Flint: Let Them Drink Pollution?

Yves here. I strongly urge you to read this post in conjunction with Michael Moore’s article, How Can You Help Flint?, which we also feature in Links.

By James Boyce, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-founder of Econ4: Economics for People, the Planet, and the Future. His most recent book is Economics, the Environment and Our Common Wealth. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The tragic crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been poisoned by lead contamination, is not just about drinking water. And it’s not just about Flint. It’s about race and class, and the stark contradiction between the American dream of equal rights and opportunity for all and the American nightmare of metastasizing inequality of wealth and power.

The link between environmental quality and economic inequality was spelled out more than two decades ago in a memorandum signed by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, excerpts of which appeared inThe Economist under the provocative title, “Let them eat pollution.” Starting from the premise that the costs of pollution depend on “the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality,” Summers concluded that “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

A different logic is supposed to underpin U.S. environmental policies. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act mandates that water quality standards should “protect the public health” – period. Its aim, as former EPA administrator Douglas Costle once put it, is “protection of the health of all Americans.” Under the law, clean water is a right, not something to be provided only insofar as justified by the purchasing power of the community in question.

Even when cost-benefit calculations are brought to bear on environmental policy, the EPA uses a single “value of a statistical life” – currently around $8.7 million – for every person in the country, rather than differentiating across individuals on the basis of income or other attributes.

In practice, however, the role of costs and benefits in shaping public policies often depends on the power of those to whom they accrue. When those on the receiving end are poor, their interests – and their lives – often count for less, much as the Summers memo recommended. And when they are racial and ethnic minorities, the political process often discounts their well-being even more.

So it was that Flint – the city with the second highest poverty rate in the nation(surpassed only by Youngstown, Ohio), where more than half the population is black – wound up with lead in its water supply up to 866 times the legal limit. The levels in some residents’ homes were high enough for the EPA to classify the water as “toxic waste.”

The contamination was a result of budget-cutting measures imposed by the city’s “emergency manager,” who was installed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder with power to override the elected city council. To save money, the city’s water supply was switched to the heavily polluted Flint River in 2014. At the same time, officials stopped adding treatment chemicals to control corrosion in the system’s old lead pipes. When residents complained about the discolored and foul-smelling water coming out of their taps, and researchers found evidence of lead contamination, their concerns were brushed aside by state officials.

Governor Snyder denies that environmental racism has anything to do with the plight of Flint’s residents. There are still some people who will tell you that the Earth is flat, too.

In a lead editorial, the New York Times accused the governor of “depraved indifference” toward Flint’s residents. But the roots of the tragedy go deeper than the failings of individual politicians or officials. What we’re seeing today in Flint is an outcome of depraved inequalities – inequalities are corroding the body politic nationwide along with the water pipes in Flint.

Flint wasn’t always like this. When I lived there as a kid in the early 1950s, its workers earned the highest industrial wages in the nation. The American dream was alive. But in ensuing decades the city was ripped apart by macroeconomic policies that decimated America’s manufacturing industries, the failure to construct a national health system to relieve employers of the soaring costs of private insurance, and the debilitating racial and fiscal politics of metropolitan segregation.

It is only a small step from the emergence of “sacrifice zones” at the losing end of America’s widening economic and political chasms to the systematic violation of the right to a clean environment that we see in Flint. It is not enough to pass legislation to protect the public health of all Americans. Good laws that are not enforced are no more than good intentions. For a functioning government – even, it turns out, a functioning water system – we need a functioning democracy.

The poisoning of Flint is a symptom of this deeper inequality crisis that affects us all. And it’s a timely wake-up call as we embark on the 2016 election season.

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  1. mytwosenseworth

    All too true about the “dumping” of inferior quality services to the poor and disenfranchised. All to save a few measly dollars. The irony is that a few hundred miles north Lake Superior is not only one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, its water is remarkably clean (there are “glass-bottom” boat tours to observe submerged ship hulls).

    1. reslez

      Actually the Detroit Water and Sewage Department offered Flint a deal that would have saved them 20% over switching to the Flint River. The city rejected the deal. That shows saving money wasn’t the only consideration. If you scroll down this page you’ll find other NC commenters talking about the privatization scheme — this was all about selling out Flint’s citizens to profit politically connected insiders. Cronyism, in other words.


