clean Water Yet?

In April of 2018, the office of the governor announced that Flint’s water quality had tested below action levels of the federal Lead and Copper Rule for four consecutive six-month periods. By 2021, however, Politico reported that a portion of Flint residents were still drinking bottled water, having lost trust in the government that failed them.

Could We See Another Water Crisis Like the One in Flint?

The 2016 Clean Energy March Philadelphia
The 2016 Clean Energy March in Philadelphia. Mark Dixon / Getty Images / CC BY 2.0

Citing the lack of governmental response, poor management of resources, and federal oversights, civil rights advocates began characterizing the crisis as a result of environmental injustice (54% of the population of Flint, Michigan, is Black or African American, according to the 2019 U.S. Census). After years of review, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the response to the crisis was “the result of systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry and the suburban area surrounding it.”

With over 9.2 million homes in the United States still fitted with lead pipes, it's not surprising that health experts are continuing to warn that a repeat of the Flint water crisis could happen elsewhere in the future. While the EPA does set limits to potentially harmful contaminants in drinking water, what happened in Flint proved that with a lack of support or adequate response on local, state, and federal levels, it might not make a difference.

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