We should learn our lessons from the sad history of the Flint River

A view of factories clustered along the Flint River during the 1920s.
A view of factories clustered along the Flint River during the 1920s.

Technology news site The Verge recently asked a good question about the Flint water crisis: How did the Flint River get so toxic? It’s a disturbing read in light of the lead contamination and Legionnaire’s disease crisis there, and important if we are to learn anything from history.

The Flint River has never possessed the same mythology, poetry or reverence given to other rivers around the state, like the Au Sable or Two Hearted. That’s probably because, as the story makes clear, we’ve long treated it as a dumping ground, a damning symbol of our throwaway society.

Why did Flint’s river pose so many problems? Before processing, the water itself is polluted from four sources: natural biological waste; treated industrial and human waste; untreated waste intentionally or accidentally dumped into the river; and contaminants washed into the river by rain or snow. The river is also warmer than Lake Huron, and its flow is less constant, particularly in the summer. All of this raises levels of bacteria and organic matter and introduces a wide range of other potential contaminants, whether natural or human-made.

In fact, while the Flint River had been improving thanks to the new regulations, the departure of heavy industry, and local cleanup efforts, it had long been known as an exceptionally polluted river. Until very recently, it had been repeatedly ruled out as a primary source for the city’s drinking water. It is hard to imagine why anyone familiar with the river’s history would ever decide to use it even as a temporary water source. But they did.

There are several takeaways from this tale of woe:

  1. Unlike chronic unemployment, which has left its mark all over the city, water pollution is a far less visible but equally damaging scar from General Motors’ decision to largely abandon Flint over the past several decades. Along with pulling an estimated 80,000 jobs out of the city, GM left sites contaminated by heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and toxic solvents. Flint is the birthplace of General Motors, bear in mind, and the city retains a strong allegiance to the automaker. But company-town legacies don’t get much more complicated — or ugly — than this.
  2. For a long time, the Flint River was the source of public drinking water, even as contamination of it was deliberate and unchecked. That ought to serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of strong environmental protections. Those who advocate for abolishing the EPA, or undoing the Clean Water Act, are out of their minds, cynical, or at best, acutely naive.
  3. Though the specter is haunting, I don’t think there’s much of a chance that Flint will be abandoned, even temporarily, as a result of the water crisis. In fact, the city has begun to replace lead service lines as part of $55 million in funding. Much more will be needed, of course — Flint’s mayor has said it could take $1.5 billion to upgrade the city’s water infrastructure. But I cannot help but hope that a new, state-of-the-art water distribution system could be a powerful building block for the larger redevelopment of Flint. If, that is, we learn from history.
The Flint River in autumn.
The Flint River in autumn.

Photos by UpNorthMemories and gerrybuckel

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