You can’t write about the drinking water debacle in Flint, Michigan, without first recognizing the depth of the tragedy. For more than a year, an entire city was exposed to the risk of lead poisoning. Of the people we already know have been poisoned, more than half are children under the age of six. Those children will suffer neurological damage for the rest of their lives. Long after you and I are gone, some of them will still be living a life diminished. No matter what happens now, that cannot be undone. No overdue apology, no grudging mea culpa, no release of emails, and no state-of-emergency declaration can undo that damage. Take a moment and imagine how you’d react if you were that child’s mother or father.
That terrible fact makes it all the more infuriating that this disaster can’t be called an accident. Instead, it was the inevitable result of a callous and reckless disregard for human life — specifically, the lives of the people who live in Flint, most of whom are black and many of whom are poor. When Governor Rick Snyder released 274 pages of heavily censored emails about the crisis this week, the cruel arrogance on display only made you wonder about the redacted parts that were so much worse they couldn’t bear to make public. Here’s how the New York Times summarized the released portions:
A top aide to Michigan’s governor referred to people raising questions about the quality of Flint’s water as an “anti-everything group.” Other critics were accused of turning complaints about water into a “political football.” And worrisome findings about lead by a concerned pediatrician were dismissed as “data,” in quotes.
The consequences for the people of Flint, though, are but one especially horrible example of what is happening to minority and low-income communities everywhere and every day. Pick any type of pollution — then look to see who is the most exposed and the most harmed. Take lead, for instance. Although lead exposure had declined overall, African American children are five times more likely to be poisoned than white children. Why? In part because the neighborhoods where they live are more likely to have been exposed to lead when cars still used leaded gas. Decades later, children are still paying a price.
Governor Snyder and his Department of Environmental Quality are rightly being castigated not only for ignoring the problem but also for actively denying, in the face of all evidence, that Flint’s water was contaminated. But their culpability for this tragedy extends even further. Before Flint’s water was compromised, its democracy was.
In 2011, Governor Snyder signed a bill, unique to Michigan, that gives him the authority to appoint “emergency managers” — accountable only to him — to take over “financially distressed” governments and school districts. These managers — the city of Flint had four of them in four years — have near-dictatorial powers. The decision to cut costs by switching the city to corrosive water from the Flint River was made by an emergency manager. Even after the residents of Flint became concerned about their water, they and their locally elected leaders were powerless to do anything about it. All the power was in the hands of the Snyder administration, which clearly could not have cared less.
What’s happening to democracy in Michigan is especially egregious, but attempts to undermine democracy are widespread in this country — with attacks on voting rights near the top of the list. And it shouldn’t be hard to see the connection between silencing the voice of the people and environmental disasters. If citizens demand, for instance, that fracking not happen in their communities, the first response by the allies of polluters is to take away their ability to self-govern. Just ask the people of Denton, Texas.
This “polluters before people” attitude is not limited to specific communities or states, though. Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress voted to block the Clean Water Rule, which protects bodies of water that provide drinking water for one-third of Americans. Fortunately, a veto from President Obama put a stop to that. “We must protect the waters that are vital for the health of our communities and the success of our businesses, agriculture, and energy development,” the president wrote in his veto message. He didn’t mention children. He shouldn’t have to.
Meanwhile, that emergency manager in Flint, the one who was in charge when the decision to use water from the Flint River was made? His name is Darnell Earley. He’s been promoted. He’s now the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools.
Feeling outraged? Then please remember two things: First, every election matters. A responsible governor in Michigan would never have allowed these decisions to be made. Responsible state legislators would never have passed laws that subvert democracy. Second, it was ordinary citizens whose voices finally brought this situation to light. They were ignored. They were belittled. But they didn’t give up. As a movement, this is our most powerful force: people like you and me, standing up for what we know is right, and never giving up until justice is served.
To get involved in the next election and to hold all politicians accountable, please contact your local Sierra Club chapter. We need all the time and determination you have to offer!