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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Ethical Mess in Flint
distributed 1/29/16 - ©2016

People are being poisoned by the tap water in Flint, Michigan, and the crisis could have been prevented.

But because those early-on steps for safe water were not followed, the city is caught up in a horrible crisis of public health, racial and economic justice, political failure, and environmental overload.

The crisis is a case study with important lessons for the rest of the country, and the rest of the world. Some basic ethical principles stand out as pragmatic guidance for all of us.

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The water crisis started to take shape with a set of decisions almost three years ago, but only recently has it blown into a leading story in national and international news. To really understand the roots of the problem, though, means looking back several decades.

In the early 1970s, Flint was a prosperous small city of 200,000, with auto manufacturing as its core industry. By the 1990s, the auto industry had pretty much died in Flint. Unemployment and crime were high, and the city was in decline. Now, Flint has a population of less than 100,000. Neighborhoods are filled with boarded-up and burned-out houses and empty lots. The loss of jobs and residents drove the city into financial crisis.

Under Michigan law, an indebted city like Flint is put under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager with exceptional power. The mandate of that manager is to cut costs. One of the large costs in Flint was water -- which was purchased from Detroit. (The Detroit water system, you might recall, was a big news story in 2014 when it cut off drinking water to tens of thousands of impoverished citizens who were behind on their utility bills.)

In April, 2013, the emergency manager signed a deal to join a new water authority that will get water from Lake Huron and save the city millions of dollars. But it will be at least three years before that system comes on-line, and Detroit announces that it will stop selling water to Flint in a year. If Detroit had continued to provide water, none of the water quality problems would have happened.

In April, 2014 -- with Detroit water cut off and the pipeline from the lake unfinished -- the city starts to draw water from the Flint River, a low-quality source. Complaints about water quality start almost immediately. The managers of the city's water treatment system, for whatever reason, did not deliver acceptable water. Three times, boil-water warnings were issued because of high levels of bacteria in the water. Dumping lots of chlorine in the water to kill bacteria generated a cancer-causing by-product, trihalomethanes. And still people got water from their taps that was murky, smelled bad, and caused rashes and hair loss. In early 2015, Detroit offered to reconnect to Flint's water system, but the emergency manager said it would cost too much. Going back to Detroit water then would not have solved the problem, but it would have minimized the consequences.

The river water is much more corrosive than what had been coming from Detroit. As it began to flow through the water mains, accumulated mineral deposits flaked off and dissolved, contributing to the problems of ugly, smelly water. But far more importantly, the metal of the old pipes was now exposed, and the corrosive water began to dissolve lead and copper from the pipes. In fact, the water from Detroit had been treated with a chemical, orthophosphate, that coated the inside of the pipes, so that lead would not leach into the water. (Time Magazine has a nice animation on the chemistry involved.) When Flint started using river water, they did not use the corrosion treatment, even though the water was known to be far more corrosive. An expert has said that adding orthophosphate would have cost the city about $100 per day. This is a another decision where the extreme crisis of lead contamination could have been avoided.

By the summer of 2015, the wide-spread lead contamination is well documented. In one extreme case, "the water in one family's home was found to be contaminated with lead at a level of 13,200 parts per billion (ppb). A lead level of 5,000 ppb is classified as hazardous waste." The procedures that had been used for official testing are revealed to be inaccurate, possibly manipulated to give lower readings, and poorly communicated to the public. In early October, the Governor announces new testing, state funding for water filters, and $6 million to switch back to Detroit water, which takes place on October 16.

Three weeks ago, the Governor declares a state of emergency, and the US Justice Department begins an investigation. Two weeks ago, the Governor calls out the national Guard to distribute bottled water and water filters, and President Obama declares a state of emergency.

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Beyond this timeline (which is informed by a good summary from NBC News), several other important factors of justice and ethics have been at play.

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The crisis in Flint reveals two primary ethical failures.

  1. The most basic elements of democracy were violated by the appointment of an emergency manager who could overrule the elected Mayor and City Council, and by the City Council which refused to let citizens have a voice. The top aide to the Governor wrote to his boss that "These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us".

  2. Fiscal concerns overwhelmed matters of public health and safety. Saving money led to inadequate water treatment, and a refusal to re-connect with Detroit's safer water. Poor residents are forced to pay high bills for water that they cannot safely use.

The encyclical from Pope Francis last summer has a short, but powerful section on water (paragraphs 27-31). His ethical analysis of global water problems points to the same sort of issues: access to pure water as an essential human right, and the dangers present when privatization or financial issues override affordability and decision-making.

The issues about how to provide clean and affordable water in the face of aging and dangerous infrastructure are complicated. (I wrote about those with regard to Detroit 16 months ago.) But the current crisis in Flint shows how the problems are made far, far worse when principles of human rights and public health are not taken seriously.

As people of faith and conscience, may we always insist that health, safety, economic justice and democracy be given priority in providing essential services such as water.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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