      1. run75441

        The City of Flint could not have rejected a deal to stay with Detroit. The EM are the only ones who had this authority. Neither could they have funded the switch to Karegnondi Water Authority. State Treasurer Andy Dillon could only do this.

        You are correct that Detroit offer multiple deals which would have saved Flint mega-bucks; but as you said, something else was afoot which will probably come out. I want to make sure everyone knows the Snyder appointed Emergency Managers had the final say in “ALL” decisions. The City Council vote was just symbolic and a joke.

      2. Carla

        “this was all about selling out Flint’s citizens to profit politically connected insiders.”

        Yes, but we’ve gotta try to see the Big Picture. I suspect Flint was really just collateral damage.

        I think this whole business is intimately tied to the selling out of Detroit, and buying it back for pennies on the dollar. Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans, financed liar’s loans that led to widespread foreclosures, abandonment, blight and the destruction of the tax base. Then he bought up much of downtown Detroit for bupkis. It’s the 21st Century version of urban renewal.

        After these titans of industry finish destroying the public Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and privatizing it, I fear their next step will be to sell all of the fresh water in the Great Lakes (1/5 of the fresh surface water in the world) to the highest bidder.

  2. Marco

    Flint wouldn’t have been under emergency management if not for the third-world status of its economy wrought by NAFTA, off-shored manufacturing and globalization. So I propose we add Bill Clinton and his Rubinite coterie of corporatist neo-liberal butt-boys to the heap of those responsible.

    1. run75441

      Your comment is a distraction to what has been happening in Flint, Michigan with the water.

      Buick City’s demise started well before Clinton. in the seventies. “Roger and Me” does a pretty good job of detailing this. Mr. $76/hour automotive worker Roger Smith set in motion the demise of GM in Flint moving jobs around Detroit and Michigan, Mexico, and shifting them overseas where new markets were and cheaper OVERHEAD” in which to manufacture. The plans were already laid by the time Clinton came to office and started in the seventies during Reagan busting of union contracts.

      1. Marco

        Not entirely true. I was a CNC machinist in Detroit-Flint corridor working for secondary suppliers in the late 80s early 90s. After NAFTA many specialist CNC jobs headed strait to Mexico (and Canada surprisingly).

        1. run75441

          Maybe you missed this line?

          “the demise of GM in Flint moving jobs around Detroit and Michigan, Mexico, and shifting them overseas where new markets were and cheaper OVERHEAD” in which to manufacture. “

        1. run75441

          You are correct and I was wrong on the date although it was 81. That shouda been “and” during Reagan busting of union contracts. I was moving fast this morning.

  3. run75441

    All I have been doing here in Michigan ~45 minutes from Flint is battle Snyder-Republican- trolls over this issue. They either want to blame the Flint city council, the MDEQ, the EPA, the Flint water works employees, etc. except let Snyder and HIS appointed Emergency Manager(s) take the blame for the switch. At NO point did the Flint elected Mayor and other elected officials have the power to make the switch to Flint River water. The Snyder appointed Emergency Managers had to approve or initiate everything in Flint. What is tragic is Darnell Early (started by Edward Kurtz and later ratified by Jerry Ambrose) who approved the switch has moved on to Detroit Public Schools as its Emergency Manager. https://www.cityofflint.com/wp-content/public/2011/2013EM041.PDF

    The Emergency Manager act by the legislature was overturned by referendum. Through the actions of Governor Snyder and a Republican controlled legislature, the Emergency Manager act was brought back with an appropriation tied to it causing it to be impossible to remove by referendum. The State of Michigan through removing the power of a citizen’s referendum and usurping the power of elected citizens is little more than a quasi-dictatorship. The Michigan Supreme Court (as an alternative to combat the legislature) has been identified as the worst state SC in the nation whose interest is in protecting business interests.

    “There IS (was) discussion of using the Flint River. But, in the end, the City Council voted to join the Karegnondi Water Authority and to purchase 16 million gallons per day (MGD) from the KWA. Water from the Flint River would be used only to supplement this in the event that 16 MGD were insufficient, something was very unlikely in the foreseeable future.” This is confirmed in the document.


    Under EM Darnell Early, the decision was made to use Flint water which was later affirmed by EM Jerry Ambrose..

