Unwell Water

The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy BY Anna Clark. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 320 pages. $30.

The cover of The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy

A grim turn of events briefly overtook the barely modulated insanity of our past presidential election season, around the time when the Steve Bannons of the world were declaring war on “the administrative state.” The city of Flint, Michigan, former home of most of the General Motors empire, was found to be in a state of malign neglect usually associated with developing-world kleptocracies like the Sudan or Haiti, as the city’s water supply was shown to be unfit for any human use. Families in the onetime colossus of US automobile manufacturing—which had, not long before, boasted one of the highest per capita incomes in the country—were now forced to scrounge for outside sources of safe water (and the money to pay for them). Just as in the immiserated outposts of the Global South, Flint residents were facing up to a world in which their children could suffer long-term damage to their health, their mental development, and their life prospects thanks to the criminal machinations of an ideological-cum-economic regime hovering far overhead—one pointedly unaccountable to their protests.

That story is the narrative spine of Anna Clark’s bracing, closely reported chronicle of the Flint water crisis, The Poisoned City. Clark, a regular contributor to the Detroit Free Press, ably pieces together the grotesque convergence of forces that transformed Flint into a byword of failed oversight and artificially induced hazard. And she rightly notes that the water crisis, as sudden and unexpected as it might have seemed, was the culmination of more than a generation’s worth of systemic neglect and cynical austerity-minded pillaging from on high: “After decades of negligence by both public and private actors, the well-being of residents in twenty-first century Flint sat atop a teetering tower of debt, dysfunctional urban policy, disappearing investment, disintegrating infrastructure, and a compromised democratic process. It didn’t take much to tip the city into catastrophe.”

The breaking point was a decision that elegantly distilled many of these baleful trends into one disastrous policy call. The cash-strapped city, which as a client of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had long paid some of the highest water rates in the country, signed on with the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), a fledgling company that promised lower costs and greater autonomy. Cities like Flint reckoned they’d save more than $200 million compared with what the Detroit system would have charged in the first twenty-five years of the KWA contract alone—and that the savings would only ratchet upward over time. There was, however, a hitch: When Flint’s switchover was announced in 2013, the KWA was far from operational; the city needed an interim source of water to see itself through. While the KWA’s other clients simply extended their contracts with Detroit until the new system was up and running, Flint elected to go it alone. The plan was to bring in untreated water from the nearby Flint River and process it through a long-dormant waterworks in the city’s decaying industrial core.

Never mind that the Flint River had, back in the city’s manufacturing heyday, served as a dumping ground for all manner of waste; community activists had helped reclaim some of the river for recreational use in recent years, but its suitability as a source of drinking and bathing water was still very much an open question. And here is where the Flint story is unambiguously a human-engineered tragedy: The city was then run by a governmental authority that was abidingly hostile to entertaining open questions. Since 2011, state-appointed “emergency managers” had been charged with stanching the flow of red ink in fiscally distressed Michigan cities like Flint. These figures were not answerable to elected officials or citizens—so much the better to enforce financial discipline without the messy and inevitably costly process of local politicking. Darnell Earley, the emergency manager who presided over Flint’s water shift, implemented the decision without having to make any case beyond pointing obsessively to the promised savings to the city budget.

Once Flint had gone over to the new plan in 2014, residents immediately noticed something was amiss: Darkly discolored water would pour out of open fire hydrants and faucets; people would develop rashes and their hair would fall out; children would show ominous signs of thwarted mental development, such as mispronouncing familiar words. As the crisis worsened, the E. coli virus and alarmingly high concentrations of lead would be detected in water pumped into Flint homes, and scores of residents would die from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease traceable to the compromised new water supply. All the while, the Potemkin officialdom of the city and Michigan’s state regulators monotonously insisted that however distasteful the new water might be, and however terrible you felt after washing up with it, all necessary precautions had been taken to ensure that it was safe.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea brushing Zion’s teeth with bottled water in her bathroom, 2016, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable. From the series “Flint Is Family,” 2016–17. Courtesy the Artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York / Rome.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea brushing Zion’s teeth with bottled water in her bathroom, 2016, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable. From the series “Flint Is Family,” 2016–17. Courtesy the Artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York / Rome.

