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Flint, Michigan's water crisis: what the national media got wrong

I live in Flint, Michigan.

My older daughter, a bright, outgoing girl with an impish sense of humor, just started kindergarten this year. She attends a well-respected Catholic school within the city limits. Her classmates are rich and poor, black and white: a portrait of diversity. Not long after school started this year, I arrived to pick her up and found that all of the water fountains had been either shut off or covered with plastic bags. The water had tested high for lead. In their place, among the cardboard stacking bricks and brightly colored posters emblazoned with the letters of the alphabet, I found several cases of bottled water for these 5- and 6-year olds. That was when it hit me: This is real, and it's going to affect all of us.

Let's look back a little bit earlier.

More on the Flint water crisis

The Flint water crisis, explained

My younger daughter, the friendly, giggly, snuggly one, was born in July 2014, just three months after Flint started drawing its drinking water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron via Detroit's water system. For the first few weeks of her life, we enjoyed the waning Michigan summer, taking her to the blues festival at the public library and setting her out on the grass, and cradling her as we took lazy afternoon walks beneath the silver maples of our neighborhood.

That December, Flint sent out EPA-mandated notices because the city had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act due to high levels of total trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. We stopped using tap water to mix her supplemental formula, but our anxieties returned a few months later when rumors started to circulate about a new contaminant: lead.

We played it safe with our daughters, giving them filtered water we bought by the gallon from a suburban supermarket, but our own water ran clear, so my wife and I kept drinking from the tap. I was skeptical of friends who had completely stopped drinking and, in some cases, bathing in the city water. I had doubts about the city's ability to treat water from the river, sure, but wasn't that what water regulation and enforcement was for? Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly said that the water was safe, and they had the test numbers to back it up. (Later investigation would suggest that some of those numbers had been doctored to maintain federal compliance.)

As late as July 2015 — 16 months after the switch had occurred — officials said that residents could "relax" about reports of lead in the water. Plus, the Department of Environmental Quality was monitored by the EPA, and they had made no official complaint. (Later investigation found that the EPA, too, knew of the presence of lead by mid-2015.)

Still, it was hard to argue when I saw tomato-colored water gush straight from the faucet at my friend's house. Other friends have reported rashes, fatigue, and nausea. One friend, who was showering at the YMCA, started to bleed from her ear due to the abrasiveness of the water. She told me that another man passed out in the showers there.

Think back to the last glass of water you drank. How did it look? Was it lead-contaminated? Are you sure? How do you know? Did you have it tested?

I was still skeptical about the extent of the problem, though, because the seeming diabolism of my friends' worries just sounded too ludicrous to be true, even for Flint. Even for a city in which one mayor had suggested we cut down all of the trees and put them up for sale and another had commissioned a massive bronze statue of himself, poisoning children with tap water just sounded too cartoonish to be real.

The idea of the massive conspiracy involving collusion between local, state, and federal authorities that must have been involved in such a situation was too absurd to consider. Wasn't evil supposed to be banal instead of burlesque?

After a parade of discolored water, E. coli boil notices, and total trihalomethanes violations, I finally had to concede the burlesquishness of evil.

In October 2015, the state finally confirmed the worst of our fears: There was lead in the water after all. The city switched back to Detroit water, but the damage had already been done. We, and our children, were being poisoned.

How Flint became a punchline

Flint residents are used to being made fun of.  We're used to being derided as the backward, benighted, self-immolating children of an America that has moved on into the 21st century. Ever since General Motors abandoned the town that it built to build the cars it sold, resulting in some of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the nation, Flintstones have been used to being a punchline for every pundit or late-night comedian looking for a more oblique reference than Detroit.

And yet, from time to time, the world has gotten to see a different side of my city. A few short years ago Claressa Shields won the first middleweight gold medal in women's Olympic boxing. A few short years before that, Mateen Cleaves and the Flintstones led the Michigan State men's basketball team to their 2000 National Championship. Musicians from Grand Funk Railroad to Dee Dee Bridgewater to LaKisha Jones to Tunde Olaniran have called this city their home, as have writers like Christopher Paul Curtis and Ben Hamper. And this is without mining the treasure trove of political and engineering and entrepreneurial talent that Flint has supplied the world.

