Environmental Racism in the Flint Water Crisis

Environmental Racism in the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis

Nicolle Zenaro, Fall 2020

Beginning of the Flint Water Crisis

This crisis began in 2014 when the city of Flint made the decision to switch the drinking water supply from Detroit’s system from Lake Huron to obtaining their water from the Flint River. [1] The city of Flint decided to switch their water supply since they were in debt because of the General Motors company falling into an economic decline. Because of this debt the city of Flint was in a state of emergency and because of this, they made the decision to switch water supply in 2011. At the same time the city of Flint decided to switch their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, officials found that the water needed to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent to stop the lead from leaching into the water, but little action was taken. On April 25th 2014, they began using the water and the effects were almost immediate. [2] Once the residents of Flint started to use the water, they noticed a great change and they experienced symptoms that were attributed to be coming from the usage of the water from the Flint River. [3] This can be classified as a crisis because the water was contaminated and there were high levels of lead in the water. As will be mentioned further in this article, lead is extremely dangerous and shouldn’t be digested in any format. This can cause serious health issues and the population that is mostly affected is children because it interrupts their growth and development. This will continue to affect them throughout their lifetime because this has a lasting and irreversible effect on their development. As we will find out, the city was irresponsible in their handling of the issue and it can be argued that they were more focused on the money aspect of this decision. Many of the people in the community attempted to make a change but due to the lack of involvement of the state and the city of Flint, this problem continued for longer than it should have and many of the concerns were overlooked and ignored.

Description of the Problem

Due to the inadequate treatment of the water from the Flint River and the lack of testing there seemed to be water quality issues and health issues stemming from the water almost immediately after using the water. The water was foul-smelling, discolored, and the taste seemed off to residents, but all of these symptoms were discredited by the government and the city officials. For more than a century, the city of Flint has used this river as an unofficial waste disposal site for treated and untreated trash from industries, along with agricultural run-off and sewage. This river was so reactive that it was rumored that it caught on fire twice. [1] Since the water wasn’t treated with the anti-corrosion chemical to prevent the lead particles in the pipes, the pipes were lead-ridden and this caused the water to have high levels of lead. The water itself was corrosive because of all the contaminants and chemicals but once it was introduced into the pipes the problem became worse with the lead from the pipes in the public water system. This is a severe concern because the population of Flint is already at risk for lead contamination because it is more prevalent in communities that live in poverty. [4] Since the community was unable to drink that water due to the damaging effects that it held, they scrambled to find clean water sources and the community needed immediate attention and a water supply. The city seemed to prolong the help and transition that they needed so this problem continued for multiple years.

Impacts of Lead in Water and the Science Behind this Water Problem

Since lead is a heavy metal it is not safe to be ingested and often causes problems in people of all ages, with a concern for children. Lead impairs brain development, physical growth, anemia, hearing, cardiovascular health, behavioral problems, fertility issues, high blood pressure, and heart and kidney disease. [1] In addition to these side effects, it is also known to cause issues in intelligence, neurological functions, behavior, and attention. [4] Although this problem affects everyone, children under the age of eighteen are more at risk. Since children grow and develop more than adults, they are more at risk to these side effects and unfortunately this may affect them more in the future. When the children were tested after having ingested the water for eighteen months, it was found that their blood-levels were either doubled or tripled. This affected around 9,000 children. [1] Overall this problem could have been prevented, using rivers as a water source is often more challenging because compared to groundwater it is more prone to particles, microorganisms, organic matter, and odor-causing compounds. Since this is true the chemicals in the water began to erode the lead pipes in a quick manner and the amount of bacteria spiked along with the presence of lead in the public drinking water. [5] Scientists urged the city that the water was dangerous and shouldn’t be ingested but many officials continued to ignore this problem.

Efforts Taken to Solve this Water Problem

In 2015, the company Virginia Tech investigated the water quality and they found that there were elevated lead levels in the water although the EPA disputed this claim. Eventually in the same year the city switches back to the previous water supply from Lake Huron, but the damage is already done and lead is still in the pipes that transport the water. In 2016, the governors of Flint asked FEMA for federal assistance and 600 million was provided for the people of Flint, along with 28 million from the state of Michigan. [2] For a direct effort to fix this water problem, chlorine was added into the water but this turned out to make the problem worse. As a result of treating corrosive water with more chemicals, it caused elevated levels of TTHM which is a cancer-causing byproduct and it contributed to the corrosivity of the water. In 2016 the federal judge stepped in and sided with Flint residents and ordered door to door delivery of bottled water. In 2017, the city was required to replace the lead pipes with aid from the funding, along with tap water testing, faucet filter installations, free bottled water, and health programs. [1] These advances were made and the city of Flint was headed in the right direction in their plan to fix the water.

Demographics in Flint Michigan

One of the most important aspects of this crisis is the fact that the city of Flint has a minority influence. Since the city of Flint was in debt and a state of emergency, the population dwindled to 100,000 people with a majority of them being African American. Along with this, nearly 45% of the population is below the poverty line. [1] This community is already at risk for health issues and it is important to note that the local and state governments ignored this issue and decided to go through with the cost-effective choice although they knew that this may not be the safe option. The fact that this community has a large minority population is important when examining how the government, the state of Michigan, and the city of Flint dealt with the water problem.

