Professor Dave Merwin explains the history behind the Flint water crisis

Professor Dave Merwin uses Google Maps to illustrate the expansive effects of the Flint water crisis. (Photo By Melina Bourdeau)

The Flint water crisis, according to geography professor Dave Merwin, was the “perfect storm,” the result of independent events happening in order, culminating in this crisis.

Merwin explained the impact of these events during a Diversity Dialogue held on Wednesday, Feb. 24 to discuss the Flint water crisis in honor of Black History Month.

Lead contamination is the primary concern of the crisis, according to Merwin, because of the impact on cognitive development in children – especially children under six years old.

“Even at a small level, it can cause problems,” said Merwin, adding ADHD is speculated to be linked to exposure to lead.

By federal standards, lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion are “considered to be excessive.” According to Merwin, 513 homes out of 7,000 in Flint had exceedingly high lead levels.

Merwin used Google Maps to show how the homes with high lead levels coincide with the area of the city highly populated by African Americans and children.

According to Merwin, northern cities don’t usually have a large population of African Americans, but after the “great migration” – when large numbers of African Americans moved from the south to the north fleeing segregation and poor conditions – the city became one of the largest African American communities in the country.

“This is why what happened in Flint is so bad,” said Merwin. “Would this happen in many other cities throughout the country?”

Merwin said there are two issues that caused the lead contamination – the first being the pipes, which run from the water supply to the homes containing lead in them, and the city not knowing how many lead contaminated pipes there are.

Secondly, most homes in Flint were built in the 1940s or earlier, and the citizens are too poor to renovate and maintain them. “There is probably a high correlation between the age of the homes and where these high lead levels are occurring,” said Merwin.

Currently, the medium household income in Flint is $24,000 and 41 percent of citizens are below the poverty line.

“When I say that things are bad in Flint, they’re bad,” said Merwin.

To understand the crisis fully, said Merwin, one must understand the history of Flint as a city.

“The makings of this crisis, which is happening in 2016, really started in the 1970s,” he added.

Since General Motors was founded in Michigan, Flint was largely reliant on its auto industry. In the 1970s, auto factories started closing due to the oil crisis, according to Merwin. He added the Japanese auto companies started selling cars in America around this time, competing with General Motors.

“This is when the auto industry really collapsed in Flint,” said Merwin. “This is where the jobs start to go down, and then the population went down because there were no jobs.”

When General Motors declared bankruptcy in 2009 and closed the factory in Flint, many citizens were out of work and could not afford to live there any longer.

As the population declined due to unemployment, many homes were left abandoned in Flint. Property values plummeted and since there were no citizens to tax, the city received little to no revenue through taxes, said Merwin.

“They cannot afford to run their city,” he said.

In 2011, according to Merwin, Flint was appointed an emergency manager to oversee the operations of the city by the governor of Michigan. The mayor and the city council had no authority.

In 2014, the emergency manager decided to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. Detroit was charging Flint for the water, and upping their fees each billing cycle by 20 percent – a cost Flint could not afford.

The Flint River was a temporary water source for the city, since a pipeline was being built from Lake Huron to Flint. However, the river is “notorious for pollution,” according to Merwin.

“For two years, people have been complaining about the water. This is not something new. We’re hearing about it like it just happened, but this is not something that just happened.”

The main problem with the water from the river is bacteria, said Merwin, and the city of Flint put chlorine in the water to treat the bacteria.

Professor Catherine Dingam explained how whenever chlorine interacts with water in which organic matter is present – such as a river – the result is trihalomethane, which is toxic.

“That doesn’t kill bacteria,” said Dingam. “It just floats around.”

She said the city has to “back peddle” and get rid of the organics in the water, which can be done by adding iron trichloride. However, once iron trichloride is added to the water, the pH of the water can no longer be maintained.

Dingam said because the pH of the water was off, the passivity layer of the pipes in which the water ran through was eroded and washed off, which then came out of citizens’ taps.

“Water is a very complex situation. Every time you change one thing, another thing is influenced. You need to make sure by addressing one problem, you’re ready for the additional problems that are going on,” she said.

She added usually when a water source is changed, a city will consult chemical engineers to find out what kind of treatments the new water supply is going to need.

Merwin asked, “If they’re going to make such a drastic change of going from a safe water supply to one that is questionable, why didn’t they have a plan to deal with the potential consequences?”

One audience member said, “What you seem to be demonstrating here is a classic example of environmental racism. Where particular policies are … basically saying, ultimately, the cost of black lives is not to exceed that of our financial needs as a city.”

Merwin said “there is no way” this kind of crisis would occur in wealthier cities because those citizens can afford to hire lawyers to fight for them.

He added Flint has moved its water supply back to Detroit and is no longer using the Flint River.

“But, the damage is done,” said Merwin. “People have been drinking lead-contaminated water for two years.”

Sophomore Jace Williams said they felt the dialogue was “super important” and they were “so glad someone is talking about this.”

Sophomore Jackson Stevens said he wished the dialogue connected more to race.

“I feel like it was very connected to poverty, which can often correlate with the race issue. I thought it was very informative, but it’d be nice if he addressed the race issue.”