The official motto of Flint is simple: "Strong. Proud."

If we look backward and benighted and self-immolating to the world at large, I see both strength and pride in the way Flintstones have discovered and opposed and taken a stand against contaminated water. So why did we let them do this to us? And why did it take us so long to force a response?

These questions are at the heart of a Daily Show segment from last week, in which host Trevor Noah remarked, "If the water is browner than me, I don't drink it."


Alas for Flint (which is 57 percent African American), lead is measured in parts per billion, and it only takes a few of those for a child to suffer permanent neurological and sometimes physical damage. Points of IQ lost. Behavioral problems and learning disabilities.  Developmental delay. Damage to the nervous system. The discolored water is gross and sickening, and it makes for dramatic pictures, but much of the coloration actually comes from iron flaked off pipes and water mains.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water." Think back to the last glass of water you drank. How did it look?  Was it lead-contaminated? Are you sure?  How do you know? Did you have it tested?

Who's really responsible for the Flint water crisis

Many national media reports would have you believe that the crisis began in April 2014, when the city started drawing its water from the Flint River. They'd also have you believe that the crisis was the fault of the locally elected officials who made a catastrophic decision, not to mention city residents who did not hold their leaders accountable.

The stage was set on March 16, 2011, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4. This measure broadened an earlier law that provided an "emergency financial manager" for financially distressed cities and school districts. Under the new law, "emergency financial managers" became "emergency managers" with the power to cancel or renegotiate city contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government, unilaterally draft policy, and even disincorporate. (It is worth noting that Michigan emergency managers have done all of these things except disincorporate, which was entertained by a manager in the city of Pontiac.)

The need for an emergency manager was determined by a series of highly subjective criteria. Almost every city that got one was a poor, African-American-majority city devastated by a shrinking industrial sector: Flint, Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, and so on.

Flint was one of the first cities to be assigned an emergency manager in 2011, and over the course of four years had four such managers.  One of the first manager's first acts was to suspend local government, and this remained essentially in force until the departure of the last emergency manager in 2015. Even today, Flint is under the scrutiny of a "transition advisory board" that has veto power over any local decision, and that has frequently overstepped its professed limited mandate to assure fiscal restraint.

Many Michiganders found Public Act 4 to be a violation of a strong state tradition of "home rule," and so overturned it by referendum in the 2012 election. But that didn't last long: the Republican-dominated state legislature immediately passed Public Act 436, which was almost identical, although it included a provision to pay the emergency managers from state coffers rather than local. Under Michigan law, a bill that includes an appropriation like this cannot be voided through referendum.

Some emergency managers, true, delegated limited responsibilities to the mayor or to members of the city council, but they always retained (and used) their powers to void any decision with which they disagreed. This is the key point that early coverage by flagship newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post neglected to mention: From 2011 to 2015, Flint officials had no real control over municipal policy.

For example, a Newsweek article from October 2015 was titled "Flint: The Cheapskate City That Poisoned Its Children."

A New York Times article reports that "Flint's mayor, Dayne Walling ... had attended a 2014 event to celebrate the switch to the new water supply," without mentioning that the emergency manager who had actually signed on for the switch was also present at that event.

A Washington Post article from last December doesn't even utter the words "emergency Manager."

It's those two words — "emergency manager" — that differentiate Flint from all but a handful of cities around the country, and which made it particularly vulnerable to the kind of reckless oversight that led to our contaminated water.

(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

There should be no doubt about who was ultimately responsible for Flint's water policies. In 2013, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to build a new water pipeline to Lake Huron, freeing us from exorbitant rates from Detroit. Emergency manager Ed Kurtz went along, happily claiming a mandate for a policy he supported.

Immediately after this decision was made, Detroit canceled its contract with Flint. The disastrous next step was made not by the Flint mayor or the city council but by the subsequent emergency manager, Darnell Earley.

The new pipeline would take years to build, and if Flint did not wish to renegotiate a new, short-term contract with Detroit, it would need to draw water from somewhere else in the meantime. That alternative source became the Flint River. And it was Earley who validated the filtration and use of Flint River water.

