VOICES OF COLOR
Solving Flint’s toxic water crisis
Sue Mi Ko
volume:  
volume 37
issue 2
April 2016
imagestuff

In Flint, Mich., three siblings on their way home from school carry their family’s daily allowance of water. Photo: National Geographic

Water, water, every where, / And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink.

The passage from Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” aptly describes the plight of residents of Flint, Mich., who endured 17 months of lead exposure in their water supply. As of March 15, the Freedom Socialist’s press date, the water has still not been declared safe. Flint’s mostly Black and poor residents fell subject to the environmental racism led by Governor Rick Snyder and other state and city officials in a state where fresh drinking water should be plentiful to all.

Having participated in the anti-fracking movement in New York, I was disheartened to learn of the drastic effects resulting from the “cost-cutting measure” of switching the city’s water supply from Detroit to the toxic Flint River. Soon after the switch in April 2014, Flint residents began to complain loudly of the color, foul taste and odor of the water, reporting rashes and concerns about bacteria. The people of Flint, a city in which 60 percent of its residents are Black and 40 percent live below the poverty line, struggled for a year and a half to convince local and state officials that they were drinking poisoned water.

The commoditization of water. In “The Great Lake State” of Michigan, which holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, safe water should be fully accessible in every municipality. And yet Flint’s water and sewage rates are among the highest in the nation. To add insult to injury, Flint households must pay for the toxic water to the tune of over $100 a month. In stark contrast, Nestlé, the largest owner of private water resources in the state, pulls 200 gallons of fresh water out of the ground every minute for virtually no fee.

In turn, Governor Snyder pushed a law allowing emergency managers to take over financially distressed cities — six total, most of which are poor with majority Black populations. Over the last five years, more than 50 percent of Michigan’s Black population lived in a city with a state-installed manager.

When Flint’s city council voted to “do all things necessary” to once again purchase water from Detroit after months of lead exposure from Flint River, then emergency manager Jeffrey Ambrose denied the vote, calling it “incomprehensible.” The lack of access to fresh water sources created by privatization combined with the dictatorial authority of emergency managers prevented mostly Black, low-income residents the power to oppose the toxic-laden Flint River drinking supply.

Lead exposure prevails throughout the country, especially in low-income communities of color. A 2013 study from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that blood lead levels among Black children (1 to 5 years old) between 2007 and 2010 were more than twice as high as their white counterparts. The lead contamination in Flint shows how these disparities can happen.

Ecological imbalance under capitalism. Metabolic rift, Karl Marx’s coined term, points to the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.” It was Marx’s defining of ecological crisis tendencies under capitalism.

The scenario in Flint is metabolic rift exemplified by state and local officials reaffirming their drive for profit over the safety and health of Flint residents, the results of which have been catastrophic.

In the five years prior to the water switch, there was not one single death in Flint from Legionnaires Disease — a severe form of pneumonia. But after the switch to Flint River, 87 people were infected with the disease, and at least ten died.

Due to lead poisoning, all 9,000 children under the age of six in Flint have been exposed to a plethora of health dangers, the impacts of which are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous system of children and fetuses, causing intellectual disabilities, lowered IQ, delayed puberty, speech impairment, high blood pressure, hearing loss, and a compromised immune system. The effects are irreversible.

Water warriors. Moms and other residents in Flint have formed a multi-racial movement fighting for the lives of their families. Women and African Americans are at the forefront of the movement for safe water and democracy because they and their children are being hit the hardest by contamination and privatization. Mothers like LeeAnne Walters and Melissa Mays, self-proclaimed “water warriors” who staged regular protests outside City Hall, founded the group “Water You Fighting For?” and helped focus national attention on Flint’s situation. Walters spearheaded the chain of investigations that led her to an expert in lead corrosion, whose test results showed that one in six Flint homes had lead water levels exceeding the EPA’s safety threshold.

“We are tired and frustrated,” said Angela Hickmon at a rally protesting water bills for lead-tainted water. Claire McClinton, a head organizer with Flint Democracy Defense League, asserted that “there is a coordinated, aggressive effort to privatize our water system.” Flint Rising leader Nayyirah Shariff talked about how “the culture of the emergency manager is money trumps everything. It’s more important than people’s lives.”

Flint’s plight has galvanized diverse support. Neighboring Muslim communities as well as former prisoners have been part of the grassroots mobilization in support of Flint residents. Black Lives Matter made a list of demands that includes the “creation of a medical monitoring fund for treatment of Flint residents.”

State-sponsored “Emergency Management” must be terminated. The nationalization and management of water must be placed in public hands, accountable to the people, not to private corporations or a single government entity, so that all people can have consistent access to clean water.

The Flint crisis is an opportunity to build a united movement of moms and water warriors of all colors and ages. Ending environmental racism and securing basic rights like safe water for all will take nothing less.

Send feedback to Korean-American anti-fracker Sue Mi Ko at suemiko@gmail.com.

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.