Flint Michigan Water Crisis
Flint’s lead water crisis demonstrates how austerity measures disproportionally fall on socioeconomically disadvantaged stakeholders who possess little recourse to affect policy. Historically marginalized stakeholders suffer from environmental degradation more severely than stakeholders enriched with the influential social and financial capital necessary to buy their way out of environmental crises. Flint historically received its water from Detroit’s water source lake Heron. Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, switched Flint’s water source to the Flint River instead. While this measure saved three million in the short run, it exposed Flint’s mostly poor black community to substandard water that eventually corroded Flint’s aging lead-based plumbing infrastructure (Gilha, 2016). This caused minority communities to disproportionally suffer lead concentrations of 27 PPB to 13,000PPB for over a year before the government publicly announced the problem (Ingraham, 2016). Agency capture and austerity policies in Flint enabled already vulnerable stakeholders to lose access to safe water.
Marginalized communities suffering from crime, unemployment, and stagnation have significantly less ability to lobby their government for clean water. Forty-two percent of Flint’s population of 99,763 lies under the poverty line (Gilha, 2016). Despite poorer citizens’ closer proximity to lead poising, they have much less influence to affect policy shaping their health. Flint’s poor citizens often can’t afford to take time off work to organize protests, nor do they have connections to political networks required to influence powerful stakeholders(Eligon, 2016). Before the government provided clean water, citizens couldn’t afford to buy bottled water (Eligon, 2016). Even though, the community members had started complaining about their water’s reduced quality since the water switched sources, the governor’s office claimed these complaints were exaggerated (Eligon, 2016). The Governor’s office interpreted complaints of about rashes, hair loss, and general sickness as political grandstanding from a solidly Democratic region after an election (Eligon, 2016). In this case, party alliance strongly influenced how the governor’s office responded to a public health crisis, which emphasizes the need for independent regulatory agencies separate from party influence.
The partisan capture of regulatory agencies especially threatens minority communities, because it risks weakening the network of regulations and enforcement mechanisms required to protect minorities’ environmental rights. A collection of local, state and federal agencies together failed Flint’s citizens. The regional EPA director heavily edited and delayed publishing an EPA report warning of Flint’s dangerously high water lead levels for five months due to “interagency rules” and “confidential personal and enforcement-sensitive information” (Bernstein, 2016). As a result, the public wasn’t told about their water’s lead level. The EPA instead relied on Michigan’s Environmental Quality department (MDEQ) lead by Synder appointee Dan Wyant to address the issue. The MDEQ’s lead measuring methodology of flushing taps for several minutes before sampling for lead, knowingly biased samples for false low results (Bernstein,2016). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force argued that MDEQ’s “minimalist” and “overly legalistic” interpretation of EPA regulations combined with its dismissive view towards the public caused its failure to fulfill its legal responsibility to protect the public’s water (Davis, 2015). When private researchers went public with their own research on Flint’s lead poisoned children, state officials falsely accused researchers of contributing to mass hysteria (Bernstein, 2016). MDEQ’s knowingly biased methodology, the EPA’s delayed report, and all agencies ignoring marginalized community and independent researcher views suggest that top-down and agency-to-agency influences had a greater impact on decision making than community views.
These top-down influences likely directly or indirectly originate from the Governor’s office. Regulatory agencies captured by the Governor’s office, like the MDEQ, misunderstood Flint’s water crisis, not out of malice, but because marginalized communities don’t have the voice in Lansing political networks required to inform and influence policy. Snyder’s office viewed early reports of Flint’s water issues as political grandstanding after a reelection campaign. This created a feedback loop; Snyders office failed to pressure the MDEQ to appropriately investigate the water problems, and so Snyder’s office read MDEQ reports that failed to highlight the problem, which supported the decision not to apply pressure to the MDEQ to investigate appropriately.
Gliha, L. (2016, December 18). How the Flint, Michigan, water crisis is affecting its poorest residents. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/articles/2015/12/18/flint-michigan-water-crisis-lead-residents.html
Bernstein, L. (2016, January 23). Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/flints-water-crisis-reveals-government-failures-at-every-level/2016/01/23/03705f0c-c11e-11e5-bcda-62a36b394160_story.html
Eligon, J. (2016, January 21). A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/us/a-question-of-environmental-racism-in-flint.html
Felton, R. (2016, December 19). OPINION: Who’s responsible for poisoning Flint’s water supply? Retrieved February 05, 2016, from http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/12/whos-responsible-for-poisoning-flints-water-supply.html
Flint Water Advisory Task Force. (2016, December 29). Governor Snyder Letter. Retrieved from http://flintwaterstudy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FWATF-Snyder-Letter-12-29-15.pdf
Ingraham, C. (2016, January 15). This is how toxic Flint’s water really is. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/15/this-is-how-toxic-flints-water-really-is/
PÉrez-peÑa, R. (2016, January 22). Michigan Governor Says Race Had No Role in Flint Water Response. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/us/flint-water-crisis-michigan-governor-rick-snyder.html
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