Flint Water Crisis Essay

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The Flint, Michigan water crisis has become a poster child for environmental injustice, environmental racism, and inequitable resource distribution in the United States. It has also represented a case of bleak mismanagement of precious natural resources and the inability of the United States to adequately respond to the most basic human needs. The water crisis was but a grim manifestation of decades of racist land use policies and political realities, which can be traced back to periods of segregation and the white flight to the suburban sprawl. Moreover, the Flint water crisis showcases the role government plays in colluding with polluters, with issues related to the not in my back yard (NIMBY) phenomenon also relevant in this case. As Bell (2012:28) points out, “environmental justice...concerns patterns of inequality in the distribution of environmental goods.” Flint residents lacked access to environmental “goods,” such as clean drinking water given the long-term contamination of the Flint River. Environmental racism refers to “social heritage differences in the distribution of environmental bads, due to either intentional or institutional reasons,” (Bell 2012:25). In Flint’s case, private and public sector stakeholders did have a direct, intentional role to play in the lead contamination and violation of state and federal environmental and public health policies. The Flint water crisis represents the intersection of socioeconomic class and racial variables impacting access to clean drinking water: what could and should be viewed as a basic human right.

History and Background

Although the Flint water crisis came to a head in 2014, it had been brewing long before that. The history of the water crisis and the sociological variables associated with it can be traced back to the founding of the city and its earliest attempts to centralize the public water system under the Flint Water Works Company in 1883 (Masten and Davies 2016:23). In fact, Flint, Michigan has been using lead pipes for public water infrastructure since a 1897 city ordinance was passed mandating their use, long before the dangers of lead leaching into the water were known (Masten and Davies 2016:23). Lead is in fact one of the main components in the water crisis: being among the most dangerous contaminants found in Flint residents’ water.

Flint, Michigan had once been the hub of the booming automobile manufacturing industry in the United States after the General Motors (GM) Corporation located its hub there.
When GM established Flint as its base of operations, it triggered the first white flight epidemic, which forever entrenched racist values, policies, and practices into the region. Flint was no different from any other American town or city in this regard, but Flint has become one of the most extreme examples of how sociological factors become inextricably linked to environmental policies. As Ranganathan (2016:17) points out, the classical liberalist mentality that dominated, and continues to dominate, American political discourse has led to the widespread assumption that all public policy is inherently equitable. The Constitution does overtly support equity, but in fact, white flight and the Flint example shows how the most equitable policies are not borne out in reality.

What occurred in Flint was that first, white residents moved out of the city in droves to seek an idealized life in suburban areas. Flint therefore became a primarily African American town, which at first remained tied to the GM teat. GM and other area industries had long been polluting the local rivers and groundwater, which would have otherwise served as the primary water sources for the community. When the Flint River became too contaminated to be the drinking water source for Flint residents, though, around the middle of the twentieth century, the city started to turn to other water sources in order to allow businesses to achieve their financial objectives unimpeded by pesky regulations. At first, when water from the Flint River had been contaminated due to long-term “unregulated discharges by industries and municipalities” throughout the twentieth century, the city of Flint’s elected officials decided to purchase treated water from Detroit (Masten and Davies 2016:23). This provided a temporary solution to the problem of contaminated river water, and only deferred the underlying environmental concerns related to long-term pollution. At this point, lead pipes had not even become part of the public discourse and the lead issue was systematically ignored.

The Flint water crisis truly began in 2013. Precipitated by a municipal decision to switch the city’s water supply from its outsourced options back to the Flint River, an outlandish notion that flew in the face of all environmental policy recommendations and all common sense. By treating Flint River water at the Flint Water Service Center, the city glossed over the….....

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References

Bell, Michael Mayerfeld. 2012. An Invitation to Environmental Sociology. Los Angeles: Sage.

Butler, Lindsey J., Madeline K. Scammel, and Eugene B. Benson. 2016. “The Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis: A Case Study in
Regulatory Failure and Environmental Injustice.” Environmental Justice 9(4):93-97.

Clark, Karen. 2016. “The Value of Water.” Environmental Justice 9(4):99-102.

Gostin, Lawrence O. 2016. “Politics and Public Health: The Flint drinking water crisis. The Hastings Center Report 46(4): 5-6.

Masten, Susan. J., Simon H. Davies, and Shawn P. McElmurry. 2016. “Flint Water Crisis: What Happened and Why?” Journal of the American Water Works Association, 108, 22–34. doi:10.5942/jawwa.2016.108.0195

Ragnanathan, Malini. 2016. “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27(3): 17-33.

Sadler, Richard Casey, and Andrew H. Highsmith. 2016. “Rethinking Tiebout: The Contribution of Political Fragmentation and Racial/Economic Segregation to the Flint Water Crisis.” Environmental Justice 9(5): 143-151.

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