Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan?
Mom moved my two sisters and me to the appropriately named town of Flushing on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan, in 1980. My dad had just been killed in a plane crash, and she reasoned my Flint uncle would serve as a surrogate father. That didn’t happen; he was a good man, but he had two boys of his own. We arrived just in time to watch a city die, as the auto industry disintegrated like a Chevette hitting a wall. This was only good for Michael Moore.
It did give me unfettered access to the Flint River. My uncle was a dentist, and his mansion was built on the proceeds of General Motors’ generous medical plan. His house was adjacent to the Flushing Valley Golf Club, which bordered the river. The three months we stayed with him provided hours of creepy pleasure for a maladjusted teen. In pre-EPA days, factories had been dumping sludge and crud into the river for decades. Every day, my anti-nature walks brought new treasures: a dog carcass; the front grille of a K-car; and long, green bubbles of water that appeared to be living, malevolent, aquatic creatures with free will. Whenever I stuck my hand into the water to retrieve an abandoned tire or a shard of chain-link fence, my skin would come out a mottled crimson.
I moved away after graduating from Flint’s Catholic high school, where I was mugged at a neighboring 7-Eleven when my teacher sent me to buy him some cigarettes. The jobs kept moving away too. To me, Flint became a self-deprecating anecdote. It was the city that tried to rescue itself with an auto-themed amusement park (hilarious!), had one of the highest per-capita violent-crime rates in the country (scary!), frequently finished near the top of worst-cities-in-America lists (true!), and so on.
Some 30 years later, I can’t say I was surprised when my high school best friend, Gordon Young, a chronicler of Flint’s slide in his book Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, texted me that Flint, now in receivership and run by an apparatchik appointed by the austerity-mad GOP governor, was switching over from the Great Lakes to the Flint River for its drinking water. All to save some bucks. I thought this was preposterous. Only in Flint – a city that makes Youngstown, Ohio, look like Miami – could this be a viable solution.
I texted back: “Man, that seems like a bad idea.”
I had no clue.
By the fall of 2015, news began coming out of Flint about undrinkable water, kids getting sick and a stonewalling state government. I headed back to Flint for a week. I saw orange water running from a hydrant. I read FOIA’d e-mails that prove the city and state decided not to chemically treat Flint’s water, something required in every town, village and city in America. There was the woman whose water tested for lead at a toxic-waste level. This was after officials told her she was nuts, even though her daughter lost chunks of her hair in the shower, while her four-year-old son remained dangerously underweight and his skin became covered in red splotches any time it was exposed to the water. And I met a pediatrician who discovered that the lead levels of kids under five in Flint were dangerously elevated. She became physically ill when a state official called her deluded. I was told that the few million dollars saved by the city on Flint water would now cost hundreds of millions to repair ruined pipes.