The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Flint Michigan, Ten Years Later

May 20, 2024

It was ten years ago, on April 25, 2014, that the city of Flint, Michigan switched the source of its drinking water to the dirty and polluted Flint River. This move set off a disastrous series of events which caused, among other things, the lead poisoning of thousands of young children in Flint.

Previously, water was provided from a much cleaner source, Lake Huron, through the city of Detroit’s water system. A tunnel system had been built in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The news media in Michigan marked the ten-year anniversary of the Flint Water Crisis with a number of stories.

State-Ordered Financial Austerity Sets the Stage for Disaster

In reality, the events that started this crisis began more than ten years ago. One was the appointment of a series of governor-assigned “Emergency Financial Managers” to oversee budget cuts in the City of Flint. It was this un-democratic move that most directly led to the lead-in-the-water crisis.

The citizens of Michigan, in a referendum in 2012, voted against having Emergency Financial Managers, but the legislature at that time ignored the wisdom of voters. They passed more laws allowing for Emergency Financial Managers to overrule local leaders. The Emergency Financial Manager of Flint approved the switch to the Flint River for drinking water to save money.

Complaints from Residents Ignored

It was obvious from the beginning that there was a problem with the new water source. To save a few dollars, the necessary corrosion control was never added to the water. Residents started complaining immediately, but the officials in charge ignored complaints and insisted the water was safe.

The General Motors factories in Flint stopped using Flint city water right away in 2014, due to the corrosive effect it had on engine blocks. That in itself should have set off alarm bells—why were people drinking water that is too corrosive for vehicles?!

It was more than just lead poisoning. There was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in the area. Some believed it was related to the dirty drinking water.

Flint Residents Took Collective Action

There was soon a movement among some Flint residents against this dirty water. They contacted water experts from other parts of the country and set in motion scientific investigations into what was going on. Still, it took about two years for the water to be switched back to the Lake Huron water that previously had been used.

In the meantime, it meant that the citizens continued drinking this water for a significant period of time. This was most dangerous to children, who are most susceptible to lead poisoning. The doctor that first spoke out and raised alarms about the lead poisoning was Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha, an area pediatrician. Initially, she was loudly criticized for being “hysterical”. It wasn’t until later that government officials apologized to her and admitted she was correct all along.

It was Dr. Hanna-Atisha—along with courageous Flint residents and national water experts invited in by Flint residents—that finally ended the use of the Flint River water. By then, the damage had been done. It became a national news story.

Unanswered Questions

What has still never been fully investigated in this whole tragedy is the role of money. The reason for the switch to Flint River water initially was a short-term solution while the area built a new water treatment tunnel from Lake Huron, a second system paralleling the first system. (This new water intake system is named Karegnondi Water Authority.)

Why was this even being built in the first place? The original tunnel and water system still had the capacity to supply the area. There were complaints about the cost of the original system and people were told their rates would go down with a new water system.

What happened in Flint happened in plain sight. The fault for what happened went all the way to the governor’s office. However, to this day, no one has really been held accountable. A few low-level officials were charged and disciplined, but that is about all.