The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, by Anna Clark (Henry Holt, 320 pp., $30)

In The Poisoned City, journalist Anna Clark advances a “tragic” interpretation of how Flint, Michigan’s water supply became tainted by lead and other contaminants, emphasizing the interplay of “structural forces” more than the mistakes made by individuals, though she sympathizes with those who called for the heads of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and other state and local officials. Clark believes that lessons regarding Flint’s water crisis have to do with deindustrialization and “environmental racism”; readers who find that second theme tendentious shouldn’t overlook Clark’s many astute remarks on the first. Americans have yet to reckon with what happens to basic services when a city loses more than half its population. The Poisoned City attempts to do so.

In 2013, Flint decided to stop buying water from Detroit’s water authority, its source since the 1960s, and instead, along with a few neighboring communities, build its own system. Flint was then under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager charged with restructuring the city’s finances, but the plan for the “Karegnondi Water Authority” was years in the making and had enormous local support. Flint’s water bills were high, and critics blasted Detroit as a “price-gouging monopoly.” By maintaining its own water supply, Flint could save money and gain some control over its destiny.

Though “long considered,” Flint’s water strategy was not well considered. In Clark’s reckoning, the chances for saving anyone much money were slim, since the expensive bills had less to do with Detroit’s exploitative business practices than with the busted economics of maintaining infrastructure in a shrinking city: “Flint’s infrastructure was in a death spiral,” Clark writes. “The water rates were expensive because the pipes were bad because vacancy rates were high because the city had been shrinking for so long. Costly bills tempted residents to move to the suburbs . . . Then there were even fewer people to pay into the system, which meant there was even less money to maintain it, which meant rates went up further. Repeat ad infinitum.”

It would have remained a tale of mere government bungling, waste, and inefficiency had the city not made the fateful decision to use the Flint River as an interim source of water while the new system, which would draw from Lake Huron, was being built. Tapping that water source meant revving up an old plant that hadn’t been in full use for over a half century, before Flint signed on with Detroit. The problem with the plan wasn’t the quality of the river water—like many American waterways, the Flint River has gotten much cleaner over the years—but that local authorities and state regulators failed to ensure the river water received adequate “corrosion-control” treatment to ensure that it did not cause the lead pipes to deteriorate and leach contaminants into the system.

Almost immediately after the water started flowing from the new source, in April 2014, warning signs began appearing out of homeowners’ taps: murkiness, foaminess, brown or orange water thick with particulates. Around the city, complaints were heard about pets getting sick and houseplants dying. “Showering seemed to be connected with skin rashes and hair loss. The water smelled foul. A sip of it put the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue.” Five months after the switch, General Motors, still the city’s largest employer, stopped using Flint River water out of concern that it was causing car parts to rust. But for well over a year, the mayor, the emergency manager, and bureaucrats at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to vouch for the water quality.

This consensus weakened in the summer of 2015, when Miguel del Toral, an EPA administrator, wrote a troubling internal report about lead levels in Flint water that fell into the hands of activists and journalists. Government authorities were forced to acknowledge that they had a crisis on their hands in September 2015, when Marc Edwards, a renowned environmental engineer who led a testing initiative, confirmed that Flint’s water contained toxic levels of lead. Less than two weeks later, a pediatrician at a local hospital, Mona Hanna-Attisha, announced that the rate of small children in Flint with high blood-lead levels had almost doubled since the city switched water sources and had nearly tripled in some neighborhoods. (In addition to lead exposure, especially dangerous for children, the inadequate treatment regimen led to E. coli contamination in the water supply. A local outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease also coincided with the switch to Flint River water.) In the wake of these revelations, Flint was promptly linked back up to the Detroit water system and abandoned its plan to join the Karegnondi Water Authority.

Clark’s account of the crisis features heroes but no real villains. It was, she says, a “crisis of systems.” Better staffing and proper corrosion control would have averted the catastrophe, but to leave it at that, in Clark’s estimation, would risk deemphasizing how a city like Flint is uniquely susceptible to catastrophe. Because Flint, like many other old industrial cities, was built for a population twice its current size, swathes of poor neighborhoods are plagued with blight. Its needs for government services are above average; its ability to pay for them is well below average. The Poisoned City makes a valuable contribution to the literature on Rust Belt decline by explaining how much can go wrong in underused water systems. “In the huge water mains that ran beneath the closed manufacturing plants and depopulated streets,” Clark explains, “water sat stagnant for too long. Without enough residents or big industries to keep the water moving at a quick clip, the contaminants became more concentrated.” 

In addition to being poor and shrunken, Flint is a majority-minority city, which feeds The Poisoned City’s thesis that Flint children were exposed to lead because of implicit racial discrimination. Yet as Clark notes, much of Flint’s more recent outmigration struggles have been driven by black flight, as minority families have left to seek opportunities elsewhere. The same Snyder administration that failed Flint provided critical leadership during the 2013-14 Detroit bankruptcy, and hundreds of millions in state funds, thus laying the foundation for that city’s nascent revival. If racial insensitivity cannot account for the steps that Michigan took to help Detroit, how far can it go in explaining the neglect that harmed Flint?

Flint might be a case study in urban America’s structural challenges, but it’s also a parable about the importance of leadership. In politics, if you own it, you broke it. Governors and mayors who try to ameliorate a problem decades in the making, such as underfunded pension systems or Rust Belt cities’ fiscal woes, are often rewarded for their efforts by getting blamed for having caused the problem in the first place, or for not solving it completely. Cities like Flint will continue to teeter on the verge of insolvency, but state revenues are simply not abundant enough to allow for open-ended grants of support. We need to think more about how state officials can help fiscally distressed cities without placing themselves at risk for everything that can go wrong.

Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images


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