Letter from Michigan — From the January 2017 issue

Over the River

Returning home to Flint

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Flint’s pain is the result of so many different failures,” Donald Trump said when he visited the city’s Bethel United Methodist Church in September. “The damage can be corrected and it can be corrected by people that know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, the people that caused this tremendous problem had no clue.” This reasoning — which was correct insofar as it was broad and empty — was largely overshadowed by Trump ridiculing the pastor who had invited him to speak. A deeper explanation of who gets the blame for poisoning Flint would mention the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who placed the city under emergency management, a provision in Michigan law that allows governors to step over bankrupt local governments and impose state rule. In Michigan, bankrupt cities are mostly poor and black, as are a good number of the congregants at Bethel United. To save money, the city’s emergency management decided to switch the drinking-water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

The author’s former residence, 2751 Raskob Street, in the Mott Park neighborhood

The author’s former residence, 2751 Raskob Street, in the Mott Park neighborhood

There is nothing especially wrong with the Flint River, which wends through the farmlands and suburbs of Lapeer and Genesee Counties, downtown Flint, and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge before dribbling into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. Yes, the river did take more than its fair share of industrial pollutants when GM workers were busy building cars in Flint’s factories. But the 1972 Clean Water Act was aimed at places like this, and it has remedied the worst of the rust belt’s waste, leaving the Flint River relatively innocuous. The most troublesome pollutants today are pesticides and fertilizers from farms, suburban lawns, and golf courses, as is the case with most rivers across the nation. Kayakers celebrate the Flint River’s cleanliness by paddling away from the edge of downtown, and bald eagles nest along its banks.

In a roundabout way, however, water from the Flint River is toxic because of our devotion to automobiles. My first car was a 1960 Corvair, which my maternal grandfather had a hand in building at the Fisher body plant. When it rolled off the line he tracked it to Applegate Chevrolet, a few blocks away, and bought it. The car was pretty well spent when I paid him a hundred dollars for it, six years later. Friends helped me break it in half within a few months, simply by piling in five or six passengers. By then the Corvair was so badly rusted that it folded under the load. All cars in Michigan rusted out within four or so years, a fact that we earnestly believed was traceable to obsolescence planned by the auto industry and executed by Governor George Romney, a former auto executive. The working hypothesis was that Romney personally ordered his highway guys to spread more salt so that the car guys could sell more cars. This conspiracy theory is not provable, but it deserves some credence, because the practice of salting roads to remove ice, now widespread in the northern states, began in Detroit in 1940.

Like everything automotive, chloride from road salt became layered in Michigan’s geology. As salt runoff flowed from expressways to ditches to creeks over seven decades, finding its way to the Flint River, the water became corrosive — less so than Mountain Dew, but still corrosive. We call the corrosion of metal “rust,” and any water-plant operator worth his paycheck understands how this works. Municipal water plants routinely neutralize the corrosion of pipes with high-school chemistry, usually by adding a bit of orthophosphate, which is cheap and harmless.

Underground water pipes form a narrative of a town’s history, capturing in variously aged segments the patches and workarounds of infrastructure. Each part represents what was available, affordable, and considered a good idea at the time. City water systems — usually made from steel, zinc, copper, and lead — are all corruptible to some degree. But lead is our focus here, because it poisons people. Some of the earliest pipes are pure lead; others, mainly copper pipes, used lead as a part of the solder. In normal systems (to the extent that there is such a thing), most of the lead stays put, wrapped in a coat of oxidized metals that builds up between water and pipe, but corrosive water breaks down that coating, allowing the lead to make its way to taps.

When routine tests showed corrosion, plant operators in Flint did not treat the city’s water. State regulators counseled that they should instead monitor the pipes for six months to see what could possibly go wrong. After GM noticed that water was corroding engine parts at one of its very few remaining plants in the city, and after the first case of household lead contamination was confirmed, in the home of LeeAnne Walters, whose children lost their hair and had persistent rashes, a year passed before Snyder’s administration announced that something had indeed gone wrong.

It’s easy to forget that Flint is not the outlier it seems to be. It is a basket case of a city, but basket-case cities are not so rare, especially in the rust belt. This catastrophe was set off by bankruptcy, but it was enabled by a normal river, an old infrastructure of pipes, and a government as creaky as its water system — each of which appears in similar configurations in many places. A USA Today investigation found that there are at least 350 schools and day-care centers in America where the Environmental Protection Agency has, since 2012, identified unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. The problem seems particularly prominent in Maine, which has corrosive water, and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Water contamination is going to happen in other towns too.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Trouble with Iowa,” appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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