What is Michigan state’s Flint water crisis?

On Thursday, nine former officials who served the state of Michigan in the US, including the state’s former governor Rick Snyder, were charged in connection with a criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis.

Michigan’s Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L Worth announced that after 12 months of jury proceedings, the nine officials were indicted on a total of 42 counts “related to a series of alleged actions and inactions that created the historic injustice of the Flint Water Crisis”.

“We must remember that the Flint Water Crisis is not some relic of the past. At this very moment, the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government, who trampled upon their trust, and evaded accountability for far too long,” Hammoud was quoted as saying in a statement

Former governor Snyder was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty. “As Governor of the State of Michigan, a public officer did willfully neglect his mandatory legal duty to protect citizens of this state against disaster and/or emergency,” his indictment mentions.

Snyder, who is a Republican became Michigan’s 48th governor and was sworn in on January 1, 2011. He remained in this position until 2018.

What was the Flint Water Crisis?

The Flint water crisis is an ongoing public health crisis that began in 2014 when the City of Flint in Michigan–which has a population of roughly 100,000–changed its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint river. This switch caused the water distribution pipes to corrode, as a result of which lead and other contaminants were leached into the municipal drinking water.

This led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacteria and other health complications in thousands of its residents. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people can get sick from this if they breathe in mist or accidentally swallow bacteria-containing water into the lungs.

While the water supply was switched back in 2015, the damage was long-lasting and many residents of the city continued to suffer.

In January 2016, the state of Michigan declared a state of emergency and in October the same year, residents of the city were advised not to drink the municipal tap water unless it was filtered.

As per an article published in the American Water Works Association (AWWA) in 2016, which described the water crisis, a few weeks after the water source was switched despite warnings and concerns from some officials, residents started complaining about the colour, taste and odor of their drinking water. In May 2014, some residents informed officials that the water was causing rashes, especially in children.

As per a Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) conducted by the CDC in May 2016, over 66 percent of the households in the city reported one or more adult members experiencing at least one behavioural health issue “more than usual” and 54 percent of the households reported that at least one child experienced at least one behavioural health issue.

But why was the water source changed?

The AWWA article notes that in order to reduce costs for treated water Flint officials decided to join the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) in 2013, which was constructing a pipeline to transmit water from Lake Huron.

In the meantime, the city of Flint had the option to either purchase treated water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD), which was sourced from Lake Huron or treat water from the Flint river on its own.

After officials failed to strike a short-term agreement with DWSD, Flint officials decided to use water from the Flint river and treat it at the Flint Water Service Center (FWSC). But the water wasn’t treated properly at the FWSC, resulting in lead contamination.

The article also notes that while the Flint river water is difficult to treat, “oversights and missteps” combined with “inherent chemical conditions” set the stage for the water crisis.

A report published in 2017 by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission said that race and racism played a role in causing the water crisis even though both black and white residents were victims. The report is based on the testimony of over 150 residents, community leaders, experts, academics and government officials

We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community primarily made up by people of color. Rather, the disparate response is the result of systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry and the suburban area surrounding it,” the report said.

”The crisis has been the subject of a film and a documentary film. A 2017 TV film called Flint directed by Bruce Beresford starring Queen Latifah featured her as a woman dealing with the effects that the contaminated water had on her and her family. A documentary on the subject, also titled “Flint”, was released in 2020 and is based on half a decade of research into the crisis and the failure of officials to respond to it.