    1. Pespi

      This is key, Flint citizens had no say. The emergency manager law is a law whose thrust is that poor minorities have no right to elected local government. It’s all crisis all the time, the “hard choices” made by whomever are usually over tiny amounts, but end with much reduced quality of life for a city’s citizens. It’s dull to hear for the thousandth time, but bears repeating. We can afford billions of dollars in trash planes like the f-35, but non poisonous water, oh that’s just a bridge too far, we need to make hard choices and be realistic.

      Michigan is a laboratory for anti-democratic politics. The formula is a huge success, it’s incredibly cheap to buy a depressed state’s governor and supreme court. Once you do, let the cutting and dumping begin.

    2. Carla

      Thank you, run75441, for all of the excellent information and commentary you have contributed to this thread. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. scott

    Not many of these articles mention the Karagondi Water Pipeline which is being built as a way to cut Detroit out of the water supply deal, and also supply fracking water to drilling operations in Michigan’s thumb area (yes that’s what it is called). Of course, the pipeline is behind schedule, and Detroit took advantage of this by raising rates to Flint. Flint decided to play hardball and use the Flint River instead, and general incompetence lead to the rest.

    What isn’t mentioned, is that when the KWP is finished, Flint will be buying water from a private entity (which may or may not have ties to the governor or his friends). Essentially, this is a privitization scheme gone horribly wrong.


    1. run75441

      Detroit came back to negotiate water rates with Flint and there would have been an overall saving for Flint and cheaper than building the KWP pipeline. The savings would have been substantial. Detroit was very interested in keeping Flint. The EM, Gov. Snyder, and the heads of KWP were not. Some see this as an effort to undermine Detroit Water and sell it to private interests.

  5. Chromex

    The neos were prevalent in Shrub’s admin , as well as Obama’s. However Flint ALSO would not have been under EM if the Michigan Legislature and Administration had not ignored democracy. The oppressive EM law was invalidated by public referendum in a statewide vote in 2011. For the brutal, bullying Snyder administration, and his handmaidens in the legislature, this expression of democracy was an outrage. The legislature, having heard the will of the people. was quick to act and sprang into action at the administration’s behest. Taking advantage of a technicality in the Michigan constitution which immunized appropriation bills from future statewide referendums, the Legislature immediately passed an even more tyrannical EM law and stuck a meaningless appropriation in it at the end to make it referendum-proof. How’s that for depraved indifference to the will of the people? This all triggered the latest abdication of any responsibility for public health. If Snyder had any self-respect , instead of continuing as the puppet of idealogues such as DeVos, he would immediately resign. Our Legislature, long one of the nation’s laughingstocks, long ago abandoned even the concept of self-respect.

    1. weevish

      They do seem to do things a little differently in Michigan. I’m pretty jaded but I remember being a bit shocked at the brazenness of this incident a few years back (video at the time was more “impressive” but I can’t find that now).

      It was pretty much “screw kayfabe, we’re not even gonna pretend laws matter anymore”.

  6. Jim in SC

    This piece takes a view contrary to most of what’s been written about the Flint water crisis. It is written by the former environmental reporter for the Detroit news, and contains a lot of inside baseball that the average reporter probably doesn’t know. Draw your own conclusions.


    The bigger picture story is how the benefits conferred by the Federal government through the clean water act (new centralized water and sewer plants paid for with generous federal grants) have been abused by cities and counties out to gain advantage. It used to be that counties and cities worked together to decide who should deliver water and sewer to which area: now they are all out for themselves, to the point that the intention behind the Clean Water Act–centralized plants that are easy to monitor–has been undermined.

    1. run75441


      The history of lead reduction in the air, on the ground, and in water is impressive. David glosses over it. If you catch Kevin Drum on Mother Jones, he does an excellent job of detailing it. “Raw Data: Lead Poisoning of Kids in Flint” (Google it) I would give you the link; but every time I do such, my post goes into moderation.

