Flint Water: Author Describes a Clear Crisis and Unclear Answers on Accountability

Anna Clark admits there are thing she wishes she could have probed in greater depth for her critically-praised 2018 book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. At the top of that list is the broad question of accountability for the actions that led to a nightmare crisis of lead contamination in water in the city near Detroit.

At the conclusion of an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Wednesday at Marquette Law School, Clark said, “There are lot of unanswered questions.” Investigations of Flint’s water problem are continuing, she said, and she had to stop work on the book at some point.

“If I had more time and more space, I would love to devote it to following a little more what this accountability question looks like,” Clark said. She said that her concern apples not only to Flint but also more broadly to questions of who and what to hold accountable when major environmental harm is uncovered anywhere.  

But if the picture of what led to Flint’s water crisis – and who should be blamed – is not complete, Clark’s book has been praised for providing a comprehensive and detailed picture of what unfolded in an episode that, as Clark put it, “chilled our whole nation to its core.” Among aspects of the damage: Thousands of children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and drinking water in the city of about 100,000 is still regarded as suspect by many. Although officials say the water now meets standards, many residents still drink only bottled water, and Clark, who lives in Detroit, said she herself drinks bottled water when she visits.

Flint is a city that fell on hard times in recent decades as industries, particularly General Motors, left, as better-off white people left and low-income minority people remained, and as population dropped. One of Clark’s unanswered questions is how the poverty and demographics of Flint shaped decisions by state officials that created the water problem and brought slow responses.

“When everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency,“ she said, describing how complaints by residents about the water were brushed off by many officials in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and elsewhere.

Flint residents faced expensive water bills, but not water quality issues until April 2014, when state officials switched the source of the city’s water from Lake Huron to the Flint River and the quality of treatment of the water, particularly federal-required anti-corrosion treatment, dropped.

Gousha asked Clark why the source of the water was switched. “There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about why this choice was made,” Clark said. “It’s literally still being investigated right now.”

Within weeks of the switch, residents began complaining that the water tasted bad, that it felt odd on their skin, and that they suspected it was having impacts on their health. But the response from responsible government authorities was slow. Some criminal charges of government officials have resulted.

Effective and persistent citizens and scientists to took up the issue deserve a lot of credit for bringing eventual responses, including replacing pipes throughout Flint, Clark said. She said she hopes the Flint crisis will be a wake-up call for action to assure healthy drinking water everywhere.

Clark also spoke at two other programs on the Marquette University campus on Wednesday as part of the university’s “Democracy in Troubled Times” series.

To watch video of the one-hour program, click here.  

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