‘A manmade disaster’: Michigan city declares state of emergency after widespread water contamination
The Michigan city has declared a state of emergency over contaminated water, affecting the entire city of 100,000 residents and those who commute there
The city of Flint, Michigan has declared a state of emergency over contaminated water supplies amid calls for a criminal investigation, the resignation of the state governor and a class action lawsuit that could top $1 billion.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent 28,000 bottles of water to the city on Monday just hours before the mayor declared: “The city of Flint has experienced a manmade disaster.”
Critics believe the entire city has been affected to varying degrees by high levels of lead and other pollutants in the water. This includes the 100,000 residents and those who commute to Flint for work.
At a city council meeting on Monday night, mayor Karen Weaver said Flint needed federal help to deal with a crisis over water supplies tainted with lead.
The Flint authorities had switched the public water supply in April 2014 from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The river flows through the city but hadn’t been used for consumption since the early 1960s because of industrial pollution.
After the switch, many residents immediately reported that the water coming out of their taps was yellowy, cloudy and odorous.People reported suddenly breaking out in rashes or losing their hair.
Public protests followed, but the authorities repeatedly said the water was safe, despite stepping up water treatment and occasionally issuing advice to residents to boil it.
But in October 2015, the city returned to its previous supplier, the city of Detroit, which treats water from Lake Huron then passes it on to Flint, 66 miles to the north-west.
By that time, experts at Virginia Tech university, called in by activists, had already issued an alarming report about lead levels in the river water, while a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center hospital, Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, had discovered elevated levels of lead in blood tests carried out on local children.
Lead in the environment is particularly dangerous to young children, whose fast-developing brains are prone to damage that often does not show up until years later, in the form of learning disabilities or behavioral problems.
“We are dealing with an invisible killer. Parents are expecting that within five years there will be signs of attention deficit disorder in children who have been affected and later there could be problems with mental disorders. People here are very upset and angry,” Flint-based attorney Tracelle Young told the Guardian.
Health effects in adults could include a higher risk of cancer, Young said.
Young and a number of other attorneys in the area represent a small group of residents who are heading a lawsuit against the authorities that is currently going through the legal process to be classified as a class action on behalf of many more of Flint’s citizens.
“The numbers are going to be astronomical, the whole city used that water supply. I think we will have thousands on top of thousands of people in a class action. I don’t know how you calculate what appropriate damages would be, I think it could reach $1bn,” she said.
Young said the city took almost a year to acknowledge publicly that there was a problem with the water.
“The city and state knew. And we believe they knew before they made the switch from Detroit water to the Flint River that the water was no good,” she said.
Young has called for a federal investigation and for governor Rick Snyder’s head.
“I think the governor needs to either resign or be investigated for a crime. We want to see people in criminal court, not just civil court for this. It’s a travesty,” she said.
Flint is best known as one of the regional manufacturing bases of General Motors. But automotive and other industries were not kind to environmental assets such as the Flint River. The city stopped using it as a water supply in 1964.
Devastating levels of de-industrialization left Flint with high debt, unemployment and crime from the 1990s onwards, while the urban population shrunk steadily.
With the city in financial dire straits, the state of Michigan put Flint under emergency management from 2002 until 2004 and again in 2011, when it went into receivership. The city was being run under state-imposed emergency powers when it converted to use the local water supply in April 2014, in a bid to save money.
Initial reports of high bacterial and chemical pollutants in the water reportedly necessitated higher levels of chlorination, which then resulted in Flint violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act during three tests in 2014. Reports also found that the treated water was more corrosive than previous supplies and caused high levels of lead to leach out of the city’s ageing pipes into the drinking supply.
Six months after the switch to the Flint River supply, General Motors stopped using Flint water at one of its engine plants in the area because it was rusting the machinery.
Julie Hurwitz, another lawyer working on the lawsuit, said that city and state authorities had repeatedly scoffed at Flint residents and worried parents who complained that the water was making them and their children ill, only now to see the city declare an emergency.
She accused the authorities of a cover-up, having known that the water was dangerous.
“It’s mind boggling, to say the least. We are living in a time when truth is crazier than fiction. The almighty dollar was put over the safety and wellbeing of the people of Flint, especially working class and low income residents who were less able to go out and buy their own water in order not to be poisoned,” Hurwitz said.
The lawsuit, filed in US district court in Detroit on November 13, claims 14 officials, including Michigan state governor Rick Snyder and former Flint mayor Dayne Walling are responsible for replacing water in Flint with a supply that was “dangerous, unsafe and inadequately treated … in conduct that was so egregious and so outrageous it shocks the conscience”.
Watch a report on the emergency, as aired on ABC News, below.