Environmental Racism and Injustice

This case serves as a great example of environmental racism and injustice for a whole city and it’s population. The term, ‘environmental racism’ was coined in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s and this refers to discriminatory legistaute or practices surrounding decisions relating to the environment. One can argue that the response to this crisis would be different if the population of Flint wasn’t a minority. Because of this it can be referred to as environmental racism. They were disproportionately exposed to polluted water and there was a poor government throughout all of this. The city of Flint had little power and it didn’t help that the officials attempted to minimize the problems. [6] Since the voices and community of Flint was ignored for so long, this can be considered one of the worst environmental injustices to occur. The city of Flint faced ignorance and a lack of concern for their health even though the water was tested and the high lead levels were found to be alarming. [3] Both the state and local governments continued to make decisions about pollution that disproportionately continued to put this low-income community at risk for health and safety problems. In the end this could have been solved by not making the cost-effective choice that hurt the community. [7]

Current Efforts to Solve this City-Wide Problem

Although this water crisis is looking better than the previous years, efforts are still being taken to help this community cope with the effects that have occured. The city of Flint currently has a service line replacement program that focuses on water recovery. There have been 26,232 excavations, 16,463 copper service lines installed, 9,769 pipes replaced, and in addition this program covers checking water service lines and replacing them at no cost. [8] Another program was put in place recently in July 2020 by Mayor Sheldon Neeley. This program is funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and it removes lead-based paint hazards from homes at no cost. In addition there have been multiple grants, one of the most being 600 million to Flint city residents which 80% of is going to people who were under eighteen years. [9] The recent efforts to help the city of Flint are vital to the health and safety of the citizens.

Implications to Citizenship

This issue is ultimately an issue that affects the citizens of Flint, Michigan. Overall they had little say in the decision-making process when switching the water supply. They weren’t given the necessary information about the quality of the water. The statements about the quality of the water were discounted by the government because they were ignoring what the citizens were reporting. Even when scientists tested the water, the results were ignored and the city still found ways to make their claim that the water from the Flint River was acceptable for public usage. Eventually as time continued and the city of Flint and the state of Michigan continued to ignore these problems, the Environmental Protection Agency was involved and groups were formed in response to help solve these problems.[1] This displays the fact that the government officials failed to take action so the US government service needed to be involved. In terms of citizenship, this problem can be viewed as a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The EPA must abide by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in this instance because they need to make sure that recipients of federal aid don’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, or origin. [10] It can be argued that they lacked these funds from the beginning and this presents a new problem, one being that these citizens for a prolonged period of time had unequal protection under the law and this violated the 14th amendment because of the unequal treatment that occurred.

A Case Study With an Influential Citizen

In the Flint Water Crisis it was known that the city and the state ultimately failed in responding to the demands made by the citizens that noticed problems with the water. Because of this citizens in Flint needed a change and one of the only ways in doing so was making their voice heard. A citizen that has an influential voice was a young girl named Mari Copeny. At a young age of eight years old, she found a way to make her voice heard not only in the community but directly to the government. She wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to make a visit to Flint to see the problem first-hand. The whole country saw her letter since it was published in newspapers and it displayed the fact the state was ignoring the water crisis and depriving the citizens of Flint with the necessary elements to survive. She ultimately helped the government to be involved in this effort since she was the one who got the President to visit the city. In addition to asking the President to view the state of the city, she continued to use her newly found fame by raising money for children who, like her, were affected by the water crisis. [11] Mari is an excellent example of how any person is able to use their rights as a citizen to make a change in their community. She began by writing a letter to the President and this simple act was able to get the government involved with the crisis and bring awareness to this issue that the state of Michigan failed to help solve.


[1] Denchak, M. (2020, May 01). Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know

[2] Schneider, J., & Riess, R. (2020, August 20). A $600 million settlement in the Flint water crisis will provide funds for city residents. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/us/flint-michigan-water-crisis-settlement-reports/index.html

[3] Larochelle, C. (2019, April 23). Five years later: Flint water crisis most egregious example of environmental injustice, U-M researcher says. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://news.umich.edu/five-years-later-flint-water-crisis-most-egregious-example-of-environmental-injustice-u-m-researcher-says/

[4] Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. (2016, September 27). A Case Study of Environmental Injustice: The Failure in Flint. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086690/

[5] Olson, T. (2020, March 20). The science behind the Flint water crisis: Corrosion of pipes, erosion of trust. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/the-science-behind-the-flint-water-crisis-corrosion-of-pipes-erosion-of-trust-53776

[6] Eligon, J. (2016, January 22). A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/us/a-question-of-environmental-racism-in-flint.html

[7] Clarke, K. (2016, January 27). The Environmental Racism Flowing in Flint. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/environmental-racism-flowing-flint

[8] (2020). Service Line Replacement Program. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.cityofflint.com/gettheleadout/

[9] (2020). Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.cityofflint.com/lbphc/

[10] Cha, J. (2016, February 04). Flint water crisis is classic case of environmental racism. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/266850-flint-water-crisis-is-classic-case-of-environmental

[11] About Mari. (2020). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www.maricopeny.com/about

Further Reading

Kennedy, M. (2016, April 20). Lead-Laced Water In Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The
Makings Of A Crisis. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis

Worcester State University Fall 2022