Later, in 2015, amid rumors of lead compounded with TTHM violations, the city council voted, again 7-1, to "do all things necessary" to return to Detroit water. Their decision was vetoed by emergency manager Jerry Ambrose. He said that the vote was "incomprehensible."

Yes, many local officials supported use of the river water for a long time, and  concealed information from the public. As one activist has said, "There's plenty of blame to go around." Snyder and the former emergency managers have appealed to this fact when defending their records and legacy.

Yet by empowering an unelected official with virtually unchecked local power, the state did not just obtain the right to set local policy, but also stripped residents of much influence over their elected representatives. Indeed, campaign aides working for locally elected officials told me that they had been pressured by the state to enforce the priorities of the managers or face an indefinite continuation of the state takeover.

I cannot conceive that the Flint River water experiment would have even lasted a full year had Flint residents been able to threaten incumbents at the ballot box

If there is an element of conjecture to this last claim, it is nonetheless borne out by history. In times of financial distress, Flint has cut back on garbage collection and police and fire protection but has always relented in some way due to backlash from the voting public.  The creation of emergency managers removed that leverage. The power that could be conferred by a manager was real and substantial, while that which could be bestowed by residents was purely symbolic. I cannot conceive that the Flint River water experiment would have even lasted a full year had Flint residents been able to threaten incumbents at the ballot box.

Even today, with opprobrium rightly raining down on Gov. Snyder for his reluctance to act on the crisis, or to release emails that might implicate him and his staff, newspapers have been hesitant to emphatically and unambiguously declare who has been making the decisions in Flint. It wasn't "city officials," it wasn't the city council, and it wasn't even a mayor who often found himself supporting the state's priorities. Because the emergency managers had unchallenged authority in their oversight of Flint, it is they, along with the governor who appointed them, who bear ultimate responsibility for creating the crisis.

That's, in a nutshell, why Flintstones have been drinking contaminated water. Often we didn't know that it was contaminated because we were assured of its safety by organizations we trusted, and when we did complain we were informed that the decision was out of our hands at any rate.

Why the people of Flint are still proud and strong

That doesn't explain, however, why Flintstones are "proud" and "strong" as our city motto proclaims.

As a city, we are proud of our athletes and artists, but today we are also proud of another kind of hero. LeeAnne Walters, whose son was poisoned with lead and who didn't accept official platitudes but went public with her story. Melissa Mays, Nayyirah Shariff, and the Concerned Pastors for Social Action who helped organize activists into the Coalition for Clean Water. Their unceasing advocacy and passion led to contacts with outside experts, such as Dr. Marc Edwards, whose team from Virginia Tech proved that lead contamination was both widespread and concentrated in the water.

Then there's Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who analyzed data made available through blood tests from the city hospital to prove that blood lead levels had doubled, and in some cases tripled, since the switch. New Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who has used her bully pulpit to finally call national attention to this crisis after more than a year of neglect from the state.

The only reason the national public was informed of this crisis — the only reason the state is now under pressure to respond — is because of the constant, righteous fury of Flint residents.

The state that stripped us of our autonomy in the name of fiscal solvency has been unable to manage our city without endangering our children. In response, Flintstones have spent the past year demanding safety for our families and ourselves. In a complex crisis riven with deep ambiguities, the facts speak clearly to these two points. The national media ignored this for too long, but is finally starting to acknowledge it.

Rachel Maddow, who started covering emergency managers in Michigan shortly after the passage of Public Act 4, was particularly responsive to this dimension of the story:


The New York Times, which omitted the emergency manager from its early coverage of the Flint River water toast, recently published an editorial excoriating Snyder for his role in the crisis.

As the crisis has garnered more attention, reportage has become more thorough and nuanced. The most immediate, pressing need is to secure funds to replace the damaged pipes and guarantee long-term medical support for poisoned children. Beyond that, however, it is essential to discredit this appalling practice of emergency management so that the Flint water crisis is never repeated elsewhere.

There should have never been a Flint water crisis in the first place.

Connor Coyne is a writer. He had two published novels and a collection of short stories. His website is connorcoyne.com. He lives in Flint with his wife and two daughters.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.


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