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Flint needs to fix its water problem now

Sep 25, 2015

Yesterday I was thinking that, in a sense, Flint has become Detroit’s Detroit.

In other words, for years, the urban crisis in Detroit was seen as the worst in the state, if not the entire nation.

Last year, a woman studying psychology in Marquette told me, “I feel so sorry for people who live in places like Detroit and Syria.”

... Flint lacks the glamour and cachet of Detroit.

But things are improving in Detroit, even if not as fast as we would like. Detroit is now in vogue, and the bookshelves are crowded with new works by writers who come for a few weeks and feel compelled to explain the city, which they don’t really understand.

But few realize that 60 miles up I-75, a smaller ruined manufacturing town sits and suffers.

Flint gets little respect and less attention, unless native Michael Moore puts it in a movie.

Flint was the ultimate company town, and the company was General Motors. The city had close to 200,000 people once, but then the bottom fell out of the auto industry.

Flint has fewer than 100,000 left now, and all the usual problems of decaying infrastructure, not enough jobs, and being in and out of emergency management.

But Flint lacks the glamour and cachet of Detroit.

Young French artists and intellectuals aren’t rushing in for the Flint experience. And right now, Flint has a horrendous problem even Detroit has never experienced.

While Detroiters complain about water shutoffs, the situation in Flint is far worse.

Residents are paying some of the most expensive water bills in the nation, and there is increasing evidence their water is making them sick and poisoning their children.

Last year, to save money, Flint announced it was no longer going to buy Detroit water, but would instead become a customer of the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would give them water from Lake Huron.

But that system won’t be ready till next year.

So in the meantime, Flint has been pulling water from the Flint River, and that has been a disaster from day one.

The water seems to be more corrosive than lake water, and it is causing lead to leach out of the old pipes thousands of homes still have.

The water looked bad, tasted bad, smelled bad. And that was the good news. First there were concerns about elevated levels of bacteria. Then, there were signs residents’ health was being affected by the amount of disinfectant authorities needed to put in.

And now, lead.

Yesterday, a new study by physicians at the Hurley Medical Center showed that the tap water residents are drinking now has resulted in significant elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint’s children.

The water seems to be more corrosive than lake water, and it is causing lead to leach out of the old pipes thousands of homes still have.

The city apparently told one doctor that Flint couldn’t afford to go back to using Detroit water, but when you think about the effects of lead poisoning, it’s clear it can’t afford to do anything else.

The Flint Journal today said it was Governor Snyder’s responsibility, since it was his emergency manager who made the disastrous decision to switch to the river water.

Whoever is to blame, Flint needs to fix this, now.

As far as I know, residents haven’t marched on city hall yet with pitchforks.

But if they were to do that, I wouldn’t blame them one bit.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.