      This isn’t about the Federal Government and the EPA or the history of lead reduction in the environment. We have done a great job of reducing man made lead and naturally occurring lead. This is about the switch from Detroit water to Flint water and the corrosives in the water which impacted the old lead piping and lead soldered joints. The history is great on lead reduction; but in this case, lead levels went up and the percentage of children and adults with higher levels of lead also went up. What this is about is the inactivity of the Sate of Michigan government to respond to the issue in a timely manner, its hiding of the issue, and it thwarting of Flint’s elected officials. Just for the record, in early 2015 the State government was trucking bottled water in for state workers rather than left them drink tap water.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        I find the stalling on replacing lead-lined pipes very interesting. The gov clearly views Flint as a dead city and replacing the lead services as throwing money away. He seems to just want everyone to move away.

        1. run75441

          The delay now is incredible since teh polluted water is eating at the lead. Lead really is pretty inert as long as nothing corrosive is attacking it.

      2. notabanker

        Whilst accurately understanding the data and impact is important, it in no way diminishes the vulgarity of what has transpired here. If it were my children exposed to this, I wouldn’t be telling Michael Moore to take a chill pill.

        This just cannot be tolerated, rationalized or news cycled out. This is a systematic poisoning of 100,000 people for two years for what sure looks like a big business privatization play of the most basic of human needs.

    2. Steve H.

      I found this piece interesting, Jim in SC, in the quality of its work. However, its work it to decrease the response to what has happened in Flint. It does an excellent job at angling its facts like a billiards player banking shots.

      “Is that good enough? No. As any public health official will tell you, there is no safe level of lead.” That is a fact. His method is to take the position, compare it elsewhere to show that lead levels are high, but then undercut the veracity of the point by attacking the methodology. There should be a Latin phrase for the technique, but that’s not my area.

      The root of the misrepresentation is this: False positives are a problem when applied to an individual, for example firing someone for a positive drug test. But inaccuracy can be accounted for statistically with a high enough sample size. The primary paper the usatoday column links to follows the rules, and the results are significant.

      I completely agree that the bigger picture, the undermining of the CWA, is accurate. I would simply extend the generalization to environmental legislation overall.

    3. Steve H.

      The usatoday piece is very skillfully presented, the way Trump is skilled.

      The root of the misrepresentation concerns false positives. False positives are a problem when applied to individuals, as in firing someone for a positive drug test. However, inaccuracy is inevitable, and can be handled statistically with sufficient sample size. The paper usatoday links to does this, and its results are significant.

    4. Horatio Parker

      That story could’ve come straight from Snyders PR team.

      It doesn’t mention that the decision was Snyder’s EM.

      Funny, when it comes to allocating resources, local govt is inept, but when there’s a disaster, that’s all we hear about from the likes of USAtoday.

  7. equote

    “The poisoning of Flint is a symptom of this deeper inequality crisis that affects us all.”
    Sounds like a criminal offense to me … lead from a bullet or water both are harmful to humans …
    What’s in you water (bottled and public)?
    Trihalomethanes often exceed the recommended levels in ‘my’ public water supply (google the term).

  8. Howard Beale IV

    Just like when it comes to fracking-any company that wants to do resource extraction ca do so-as long as the board of directors and the c-level execs moves their families to the extraction site. The citizens of Michigan should vote to move the State capital to Flint.

  9. Asdis

    I’ m thinking of it as class genocide. And I don’t think this idea is taking things too far, given that “the powers that be” deliberately gave Flint residents poisoned water.

    1. animalogic

      I find this story incomprehensible. The governmental evil (yes, “evil” is appropriate)on display here is positively mind boggling.
      In a just society Snyder and his criminal associates would have a brief trial and be taken out and shot in the back of the head, then cast upon the city landfill.

  10. diptherio

    For a functioning government – even, it turns out, a functioning water system – we need a functioning democracy.

    Which is why I’m confused about Michael Moore calling for another appointed emergency manager. WTF?

    1. run75441

      Earley is a twerp and Moore is asking for the state to get rid of him due to Earley’s actions in Flint.

  11. mark

    Manchester suburb of Houston

    “It took a groundbreaking study by the Houston Chronicle in 2005 to reveal for the first time the extent of the air pollution here. It identified five human carcinogens ( a 2010 EPA study identified eight), including enough benzene that one scientist told the Chronicle that living in Manchester was “like sitting in traffic 24/7.” Toxin levels “were high enough that they would trigger a full-scale federal investigation if these communities were hazardous waste sites,” the Chronicle wrote.

