Clean water is a right, not a privilege

The Flint water crisis has devastated the world after investigations have shown a toxic amount of lead and other pathogens in the water supply of Flint, Michigan.

Photo by Sean Proctor (AP).

A stay-at-home mother from Flint, Michigan, Leeanne Walters called Marc Edwards in April 2015 to express her concern about the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap at home.  During this phone call, Walters explained that she had tirelessly complained to state and local officials about her thinning hair and her son’s red and irritated skin that she believed was coming from Flint’s city water.  She was reassured by officials that she was “perfectly safe.” The officials were wrong.

Governor Snyder says “he will make Flint’s water safe again.”

Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, and his team became involved, collecting hundreds of water samples, and bringing attention to the Flint water crisis.  Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette finally announced Friday, January 15, 2016, that he will be investigating the water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan after six months of Edwards trying to get the EPA to investigate.  AG Schuette said that, “[a]s attorney general, [he] will investigate this situation to determine if any Michigan laws have been broken.” A class action lawsuit has been filed against Snyder, the state government, and the city of Flint.

On the same day that the United States Department of Justice announced that it is investigating what went wrong in the city of Flint. Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder even asked President Barack Obama to declare a state of emergency due to enormous amounts of lead in the city’s water supply.  On Friday, January 15, 2016, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up $5 million in federal aid to help immediately.  However, President Obama denied Governor Snyder’s request for a disaster declaration.

In Michigan, U.S. Representative Dan Kildee welcomed President Obama’s declaration, and issued a statement where he said, “I welcome the president’s quick action in support of the people of Flint after months of inaction by the governor. The residents and children of Flint deserve every resource available to make sure that they have safe water and are able to recover from this terrible manmade disaster created by the state.”

Officials say it could cost over $1.5 billion to fully correct the problem. This is an astounding amount for any city, but this amount is particularly troublesome for Flint, as it is already struggling financially.  To conquer the expensive solution to Flint’s water crisis, Governor Rick Snyder announced on Wednesday, February 11, 2016, several extensive proposals, including spending “$195 million on bottled water, filters, infrastructure, nutritional assistance, education and health care.”  Governor Snyder says “he will make Flint’s water safe again.”

Flint’s drinking water supply was switched in April 2014 from Lake Huron water, which was treated in Detroit, to water from the Flint River

In order to save money, the city began to draw water from the Flint River.  Flint’s drinking water supply was switched in April 2014 from Lake Huron water, which was treated in Detroit, to water from the Flint River. This water is treated at the Flint water treatment plant.

Unfortunately, the Flint River’s water has a high concentration of salt.  The new Flint supply was not treated with the required corrosion control chemicals. Consequently, this salt helped in corroding Flint’s pipes, which caused lead and other pathogens to leak into the city’s water supply.  The water has been so poisoned by lead that in some cases it qualified as “toxic waste.”

Although this cost saving measure saved the city millions of dollars, the problems began almost immediately.  First, the problems started when the water began smelling like rotten eggs.  To fix the problem, engineers upped the chlorine level, causing it to border the line of dangerous toxicity.  Next, residents, especially children, began getting sick and getting rashes.  Some residents even began losing hair.

Marc Edwards tested the water for lead and found that it had nearly 900 times the limit recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Edwards believes “[t]here is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened.”

Edwards also said that for as little as $100 a day, the city could have added phosphates to the water in order to correct most of the problems.  However, the city failed to do so.

[T]he state did not wait to declare an emergency until about twenty months after the switch to the Flint River. 

Residents claim that the city knew about the problems as early as May 2014, but even as late as February 2015, officials were telling residents there was no threat.  Furthermore, the state did not wait to declare an emergency until about twenty months after the switch to the Flint River.

Residents were beginning to get lead poisoning.  Not only was there lead in the water, but there were also abnormal amounts of copper and bacteria.  Children, who are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, can be affected by irreversible brain damage and physical health.  Lead is a deadly neurotoxin, which can cause both mental and physical issues, such as stunted growth, behavioral problems, and permanently decreased IQs.

