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Why Lead in Drinking Water Has Serious Negative Impacts on CitizensCase Study

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Flint water crisis is an object lesson in how not to handle a public-health problem, especially one that was caused, at least indirectly, by actions of the city itself. Despite abundant evidence that there was a problem, city officials delayed remedial action for another six to nine months." (Stephan, K., 2016).

Flint, Michigan, is a city of nearly 100,000 residents seventy miles north of Detroit, and about 41.6% of its citizens fall below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (CNN, 2016). This paper reviews the facts surrounding the disastrous decisions that were made by elected officials that allowed water containing high levels of lead to be used by citizens in their homes. The leadership challenges and the public safety will be thoroughly presented in this paper -- including health-related issues, legal issues, ethical and racial issues -- and the political landscape in Flint and in Michigan resulting from the wrongheaded, grievous strategies employed.

Introductory / Basic Facts: What brought on the Crisis?

The Flint River had previously been used as the main source of drinking water in Flint for many years; but in 1967 the city made arrangements to buy a better grade of water from Lake Huron through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (CNN). Sometime after Flint made the decision to use Lake Huron water, the Flint River was slowly being degraded by pollution. In fact, because of " ... the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances," the state ordered that about 134 specific sites along the river be cleaned up (CNN). In addition to the pollutants mentioned above, the watershed that leads into the Flint River was contributing pesticides and fertilizer residue from farms, and waste from industrial complexes.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the budget that funded the water supply in Flint was $9 million in arrears, because some of the water-fund revenue had been used to cover shortages in Flint's general fund. So an emergency loan was floated to cover the water supply fund. Meanwhile in order to take pressure off the water fund, and while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction -- which would reportedly save the city over $200 million over 25 years (Kennedy, 2016) -- Michigan's leadership made an apparent economic stop-gap decision and switched sources, tapping into the Flint River. But a class-action lawsuit alleged that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not treat the Flint River water with "an anti-corrosive agent," which is a violation of federal law, according to CNN. Indeed, the river water was found to be "19 times more corrosive" than the water from Lake Huron; and in addition, old service pipelines allowed lead to leach into homes in Flint in 2014 (CNN).

What are the health impacts of high levels of lead in drinking water? Children suffer from "impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty" (CNN). As for pregnant women, lead reduces the growth of the fetus, and for the rest of the population, consuming water with substantial levels of lead can negatively impact the heart, the nerves and the kidneys, according to information reported by CNN.

Ethics Issues: Leadership in Michigan Ignored Warning Signs

Journalist Julie Bosman, writing in The New York Times, explains how the subject of low income and minority members of the community comes into focus. An independent five-member panel referenced by Bosman reported that "... disregard for the concerns of poor and minority people" was one reason why the government was slow to respond to complaints from residents about the "foul and discolored water" that was making people sick (Bosman, 2016). The panel, established by Governor Rick Snyder in October, 2015, reported that the water crisis was " ... a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice" (Bosman, p. 1).

At the same time the panel was authorized, Snyder also urged Flint citizens to avoid drinking the water from the Flint River; and also in October 2015 Snyder blamed state employees for the crisis. He specifically dumped blame on: a) state-appointed emergency managers (who "prized frugality over public safety"); and b) staff members in the governor's office (Bosman, p. 1). Notwithstanding Synder's finger-pointing, the panel focused on the fact that minorities and the poor are "treated differently when it comes to environmental matters" (Bosman, p. 2). The community members in Flint " ... did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards" that other wealthier communities are provided (Bosman, p. 2).

The report (116 pages) also noted that the failure to add necessary chemicals to the water -- in order to retard the corrosion in the pipes, which was the source of lead contamination -- was a decision based on saving money for the state (Bosman, p. 3).

Timeline Reflects Citizen and Legal Responses

On April 25, 2014, the Flint River began flowing into family's faucets; a press release from the City read: "In an effort to dispel myths and promote the truth about the Flint River ... numerous studies and tests [have been made] ... the quality of water being put out meets all of our drinking water standards and Flint water is safe to drink" (Kennedy, 2016);

In August, 2014, the city issued an order to boil water after detecting coliform bacteria in the water; additional chlorine is pumped into the water (CNN);

In October, 2014, the General Motors plant in Flint quits using city water, and cuts a deal to use water from Lake Huron (CNN);

On January 2, 2015, Flint is declared to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act since the level of "total trihalomethanes" (carcinogens, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) are in the water (Kennedy);

In January, 2015, the city issues a warning that "byproducts of disinfectants" in the water can cause health issues, including cancer (CNN);

On January 21 the Detroit Free Press reports children are developing rashes and "suffering from mysterious illnesses" (CNN);

On March 23, 2015, the Flint City Council votes 7-1 to halt the use of water, but the Council is overruled by emergency manager for the state, Jerry Ambrose, who says the vote is "incomprehensible" due to the high costs

In January, 2016: a) a federal lawsuit is filed against the state; and b) the EPA launches a criminal investigation (CNN);

In March, 2016, lawyers for the NAACP file a class action suit against Michigan, Snyder; and in April, criminal charges are filed against Michigan.

Racism and other Ethical Issues

The fact that so many of Flint's residents are poor -- and that 56.6% are African-Americans -- has added to the powerful impression that the decision to switch to the toxic water in the Flint River was made with little regard for the health of the population.

An Editorial in The New York Times (March 25, 2016) pinned the blame for the water crisis on the Michigan's " ... blatant disregard for the lives and health of poor and black residents of a distressed city." A five-member task force report cited by the Times indicated that because Flint residents are " ... among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States," they did not get to have the same level of protection from health hazards that other communities enjoy (Times).

Blame for the disaster, according to Snyder -- a Republican -- and other Republicans should be placed not on the State of Michigan and its leaders, but rather on the Environmental Protection Agency, which many Republicans " ... oppose for ideological reasons" (Times). The task force that issued this report included two doctors, two former Michigan lawmakers, and an independent water expert; the report offered 44 recommendations including calling upon Synder (and the Republican-led Legislature) to provide " ... long-term health care" to residents of flint who suffer from lead poisoning (Times, p. 2). The report also called upon the state to create a system wherein the state emergency managers (people who made the decisions and assurances vis-a-vis river water safety) could have their decisions appealed by the public.

Synder apparently stretched credulity when he asserted in March, 2016 that he said he didn't know if "race was a factor" in the environmental disaster; he said this even though the record indicates clearly that the worries and health concerns of " ... poor and minority residents were dismissed" by Synder's administration (Times). The Times' article also pointed to other examples of how minority communities have struggled with environmental degradation: a) New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (and the levees' breach); b) West Virginia (chemical spills); and c) Washington, D.C. (lead contamination in 2006).

Ethical Issues: Roots of Racism in Flint

When it comes to polluters preying on towns and cities with large minority communities, the blame can partly be pinned on "weak environmental regulations" as well as institutional racism (Craven, et al., 2016). Governments have been ignoring minority communities' health and safety for years, according to Congressman Dan Kildee,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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