Flint's toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making

tags: Flint, Lead contamination

Andrew R. Highsmith is an assistant professor of history at UC Irvine, and author of "Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis."

In the fall of 1966, African American activists from the impoverished North End of Flint, Michigan, turned out en masse for a series of hearings on racial inequality sponsored by the state's Civil Rights Commission. One of those who testified, Ailene Butler, drew links between the segregationist policies that had created the North End and the corporate practices that had immiserated its inhabitants.

Butler owned a funeral parlor not far from a massive complex of smoke-belching Buick factories operated by General Motors. A throat cancer survivor, she spoke at length about the dreadful conditions that existed in her neighborhood: “There is a heavy smog caused by the Buick factory, which has been in existence for about 18 years.... The houses in this district are eaten up by a very heavy deposit, something like rust.... You can imagine what we go through down there breathing when this exists on just material things.”

When asked why she and her neighbors had not simply moved away, Butler pointed out that discriminatory real estate practices — particularly redlining — had trapped black people in the North End. “No matter what their credit is, no matter how many years they've been working for Buick.... They have no place [else] to go.”

Although the plants that once choked Butler's lungs are long gone, structural inequality and environmental degradation are still twin problems today in Flint, a city now constantly in the news thanks to a toxic water crisis.

Many details surrounding Flint's latest disaster have recently come to light. Here is what we know so far: In November 2011, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, after declaring that the city was in a state of financial emergency, appointed the first in a series of four unelected managers who have controlled municipal government for much of the past several years. Their mandate was to cut costs and balance budgets. Between that time and April 2015, when Snyder declared Flint's emergency resolved and turned the municipality over to an advisory board, the governor's appointees implemented a series of reforms they claimed would return Flint to financial solvency. Chief among these was the decision to cancel Flint's longstanding water agreement with Detroit in order to join a newly formed regional water authority that had proposed to build a pipeline to Lake Huron. Boosters proclaimed that the pipeline would save the city $18 million over eight years, but it could not be completed until well into 2016. To meet immediate water needs, Flint's emergency managers elected to use the polluted Flint River. ...

Read entire article at The Los Angeles Times

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