Flint: How austerity poisoned a US city

The US city of Flint is in the midst of a man-made public health emergency. For almost two years, the predominantly low-income residents of the city of 100,000 people have been exposed to extreme levels of lead contamination in the city’s water supply.

This was the outcome of extreme austerity measures that saw the city’s elected officials replaced with unaccountable administrators.

An outbreak of legionnaires’ disease linked to water contamination has killed ten people. Widespread reports of illness, including incidences of rash, hair loss and burns, have been met with indifference from Republican Governor Rick Snyder.

Levels of lead found in the Flint’s water have exceeded the federal limit by ten-fold. The World Health Organization states that, “the neurological and behavioural effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

Every child in the city faces a future of learning impairment, behavioural problems and permanent brain damage as a result of drinking poisoned water. As filmmaker Michael Moore, a Flint local, notes, “all the children have been exposed, as have all the adults, including me”.

The making of a crisis

Up until April 2014, Flint’s water was supplied by Lake Huron in Detroit, a stable water source forming part of the second largest fresh water lake in the US.

Darnell Earney, an unelected administrator tasked with the implementation of austerity measures, shifted the local water supply to the highly polluted Flint River. Its water was so corrosive that lead from aging infrastructure leached into the water supply.

The decision was driven by a projected cost saving of $19 million over eight years in the construction of a cheaper pipeline.

The ensuing public health crisis has been at the centre of a cover-up lasting almost a year. In October 2014, General Motors (GM) complained of rusting components in its local car plant resulting from corrosive water.

Officials spent $440,000 to allow GM to reconnect to the original Detroit water supply. But they continued to maintain that the water was safe for human consumption. Even the workers at the GM plant continued to drink polluted water from water fountains and ice machines there.

As late as July 2015, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson claimed, “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax”.

The declaration of a federal State of Emergency in January this year was an overdue recognition of an unfolding crisis caused by the logic of neo-liberal austerity.

The Flint water crisis is the direct outcome of a wider offensive against public services driven by Republican Governor Rick Snyder in Michigan. Snyder is a former venture capitalist who passed anti-union laws and gave corporations a tax break at the expense of ordinary people.

Elsewhere in the state of Michigan, in the bankrupt city of Detroit, 27,000 low-income households unable to pay rising water bills were targeted for mass water shut-offs last year.

In 2011, Flint was placed under “Emergency Management”, with unelected officials appointed to draft policy and re-negotiate public contracts in order to cut public spending.

The city’s low-income residents have been forced to pay some of the highest water rates in Michigan for contaminated water, alongside the cost of bottled water.

Michael Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union observes that, “Flint is Exhibit A for what happens when a state suspends democracy and installs unaccountable bean counters to run a city.”

Flint Lives Matter

In a majority African-American city in which over 40 per cent of residents live below the poverty line, the Flint water crisis has deepened a decades-long social catastrophe of de-industrialisation.

The same Republican politicians who supported the introduction of “Emergency Management” in Flint and Detroit opposed the introduction of equivalent measures in white-majority areas of Michigan.

A statement by the Black Lives Matter movement argues that African-American “residents living with autoimmune disorders like lupus and HIV are at especially high risk”.

Months of public protest by residents have since forced the return of the city’s water supply to Lake Huron. But the damage to pipes by corrosion has already been done and water remains undrinkable.

It will cost an estimated $1.5 billion in public investment for a wholesale replacement of water infrastructure. This requires a challenge to the austerity agenda of Snyder.

The Flint Water Crisis has exposed the consequences of running vital public services as a business. Once the site of the 1934 Sit-Down Strikes in the city’s car factories, the struggle to put people before profits in Flint is literally a fight for survival.

By Jimmy Yan


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