Seek­ing an­swers on Flint’s disas­ter

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - JOHNW. FOUN­TAIN Email: au­thor@johnwfoun­tain.com Fol­low the jour­ney on Twit­ter: #RUinFlint

Poi­soned. An Amer­i­can city. Amer­i­can tragedy. This should be the nightly lead story: The voices of those gasp­ing for air in a sea of suf­fer­ing at the hands of a man­made disas­ter.

City of Flint, Michi­gan. Pop­u­la­tion: 99,002. Com­mu­nity in cri­sis.

Con­tam­i­nated wa­ter. Chil­dren ex­posed to tox­ins. Ingest­ing lead.

Hurt. Be­trayal. Anger. En­vi­ron­men­tal racism. So­cial in­jus­tice. More ques­tions than an­swers.

And the beat goes on: Poor peo­ple of color left to swim in a toxic soup cre­ated ap­par­ently by greed and by pol­i­tics, and an un­healthy heap of marginal­iza­tion and ne­glect. A per­fect recipe for disas­ter.

Some are call­ing it mur­der. Oth­ers geno­cide.

What­ever it is, it is a hu­man story. A story I will travel with a group of jour­nal­ism stu­dents to cover this week­end as part of the cap­stone un­der­grad­u­ate course I teach at Roo­sevelt Univer­sity. We call this piece of our pro­ject Faces of The Poi­soned.

The Flint story begs for the voices of those most im­pacted to con­tinue to be heard. We hope to chron­i­cle some of them: those whose chil­dren bear skin rashes from the poi­son; those whose chil­dren or grand­chil­dren have been de­vel­op­men­tally stunted from ingest­ing lead. Those who have wit­nessed the ad­vent of Le­gion­naires dis­ease, or the symp­toms of Alzheimer’s or other ail­ments since Flint’s wa­ter cri­sis, and who sus­pect that it must all have some­thing to do with the wa­ter— poi­son wa­ter.

It is a grim por­trait. An Amer­i­can Heart­land city, where a on­ce­flour­ish­ing au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try sym­bol­ized Amer­i­can hope and prom­ise, it is now en­veloped in a yet-to-be re­solved cri­sis, where there is one thing no one can guar­an­tee from the tap: a clean cup of wa­ter. The cri­sis has sum­moned a hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief ef­fort na­tion­wide to de­liver hun­dreds of thou­sands of cases of bot­tled wa­ter.

Not in a third-world coun­try. Home­town, USA.

Flint is 57 per­cent black, and 42 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion live in poverty.

In 2014, Flint switched its wa­ter sup­ply from Detroit’s wa­ter util­ity while a new pipe­line was be­ing con­structed. Flow­ing through leach­ing lead pipes cor­roded by the pol­luted Flint River, the poi­son­ing en­sued, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials.

Flint’s res­i­dents— the young and the el­derly— drank lead-laden wa­ter. Bathed in it. Show­ered in it. Cooked with it. Washed dishes in it. And in fact, con­tinue to pay the bill for it.

It has left chil­dren with rashes, with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties and also left this Mid­west city to lan­guish. In Jan­uary, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­clared the cri­sis in Flint a fed­eral emer­gency.

And yet, there is still a feel­ing across the city— based on our re­port­ing so far— that not enough is be­ing done. Sto­ries that some peo­ple, like un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, can’t get wa­ter from some wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters be­cause they don’t have ID. Sto­ries that some home­bound el­derly, or oth­ers who lack trans­porta­tion, have trou­ble get­ting wa­ter.

Sto­ries about the valiant and com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse of the faith com­mu­nity na­tion­wide. About vol­un­teerism and about lo­cal busi­nesses strug­gling to stay afloat. Hu­man sto­ries.

All are sto­ries we hope to cap­ture in sight and sound— and also as writ­ten nar­ra­tives— to be as­sem­bled at se­mes­ter’s end as an on­line mul­ti­me­dia pro­ject.

Hon­estly, it wasmy stu­dents who came up with the idea to cover Flint and who cre­ated this se­mes­ter’s pro­ject theme: “En­vi­ron­men­tal and So­cial Jus­tice & Youth Ac­tivism.”

And it is my stu­dents who be­lieve that— with a fresh set of eyes, by their jour­nal­is­tic search for truth and facts, and also with their be­lief in so­cial jus­tice and the need to hu­man­ize the story— they might make some small dif­fer­ence.

This is their lead story: Faces of The Poi­soned.

| GE­OFF ROBINS/AFP/ GETTY IM­AGES

The FlintWater Plant

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