Case Study: Flint, Michigan
It has been four years since the water of Flint ran brown and there is little hope for large scale change any time soon. Ironically, from 2004 – 2014, Lansing, Michigan, only forty-five miles west of Flint, just finished replacing almost all “aging, lead-laced pipes and service lines” (Gerstein, Clark). Lansing is only one of three cities that have replaced their lead pipes, while the other 5,300 cities found violating federal lead rules across the United States have no promise of replacement any times soon (Clark).
So why hasn’t Flint replaced its pipes yet? One reason for this might be race and income. Flint and Lansing have similar histories; both cities are about the same size, with around 100,000 people. Both towns have a long history with General Motor, however both have been challenged by lessening demand for manufacturing in the Midwest (Clark). Flint and Lansing have two major differences- demographic and economy. Flint’s population is 52.8% black with a median income of $25,896 while Lansing’s population is 55.4% white with a median income of $40,160 (City Data). Lansing contains the state’s capitol as well as the Michigan State University, which as Clark describes, “are the anchors that sustained Lansing economically over the years,” while Flint diminished.
Despite still recovering from the toxic water crisis, a decision was made this past week that the people of Flint will not be receiving any more free bottled water from the state, as state officials once again assure everyone that “the lead levels in the water there have not exceeded federal limits for about two years,” despite the fact that “the water can still pick up lead when it flows through the thousands of lead or galvanized steel lines that remain in the city” that have not been replaced yet (Fortin). Why does Lansing get brand new pipes years before the crisis, while the people of Flint have fought for four years for clean water and only received mediocre upgrades to half of their water infrastructure and little instruction as to how lead in schools and near vulnerable populations should be handled (Good-in Smith, Fortin).
Flint is not Alone
The patterns of race, income, contaminated water, and lack of action is not just a coincidence found in Flint, Michigan. Many studies, such as one performed by Pell and Schneyer tested children across the country and found over 3,000 cities with lead contamination even higher than Flint (Pell). These areas of high lead concentration were often run down areas, with low-income and minority groups (Benfer). New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff mentioned, “The continuing poisoning of half a million American children is tolerated partly because the victims often are low-income children of color.” The same study performed by Pell concluded that “poverty remains a potent predictor of lead poisoning.
Not only are more polluted areas found to coincide with communities of low income and minority groups, but it seems that there are racist undertones when it comes to admitting the problem and finding solutions For example, in 2016, former governor Mike Pence rejected disaster relief for families around the West Calumet Housing Complex (where the population is 99% black). However, then lead content of water in Greentown, Indiana (where the population is 97% white) was slightly above normal levels, Pence immediately provided assistance (Benfer). Unfortunately, there is a litany of instances where the public health of low income and minority communities are put below others and their voices are not heard.
When I started my research as to how places like Flint developed into major crises, I expected to find more physical reasons as to why things become the way they were, like industry polluting our waters or government trying to save money by bending the rules, (both of which are true in a sense). However, there is an entirely different side dealing with race and income based preference as to who gets cleaner water, faster. At the end of the day, the United States’ drinking water infrastructure is getting old, and wasn’t designed to handle the pollutants of today. Americans deserve clean water, despite their city’s demographics, income, or economy.
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