As we now know, these were all lies. A state attorney general’s investigation has brought criminal charges against several state officials for concealing crucial information—including a cover-up of the critical failure to institute basic corrosion control, which federal regulators have long insisted is a fundamental requisite for all large water systems. The investigation further alleges that Michigan’s overseers of environmental quality doctored evidence of lead contamination in Flint and commanded underlings to do likewise. And still other state apparatchiks were charged with burying early evidence of high levels of lead contamination in blood samples from Flint children. Eventually Earley and his successor, Jerry Ambrose, netted a clutch of indictments for offenses ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter.

As satisfying as it is to see these malefactors brought before the bar of justice, what’s ultimately shocking about the Flint story is how commonplace stories just like it have become in a savagely unequal American social order, where former basic social goods like potable water, quality education, affordable housing, and health care have been steadily privatized and conspicuously denied to citizens who happen to be nonwhite and nonrich. Flint has suffered an extreme form of it chiefly because the city was an early casualty of the neoliberal gutting of American urban centers, thanks to the brutal GM layoffs that hollowed out its tax base and infrastructure more than two decades ago.

But plenty of other cities have had their own dismal Flint-like reckonings with irresponsible management regimes high on their own shock-doctrine powers. Recall, just for starters, that Detroit had its own brutal encounter with an emergency-manager regime just after the 2008 financial meltdown and the near immolation of the auto industry. My adoptive hometown of Washington, DC—which is, like Flint, a largely African American city—had also been found to have toxic concentrations of lead in its water in 2004, with only patchwork efforts to remediate the damage amid ongoing official evasions of accountability. And as Clark notes, the harsh logic of systemic inequality became even more stark as the crisis unfolded: The incidence of toxic contamination “more or less followed the pattern of inequality that dated back to Flint’s development as a segregated city. People who lived on streets that were pockmarked with the most unoccupied homes and empty storefronts—that is, the poorest of them—generally had worse water. People who lived in denser areas were less likely to see, taste, or smell the same problems.”

This disparity would prove to be short lived, however. In 2015, when the ACLU commissioned independent tests of lead in the new water system—administered by a team of engineers headed up by Virginia Tech scientist Marc Edwards, who also helped expose the DC lead scandal—they found incontrovertible evidence of how race and class inequities were now impairing Flint citizens’ health on a shocking scale. The EPA’s “action level” for lead exposure in water—i.e., the inflection point calling for new pipes or corrosion measures—is 15 parts per billion (ppb); many of the samples in this study exceeded 100 ppb, and the citywide average was 27 ppb. “That was almost twice the federal action level,” Clark writes,

and what’s more, it presents an extreme picture of what calculated disinvestment looks like in the modern day. Flint’s neighborhoods were no longer graded one by one by federal [financial] assessors any more, with African American communities (and those who lived too close to them) redlined. Now that black people made up the majority of Flint, and close to half the population was impoverished, the city as a whole was effectively redlined. The test numbers showed excessive lead in every zip code—some more than others, ceartainly, but all experiencing the disturbing consequences of shrinking cities.

Despite the strident objections of managerial hustlers like Earley, Flint is now reconnected to the Detroit water supply—and the KWA has been exposed as a boondoggle. Hawked by the state’s austerity vultures as a means of recovering Flint’s financial health, the KWA deal “actually added to Flint’s debt,” Clark writes, “and it bent state law to do so. Rather than borrowing to invest in schools or public safety, Flint ended up paying for a pipeline that literally paralleled one that already existed.” Small wonder that, in his investigation on the Flint tragedy, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette called the KWA deal a “sham”—or that he noted, in a world-class crescendo of understatement, “All too prevalent in this Flint water investigation is a priority on balance sheets and finances rather than the health and safety of the citizens of Flint.”

In other words: Gains were privatized while risks were socialized. The story of Flint is, in its broad contours, the story of any number of recent American obscenities. Just as toxic water spread from Flint’s depopulating interior to the city at large, so has the arresting and copiously documented saga of moneyed corruption in The Poisoned City metastasized across more and more of the Trump-deranged American republic. Even as it has recently marked its fourth straight year without a safe water supply, Flint does have one small, bitter consolation: America’s rampaging civic malaise can’t be explained by anything so simple as something in the water.

Chris Lehmann is the editor in chief of The Baffler and the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).