The effects of lead poisoning could resonate for years to come.  A local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, said, “[i]n five years, these kids are going to have problems with special education. They’re going to have cognition problems. Seven to 10 years, they’re going to have behavioral problems.”

Many civil rights advocates argue that the health crisis in Flint is environmental racism

There are a lot of questions surrounding what really happened with the Flint water crisis.  Reverend Jeffery Hawkins, pastor of Prince of Peace Baptist Church, blames it all on Snyder. In an interview, Hawkins said, “I believe it’s a city that has been kicked so many times, and when it comes to voting, our numbers are not always the greatest numbers  . . .because of that, I think the governor just doesn’t care about the city.  But there are still human rights afforded, and he could have cared far more than he did. There’s no excuse for what he did, at the end of the day.”

Some wonder if the same problem would have occurred if Flint consisted of rich, mostly white residents. Would the government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about the water and about their health? It is undeniable that the majority of residents in Flint are poor and black.

Many civil rights advocates argue that the health crisis in Flint is environmental racism.  Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of minorities to polluted air, water, and soil.  Whether or not race and class were factors that influenced the government, the results were still dire for the residents. The long-term effects that these residents are going through and will be going through will not be understood fully for years to come.

Flint has switched back to Detroit water as of October after the high levels of lead came to light.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, the National Guard was activated to assist with the water crisis. The National Guard will distribute bottled water and filters at fire stations and other public buildings.  Red Cross volunteers will go door-to-door to hand out water, filters, and testing kits.

Currently, the residents of Flint are drinking and bathing in donated bottled water.  Unfortunately, these supplies have started dwindling to the point where public schools have been ordered to shut off their taps.

Snyder announced on January 13, 2016, that the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease has risen drastically in Genessee County since Flint has switched its water supply to the Flint River.  Legionnaires’ disease is a bacterial infection that is usually spread through mist from a water source instead of from person to person.  According to Nick Lyon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the increase cannot be directly attributed to the switch.  However, many researchers and scholars still remain skeptical.

Flint has switched back to Detroit water as of October after the high levels of lead came to light.  However, a lot of problems still remain.

Todd Flood announced that charges of manslaughter are possible for any official found to have been grossly negligent.

As new details emerge about the story, the biggest question is whether Snyder knew about the problem.  Snyder has apologized, promising to make things right. He has also pledged to release his emails from 2014 and 2015 that are related to the crisis.  Reactions to this pledge were mixed, as Democrats were concerned that the emails would be incomplete and “cherry picked.” Republicans were more supportive, respecting Snyder for owning up to his mistake and promising to fix everything.

U.S. Representative Dan Kildee said in a press release that, “Flint needs more action and less talk from Governor Snyder. It is important to remember that this crisis was created by a state-appointed emergency financial manager, and it is the state’s ultimate responsibility to act and make it right. Flint residents are the victims in this crisis, and they deserve a more urgent response equal to the gravity of this crisis.”

Most importantly, the Flint disaster raises a question of fundamental human rights that investigators are considering.  On Tuesday, February 9, 2016, Todd Flood announced that charges of manslaughter are possible for any official found to have been grossly negligent.  Flood also stated that there is a possibility of him seeking restitution against private companies and governments on behalf of Flint residents affected by the water crisis.  Access to clean water is a basic human right, and Flint, Michigan has a long road ahead to restore Flint’s water supply and the confidence of its citizens in the government.

Avatar photo
About Kruti Patel, Senior Staff Writer (14 Articles)
Kruti Patel is a 2016 graduate, and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is a Greensboro, North Carolina native. In 2013, Kruti graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Spanish for the Professions. During the summer of 2014, Kruti worked as a research assistant for Professor Patrick Hetrick researching joint tenancy laws, and at the NC Department of Health and Human Services in the Communications Department. Kruti is worked as Prof. Hetrick’s research assistant and at the NC Hospital Association during her second year of law school.
Contact: Email