    Given this, it’s easy to understand why there are so many chronic respiratory problems. But the health risks go beyond asthma: for children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, chances of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia are 56 percent higher than for children only ten miles away. “Children are being bombarded with toxins every day of their lives,” Nieto says.”

    yes magazine http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/houston-s-most-polluted-neighborhood-draws-line-keystone-tar-sands

  12. Dave

    Please note:

    “Valero” is actually “Exxon”

    P.R. name change after the Exxon Valdez destruction of the Alaskan fishing grounds.

  13. BondsOdSteel

    To truly understand the Flint water crisis, you have to look at the Detroit water crisis which was started by the Detroit bankruptcy and the appointment of non-elected emergency managers.

  14. run75441

    One scenario which makes sense:

    “You know why he lied, right? Taking Flint off DWSD makes DWSD more in trouble. Kevyn Orr around that time was shopping DWSD if I remember correctly. Let’s put it all together now. You have to make changes to DWSD to either get Macomb/Oakland or a private to hop on board. Put it in a desperate situation for a department that truly cannot lose or make money statutorily. Offer from McCormick in April of 2013? Hmmm, what else happened in 2013? Something in July like a big municipal bankruptcy?

    Conspiracy theory? Maybe. But it makes more sense than them just switching for no good reason other than to spend more. Something seems rotten in Denmark.” Rick Snyder PR

  15. VietnamVet

    The use of Flint River water without treating it to prevent the leaching out of lead is an example of the succession of disasters that have occurred since crony capitalists seized control of western government.

    The basic characteristic of the SNAFUs are ignoring the known consequences, contempt of the under-classes, and avoiding jail time. This is not happenstance. After Enron pioneered it by turning off the electricity to California, this is how the new world order builds wealth through deregulation and privatization.

  16. Paul P

    Indictments. Where are the indictments? The NYT editorial which is linked to in the article refers to depraved indifference. This mass poisoning was not an ordinary mistake, but one that occurred because of the failure to anticipate predictable consequences. Indictments. We need indictments.

    1. Demeter

      There’s this legal theory of “sovereign immunity”.

      It is best explained by Richard Nixon:

      “When the President (or Governor, or whatever chief executive) does it, it isn’t illegal.”

      Nor is it subject to lawsuits. It’s one of those “gray areas” which hasn’t had a definitive Supreme Court ruling, and maybe never will.

  17. TheCatSaid

    Also, bottled water was being provided by Michigan to its state employees in Flint for a year before the state finally admitted to the grave water emergency in Flint. Read more here. (That’s in addition to the emails showing the state government was informed by staff about the problems, but they chose to ignore them. Except for providing bottled water to the state office building in Flint, apparently.)

  18. M.R.Fred

    Water is often called the “universal solvent” in chemistry circles because it is capable of dissolving a variety of different substances, more than any other liquid. Because of its properties and depending on the water source, water can be acidic or alkaline and effects the materials used in its delivery. That lesson was leaned over the centuries resulting in the development of modern corrosion control techniques. The Flint scenario, old leaded infrastructure, has played out time and again across the US and Europe. Corrosion control practices are the safest and most economical solution until the old infrastructure can be replaced.

    Regardless of the spin from Snyder administration, there were no local officials “involved” in the water decision nor its implementation. The word involved implies participation and input . Local officials were simply told the change was going to happen because it was directed and made by the appointed emergency manager in concurrence with the state government, namely, the Governor. The emergency managers political party ( he is reportedly registered as a Democrat) is irrelevant considering he reports to the Governor and is influenced by the Snyder administration and its fiscal policy.

    In view of the facts it is clear to me that the Flint decision was simply one of expediency. At its core was a blatant disregard for the poor and disadvantaged citizens of Flint.

    Many Republicans, particularly very “conservative” Republicans ,view the poor as pesky “takers“. They are people who have refused to take advantage of the free market opportunities provided by enlightened conservative governance and instead demand government handouts. The overwhelming majority of Flints population are African Americans, 41% of its residents live below the poverty level. In urban areas these two groups aren’t exactly stanch supporters of Republicans. When you factor race and economic status into the equation its no wonder that the Snyder administration expended as little effort and resources on Flint as possible. No political gain to be had.

    I can only conclude that Republicans apparently believe, at least in Flint, that clean water is like health care, it is a privilege and not a basic necessity of life.

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