What Happened to this Country? Contaminated Water Is Not Something Any American Should Face

The Flint River in 1970

The Flint River in 1970

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher divided my classmates and myself into groups and gave each of our groups an apple.  She instructed us to cut this apple into chunks, and then told us as we went along which apple chunks represented which bodies of water.  A large half was the Pacific Ocean.  Another large chunk was the Atlantic.  More modest pieces were lakes and rivers.  The chunks got smaller and smaller until, finally, we were all left with a small sliver.  This sliver, she told us, represented all of Earth’s drinkable water.

Now, every time I see coverage of the events in Flint, Michigan, I am reminded of this tiny, tiny apple slice and the small amount of water we actually have to use.

For those who have not heard, all of the water in Flint — tap, shower, hose, you name it — is, at this time, contaminated with dangerous amounts of lead, coloring the water like a rotted Halloween pumpkin and making it unsuitable for any sort of human use.  Those living in Flint now have to rely on water bottle donations or have to just outright buy bottled water in order to get something to drink.  The whole situation is succinctly being referred to as the “Flint water crisis.”

And what a crisis it is.

The cause of all of this is, unsurprisingly, money.  In 2014, Flint’s government decided that it was paying too much for water from Detroit and attempted to switch water distributors; Detroit greatly objected and demanded that this new water distributor cut Flint off.  Flint then decided to start taking in water from the Flint River, and problems sprang up almost immediately.  Residents of Flint complained that the water tasted and smelled bad, and the city, in its wisdom, told them to just boil it.  Then they found lead in the water, and Governor Snyder, feeling very bad, reduced Flint’s water supply prices by 65 percent.

A 65 percent decrease, by the way, for what is one of the most expensive water systems in the entirety of the United States.  Yes, it’s true: Flint is still charging its residents for toxic water, and the average rate is, as the Detroit Free Press reports, $864; a price tag that is just a smidgeon over double the average national price — for polluted, undrinkable water.  What’s even more ridiculous about this situation is the fact that Flint’s government is actually forcing its residents to pay for their orange Creamsicle water; if they don’t pay their water bills, Flint places a tax lien on their properties and eventually just takes their homes if the lien remains unpaid.  To worsen things, if you refuse to bathe your children in the lead water (making them “unhygienic”), Flint is fully capable of calling in Child Protective Services for an investigation.

As a bonus, bathing in the water leads to all sorts of medical complications, like seizures and liver failure.  The contaminated water also contains microbes that pass on a disease called Legionnaires’ disease, which gives pneumonia-like symptoms and induces kidney complications.  10 people have already died of this in Flint.

There are so many things to say about this story that can’t be mentioned here due to length constraints that it feels more like a parody than an actual disaster.  Did you know that Flint’s police force was promising water filters to wanted individuals in order to get into their homes and arrest them?  Did you know that many supplies distributors in Flint are requiring government IDs, effectively preventing the homeless (amongst other groups) from getting any clean water?  Did you know that unionized plumbers are going around and installing water filters in people’s homes because Flint’s government has done essentially nothing to rectify the situation?

In light of everything, I guess the questions that have to be asked are: Why is any of this happening?  Why did something so awful that started in 2014 take a year to get national coverage?

Why has nothing changed?

It’s been a few months now, and Michigan’s government has yet to do anything solid to fix Flint’s water.  It’s not like the people there are sitting in a vacuum or anything; while bureaucrats try to squeak out a solution, people are slowly dying.  There’s a website dedicated to chronicling Michigan’s valiant steps towards water purification, and of these steps, it has a list of fun lead removal recipes, various kitschy fundraisers and a number of “short-term” plans.  But no concrete relief.

I don’t even know how to feel about this.  It’s yet another straw on the camel’s back, but for some reason, the camel’s back refuses to break.  Nothing done about gun control.  Nothing done about police brutality.  Very little done about the state of the cost of education.  Now, nothing’s being done about this actually life-threatening water problem in Flint.  Everything’s just up in the air.

I acknowledge that the U.S. is still a first-world country and whatnot, and that we’re granted many more freedoms than other countries.  But how much longer is this supposed to go on?  How much longer are people supposed to deal with crippling governmental apathy?  The country’s current status should be completely unacceptable, and yet we’ve just become cool with it because it’s just how things have been for so long.  That’s sad.

With the way the current election season has been going, there’s no guarantee that things will improve.  We should be glad that a number of conscientious Americans have stepped up to the plate to keep things stable while things chug slowly along politically, because without them, there would be no hope of things ever improving.

 

Evan Siegel is a second-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at ejsiegel@uci.edu.