‘Poi­soned’ ex­am­ines Flint fail­ure

Pow­er­ful ac­count makes wa­ter cri­sis crys­tal clear

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Gene Sey­mour

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

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