Metropolitan Books, 2018, 286 pp., $30
Invisible people have invisible problems. Though unseen, even if only temporarily, those problems have real consequences for the affected people. At least part of the solution, it follows, is making both people and their plight visible. That is the premise of The Poisoned City, by journalist Anna Clark, who tells “the story of how the City of Flint was poisoned by its own water” while government officials ignored residents’ pleas for action. Clark insists that the Michigan city’s exposure to lead and other toxins ought to be a matter of concern and urgency to all Americans since “[w]e all built our cities out of lead.”
Here’s what happened: In April 2014, Flint, a city of nearly 100,000 people approximately 65 miles northwest of Detroit, changed the source of its drinking water. At the time, the city was under emergency management, meaning the authority of the Mayor and City Council had been suspended and an unelected state-appointed manager had been installed to address the city’s considerable financial strain. The idea behind what Clark calls the “peculiar position” of an emergency manager is that an outsider chosen by the Governor and not up for re-election or otherwise constrained by political considerations would be freer than elected local leaders to make hard choices. Oddly, in the name of self-sufficiency and economy, a city under state control proposed to construct a wholly redundant means of delivering a service it already received.
For nearly half a century, Flint had gotten its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, a public utility that took water from Lake Huron, treated it, and then delivered it to communities throughout eight counties, with Flint being one of the most distant from the point of origin at the end of the system’s northernmost line. The plan was to switch to a new, yet-to-be built regional system conveying water from the same lake and, in the interim, pull water from the Flint River and treat it at the city’s long-dormant treatment plant. Although the state’s environmental agency had expressed concerns about bacteria and chemicals in the river’s water, the city went ahead with the switch.
The consequences were dire, not least because the city’s new water treatment program failed to include corrosion control, which Clark says violated Federal environmental law. Public water systems providing clean water may be engineering marvels, perhaps even “heroic accomplishments,” as Clark deems them, but they are largely underground and unseen and easy not to think about—until something goes wrong. Lacking treatment, the more corrosive river water caused old pipes to rust and flake, which resulted in lead-laced water. The city’s shrinkage exacerbated the problem. In the 1960s, Flint’s population was nearly double what it was by 2014. “The infrastructure, of course, didn’t shrink along with the population,” Clark notes. The depleted population meant water sat stagnant in its overlarge array of pipes.
The system had been built not only for more people but also for the several General Motors plants and many other factories that had previously made Flint an industrial powerhouse but had mostly since departed. Even after the relocation of many plants, GM remained the largest employer in Flint. It quickly realized that water from the Flint River was more corrosive and had its facilities switch back to the Detroit system. Similarly, government offices began providing bottled water for workers long before official acknowledgment of a problem.
It also meant some people were more affected than others. “People who lived on streets that were pockmarked with the most unoccupied homes and empty storefront—that is, the poorest of them—generally had worse water,” Clark writes. “People who lived in denser areas were less likely to see, taste, or smell the same problems.” In Flint, a predominantly black city with a long history of de facto segregation, those in the poorest areas also tended to be black, which convinced many that racism contributed to residents’ pleas for help going unheeded for as long as they did. Emergency management also has “unmistakable racial overtones” in Michigan, where it usually has been imposed in places where the majority are black.
During the months when Flint residents’ complaints were dismissed amid assurances that the water was safe, the entire city as well as commuters and other visitors were exposed to the risk of contracting lead poisoning, for which there is no known cure. Exposure to lead can cause a cascade of catastrophic physical and mental disorders such as anemia, fatigue, kidney damage, memory loss, diminished intelligence, seizures, and even death. The overall impact of the Flint water crisis, including the number of people affected, won’t be known for years (if ever). Furthermore, 90 people were sickened and 12 died from Legionnaires’ disease, which might have been brought on by a change in the water supply that in turn affected the flora in the air-conditioning system at the city’s McLaren Hospital; we’re still not sure.
As news emerged of the myriad missteps—the fudging of test results, the misleading assurances of the water’s safety, the evidence that officials knew more than they had publicly let on—and after the “buck-passing and turf-guarding” among governmental agencies was exposed, anger mounted. Predictably, an “avalanche of lawsuits” ensued. Criminal charges were also brought against six state employees for acts like concealing reports showing elevated blood-lead levels in Flint children after the switch to Flint River water and conspiring to commit misconduct, though the only one to be fired was the official charged with involuntary manslaughter. In 2017, the city switched back to the Detroit system and abandoned the plan for a parallel pipeline from Lake Huron. Even then, the issues with water in Flint did not immediately end, as the damage to the pipes had already been done.
Clark’s underlying conviction—her faith, if you will—is that facts matter, and that if facts are revealed, problems can be resolved, and those responsible for causing them can be held accountable. (This conviction obviously resonates far beyond Flint, but Clark doesn’t stress the point.) She makes her case not only through meticulously documented research—endnotes and a bibliography account for about a quarter of the book’s length—but by explicitly documenting how this sort of thing happens, using Flint as a sort of case study. She points to similarities between what happened in Flint and earlier instances of fatal bureaucratic malfunction, such Love Canal, a community built on a toxic dump on the Niagara River in the 1970s, and the lead crisis in Washington DC in 2004, which might have been even worse than Flint’s in terms of the amount of lead in the water and the number of people exposed. “In the end,” she insists, “people just want to be seen.” Residents of Flint, finding that their concerns about their coffee-colored water and their sick children were being dismissed by local government officials, turned to others, not least journalists, “to make themselves visible.” (Citizens-turned-activists deliberately promoted white residents as spokespeople out of a conviction that they would be more likely to attract media coverage.)
At least in part, then, The Poisoned City is a hearty defense of the Fourth Estate. Clark concedes that early on local media coverage—of independent tests of tainted water, of protests, of public documents revealing what officials actually knew, and when, despite contradictory public statements—had little impact on the state’s response, but that eventually “national attention did lead to some positive changes in Flint.” As the story became more widely known, Flint’s situation could no longer be ignored.
The same idea animates Colson Whitehead’s 2016 literary-prize-magnet of a novel The Underground Railroad, in which a body-snatcher character realizes that it’s easier to steal black corpses than white ones because, when the families of the latter protested, newspapers “took up the cause” and “the law stepped in,” but when black families complained of their deceased relatives’ violation, “[n]o sheriff paid them any mind, no journalist listened to their stories.” (Disclosure: I know Anna Clark. She selected an essay of mine for an anthology she edited concerning another city, Detroit, where we both live and have attended some of the same literary events and parties. Because of this, I know her book had a working title drawn from a Toni Morrison quote—“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was”—that became an epigraph when a more prosaic title was selected.)
When people’s true stories of mistreatment are known and no longer ignored or denied, injustice becomes harder to tolerate. Not unrelatedly, Clark’s earlier work as a freelance journalist regarding the debacle in Flint included analysis of the press coverage of it for publications like the Columbia Journalism Review. Once the story of Flint started being told, construction of new infrastructure began and access to health care improved through expanded Medicaid services, for instance. Clark hopes the narrative of the debacle in Flint, as well as the criminal and civil cases arising from it, prompts a tightening of environmental laws so that similar tragedies do not occur elsewhere. After all, the United States has no shortage of shrinking, mismanaged cities with aging, underfunded infrastructure—and invisible people.