Nature and Place
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Flint and urban America:

The future of public health in the age of deregulation
By Annabel Adams

A little over a year ago, former president Obama declared that Flint, Michigan was in a state of emergency due to the concentrated levels of lead found in its drinking water. What has since emerged is a cautionary tale about the repercussions of cost-saving infrastructure changes and lax governmental oversight, and their disproportionate effects on impoverished and minority communities.

First, some back story: In April 2014, the city of Flint canceled its contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and began using water from the Flint River as an interim supply, with the ultimate goal of sourcing water from Lake Huron through the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). KWA was building the infrastructure to make this possible.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality assured the public that the water met its safety standards. However, Flint officials failed to add an anti-corrosive chemical or treatment to the water to prevent lead leaching from the pipes into the water supply. Consequently, lead and other toxins contaminated the water and resulted in an uncertain number of deaths, widespread illness, massive infrastructure damage, and destruction of the public’s trust in the city.

Present day: While the city stopped using the Flint River water in October 2015, reconnected to the Detroit system, and added corrosion inhibitors, the crisis there has not ended. It will be three more years before the city can replace at least 18,000 toxic underground water pipes. In the meantime, residents are relying on water filters and bottled water to reduce their chances of lead exposure. As the infrastructure for clean drinking water continues to be replaced in Flint, so too is its governmental infrastructure. Former Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft and 12 others are currently being charged in connection to the crisis. And the city’s embattled mayor, Karen Weaver, is now facing a citizen-led recall campaign. To sum it up: we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s to be done to restore clean drinking water and good government to Flint residents, and yet Flint’s struggles may just be the tip of the iceberg. With the current presidential administration’s zeal for deregulation, University of California, Irvine historian Andrew Highsmith believes the nation’s public health is at stake, especially for the less affluent and communities of color.

Highsmith has studied the structural barriers to racial equality and economic opportunity in Flint for more than a decade. His book, Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 2015), is in many ways a pre-history of Flint’s water crisis. Flint, Highsmith says, is a place where we can see the histories of racial inequality, urban poverty, metropolitan fragmentation, and environmental destruction converge. 

“Flint’s water crisis is without question a social justice issue. To understand why that is the case, we must begin by considering the failures of government at all levels that led to the contamination of the water supply. But
that isn’t enough. We also need to understand how Flint—a majority-black and deeply impoverished city surrounded by largely white, politically independent, and hostile suburbs—developed over time. The policies and practices that created the Flint metropolitan region of today also led to a host of problems that set the stage for the current calamity: deep cuts to city services; layoffs for municipal workers; a host of new fees for basic services; deferred maintenance on the city’s increasingly decrepit infrastructure; and, of course, the state takeover that led to the current catastrophe. We must also consider the legacies of racial segregation and political fragmentation, which help explain why the crisis has affected only water users in the city and thus had such a disparate effect on the poor and people of color,” said Highsmith. 

Highsmith also believes that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s insufficient monitoring of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and whistleblower reports contributed to Flint’s crisis, the lesson to be gleaned is not that there should be less regulation.

“This case points to a variety of policy remedies, but one of the key lessons is that regulation can actually work. We need regulations and their aggressive enforcement. In Flint, regulations were in place, but were not enforced. And this is somewhat baffling to scientists, because, for them, it’s common knowledge that when you have a corrosive river water supply, you add anticorrosive phosphates. If we get into situations where the regulations themselves are compromised, then that’s an even more grievous problem,” said Highsmith. 

Currently, the EPA is shrinking its workforce and President Trump has proposed a 31% cut to its budget. Newly-appointed administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has consistently opposed regulation and the EPA itself. 

“Time will tell how cuts to the EPA in funding and staff will affect communities. What we know for sure is that Flint is not an anomaly. Other cities have encountered public health problems due in part to lack of regulation and enforcement, including Buffalo, Philadelphia, and East Chicago. What is likely is that there will be more Flints. However, there are cities that are taking it upon themselves to set the bar higher when it comes to updating infrastructure and maintaining clean water, including Lansing, Michigan, whose leaders should be applauded for this; though, we have to ask ourselves whether citizens' access to safe drinking water should be optional. Again and again, we've seen evidence that self-regulation tends to have a disproportionately negative effect on marginalized communities," said Highsmith. 

Highsmith’s current book project, Toxic Metropolis: Cities, Suburbs, and the Battle over Public Health in Modern America, is a national and transnational study of health inequality in modern America. While it’s not set in one particular place, Highsmith says that Flint will definitely make an appearance.
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