‘Poisoned’ examines Flint failure
Powerful account makes water crisis crystal clear
The health and safety problems caused by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, haven’t gone away. Much of the nation’s attention, however, has.
So it’s hard to overstate how important Anna Clark’s new book, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy” (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., ★★★★) is for reminding us of the alarming revelations about lead and other contaminants in the city’s water supply; the shortsightedness and arrogance of public officials; and, above all, how greed and prejudice were as culpable in this environmental calamity as bad judgment.
Clark begins her riveting and comprehensive account in the spring of 2014 when Flint, a city with roughly 99,000 residents, most of them African-American, severed its nearly half-century connection with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and reconnected its water supply to the Flint River itself.
Local officials, along with residents, believed the water department charged too much money for the water drawn from Lake Huron. The idea was that Flint would, for a time, get its water from a source whose name it shared before the city joined a new regional system, the Karegnondi Water Authority, with the promise of greater savings. Seemed like a good idea, especially to state and local leaders who insisted the water that came from the Flint River was safe.
By that same summer, residents believed otherwise. The water that came out their shower heads, faucets and hydrants did so in shades of brown and orange. Complaints of foul smells and metallic tastes were soon superseded by reports of skin rashes and hair loss.
City officials insisted the water was safe, neglecting to mention that the new water treatment program didn’t include corrosion control, which in addition to violating federal law made the river water more difficult to treat than lake water.
The situation got worse – and quickly. As that fateful summer wore on, residents started buying bottled water for daily use as city officials kept telling them to boil their tap water.
In August, strains of E. coli bacteria were detected in the water. It’s still safe, keep boiling, officials said on television, in interviews and in public meetings as complaints mounted and pressure built.
Clark is meticulous in untangling the welter of misstatements, cover-ups and dismissals by officials convinced that staunching the hemorrhage of red ink from the economies of Flint and Michigan somehow was more important than children afflicted by lead poisoning. She also is unsparing in pointing out how the disproportionate number of poor black families harmed by the crisis were emblematic of Flint’s deeply embedded racial segregation. “The poorest,” Clark says, “generally had the worst water.”
If there is good news to be found in “The Poisoned City,” it’s delivered through the tales of those who stepped forward to force action, people like LeeAnne Walters, a mother whose family’s illnesses compelled her to seek answers from an EPA manager named Miguel Del Toral.
Together with an idealistic biochemist, Marc Edwards, and journalist Curt Guyette, Walters and Del Toral helped inspire, inform and galvanize a movement to convince government that drastic action was needed.
And yet, as Clark points out, “while the lifelong effects of lead poisoning can be mitigated, they can’t be cured.”
Porshe Loyd uses bottled water to wash her 3-week-old son, LeAndrew, at home in Flint, Mich, on Jan. 28, 2016.
Barack Obama takes a drink in Flint in May 2016.
Author Anna Clark