• Brittany Evans

A History of Environmental Racism in the U.S.-The Flint River Crisis

The United States has a checkered past when considering environmental racism. This is a continuation of the article Environmental Racism in the U.S. It is a deeper dive into the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The water crisis exposes a failure of all levels of government for the residents of Flint. High levels of lead contamination, silenced concerns from residents, and misjudged safety practices lead to the massive Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Flint is a predominantly black community with the majority of its residents living below the poverty line. The New York Times states that an independent panel has concluded that disregard for the concerns of poor and minority people contributed to the government’s slow response to complaints from residents of Flint, Michigan about the foul and discolored water that was making them sick, determining that the crisis “is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

The water crisis in Flint has been an ongoing problem for residents. For more than a century, the Flint River, which flows through the heart of town, has served as an unofficial waste disposal site for treated and untreated refuse from the many local industries that have sprouted up along its shores, from carriage and car factories to meatpacking plants and lumber and paper mills. The waterway has also received raw sewage from the city’s waste treatment plant, agricultural and urban runoff, and toxics from leaching landfills.

In 2011 Flint became a city under state control, and was burdened with a $25 million debt. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder selected an emergency city manager for Flint to manage the budget and cut costs for the city. In April of 2014, the decision was made to stop piping water into Flint from Detroit for Flint residents. The city was going to use the water from the Flint River instead; a pipeline was being constructed from Lake Huron to Flint but it was not complete. Although the river water was highly corrosive, Flint officials failed to treat it, and lead leached out from aging pipes into thousands of homes. By August residents were told to boil their water due to E. Coli and Coliform bacteria being detected in the city's water supply.

Throughout 2014 and 2015 the water was tested by the city of Flint, Virginia Tech, and Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). It wasn't until September 2015 that the city realized it had a serious problem on its hands, The results from Virginia Tech revealed very high levels of lead in the water. Lead exposures over long periods can be damaging to physical and mental health. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician local to Flint performed a study looking at blood lead levels of children from 2013-2015. The study showed that the children's blood lead levels had doubled in most children, and tripled in some areas. Lead exposure in young children can lead to diminished intelligence, development, behavior, attention, and other neurological functions. Two giants in childhood lead poisoning research and advocacy, Dr. Philip Landrigan and Dr. David Bellinger, summarize the adverse effects of lead very completely, yet succinctly: “Lead is a devastating poison. It damages children’s brains, erodes intelligence, diminishes creativity and the ability to weigh consequences and make good decisions, impairs language skills, shortens attention span, and predisposes to hyperactive and aggressive behavior. Lead exposure in early childhood is linked to later increased risk for dyslexia and school failure.”


Speaking Plainly:

  • Flint, MI water crisis was a failure on behalf of the government at all levels.

  • Residents complained to city officials about poor water quality but got no recognition from the city officials.

  • A local pediatrician discovered blood lead levels were doubling, and even tripling in children after the change in water source for Flint residents.

  • Long term lead exposure can have harmful effects on the children of Flint.