March 8, 2017
By Jacqueline Souza
That’s how many days have passed since the citizens of Flint, Michigan have had clean drinking water. (Published in print on March 1, 2017)
In April 2014, members of the Flint community went to their local representatives to bring something urgent to their attention: the tap water coming out of their sinks and shower heads was severely discolored and odorous. Pipe corrosion caused unsafe levels of lead to infiltrate the water supply, which had recently been switched to the Flint River to save money, despite lingering questions about its cleanliness. Officials like Governor Rick Snyder and Dayne Walling, Flint’s former mayor, claimed to have no knowledge of the water’s contamination.
In the seclusion of their workplaces, they and other government employees drank water out of plastic bottles. They knew.
For privileged Americans, access to clean water has never been under attack. It is readily available in our homes, and most of us use it to drink, brush our teeth, and wash our bodies without hesitation. However, since 2014, Flint residents have not had this luxury: some residents were able to purchase water purifiers, but most chose to purchase bottled water instead. They use the bottled water for every task for which water is needed: bathing, oral hygiene, dish washing, and consumption. Recent documentaries provide a glimpse into residents’ homes, which often show kitchens or living rooms half-filled with packages of unopened water bottles.
Despite the precautions which they’ve taken, the damage has been done for many Flint residents. They had been readily consuming the toxic water for months before government officials published their initial report. Parents were told to have their children tested for lead exposure, and hundreds of those tests came back positive. Due to financial and transportation obstacles, those in Flint who cannot afford bottled water drink that which comes from their tap- it’s still contaminated.
After enduring nearly three years of lead contaminated water, mainstream media coverage on Flint’s status has all but ceased, and the majority of people do not realize that this issue was never fully resolved. It’s implausible that a predominantly white, middle to upper-class neighborhood would endure the same problem, as they have inordinate amounts of privilege and an abundance of representation in their local governments; but in a city where over forty percent of the population is impoverished and the majority of its residents are Black, it is a real threat that persists even today, over one thousand days after residents initially complained to their local representatives.
The corroded pipes have not been replaced. The residents of Flint are being poisoned.
Low-income residents of Detroit, who live just seventy miles from Flint, have experienced mass water shutoffs due to outsourcing and privatization. Nestle, whose Evart production site was recently approved to pump, package, and sell more of Michigan’s groundwater than ever before, makes extraordinary profits as Flint residents continue to go without clean water. Conveniently, Nestle’s former CEO and current chairman does not believe that access to clean water is a human right. His net worth is over three billion dollars. I guarantee that he trusts the water coming out of his faucet.
In local meetings and press releases, race and class have been largely excluded from conversation pertaining to the water crisis. For residents, the lack of urgency is just another example of environmental racism that marginalized groups experience at disproportionate levels. John Eligon, a journalist for the New York Times, notes that “[environmental racism] is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many [people of color] to some of the most industrialized and dilapidated environments.” While Flint’s residents may be aware of this societal tendency, there is not much they can do without the support of their local government. Their voices, while heard, are blatantly ignored. Despite their reluctance, they are forced to purchase bottled water from corporate water mongers, as they must prioritize their health at the detriment of their wallets. Many residents cannot move away, for the worsening infrastructure dilapidation and public controversy have driven the value of their homes into the ground. Flint’s residents have no clean water, no representation, and no way out.
Jacqueline Souza is an intern for the NewPeople and also studies sociology and journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in racial justice, social movements, and U.S. politics.