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Hoping that lessons learned in Flint last

Apr 26, 2017

This week, my colleagues at Michigan Radio have done an amazing package of stories to mark the third anniversary of the Flint water crisis. If you didn’t have a chance to hear them, I recommend you go read and listen.

Even if you’ve heard them, they are worth hearing again. In journalism, the very first sentence in a story is called the lede. And for sheer eloquence and simplicity, it would be hard to improve on the way Lindsey Smith began her story Tuesday: Three years ago today, Flint switched the source of its drinking water, and triggered a public health crisis.

Yes, that’s what happened, all right. The Flint water crisis may eventually be pushed off our immediate horizon, but it will long be with us. Last year, I talked to the doctor whose stubborn insistence on pursuing the truth made her a national hero.

These days, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is in frequent meetings with Governor Rick Snyder, whose emergency managers were responsible for poisoning the water, and whose administration then engaged in an energetic battle to hide the truth and discredit those who were trying to bring it to light, including the good doctor herself.

I asked whether it was difficult to work with the governor after all that. Oh, she told me, she did feel a little awkwardness at first. “But then I realized that it would be important for me to get along with him and the next five governors, because that’s how long we are going to be working with the effects of this,” she said.

Michigan Radio’s package of Flint stories this week covers nearly every dimension of this crisis, from the way in which this has caused other cities to look at their infrastructure to the criminal cases still grinding their way through the system.

They found heroes who brave pit bulls and cranky people to try and make sure homes have working water filters. There are residents living in substandard houses who face water bills three times as high as mine for water they can’t drink unfiltered.

Debate is still going on over who was most to blame. But here’s the bottom line: This was a man-made catastrophe that would never have happened if these hadn’t been poor people of color. People, that is, without money, or political connections, who nobody in government cared much about, or treated with respect. When they brought in jars of yellow, discolored, foul-smelling water, state officials and some Flint politicians told them to live with it.

When people complained to one emergency manager that they hadn’t been told what was happening, he snapped at them, “Well, I’m telling you now.”

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When General Motors refused to use Flint River water because it was corroding its engine parts, nobody asked what it was doing to humans. That wouldn’t have happened in Grand Rapids or Holland or the media center that is Detroit. But few paid attention to Flint.

We’re being told now that this couldn’t happen again. I think that might be true – today. But memories tend to be short, and politicians cut corners.

The price of clean water may well be eternal vigilance. Flint, and those who care about it, might do well to adopt a two-word slogan made famous by the world’s Jews: Never again. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s senior 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.