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Climate Change

Flint Water: The Setting of a Water Crisis

by Jack Parker Lefurgey

America's water infrastructure uses lead this can be dangerous to people's health


The History of Flint

In 1980, the city of Flint and Detroit were first and second respectively on the list of richest cities for young people based on median incomes of young workers. General Motors (GM) in Flint saw the creation of the modern auto labor movement and GM provided an opportunity for young people to get a high paying job to support their families. Flint’s infrastructure was built to support a growing population of close to 200,000 people and the continued population growth because of the job creating anchor of GM’s auto plant. But, this was not to last as GM began to struggle. Plants closed and jobs were sent overseas meaning that Flint’s own tax base began to diminish. 

Former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Former Flint Mayer Dayne Walling testfy during a hearing on the Flint water crisis; Getty Images

Former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Former Flint Mayer Dayne Walling testfy during a hearing on the Flint water crisis;  

Getty Images 

In 2011, the City of Flint and others in southern Michigan were struggling financially. The Governor Rick Snyder had appointed Michael Brown to run the City of Flint to right the financial ship. He was called an emergency manager. The newly minted emergency managers Ed Kurtz and Darnell Earley, followed the previously decided plan to switch to the Flint River in an effort to save money for the cash-strapped city. This turned out to be a very bad idea.


Background of the Flint Water Crisis

“It’s ridiculous to have a $214 water bill every month for water that you cannot use and can poison you.”

Steve Carmody; Reporter Michigan Radio

Imagine no other option but to have to drink water so polluted that it is corrosive to metal auto parts. This nightmare was a reality for the residents of Flint as they were drinking the water that GM would not even allow to touch their cars. In late April of 2014, the city of Flint temporarily switched their water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River to help save the struggling city five million dollars. This simple switch seemed to be an economic boon, but city leaders could not fathom the human health impacts and public trust erosion that this decision would have on the residents of Flint. 

The Flint River flows through downtown Flint; Getty Images

The Flint River flows through downtown Flint; 

Getty Images


What happened?

The mineral passivation layer, which is a protective layer applied to lead pipes, was properly working before a switch to polluted water. However, this polluted water started to corrode the protective layer and the lead entered Flint’s water supply. In addition, officials did not properly craft a corrosion control plan to stem the toxic tide of lead into the water.

A Corrosion Control Plan would have cost just over a hundred dollars a day, but would have treated the water with a corrosion inhibitor thereby better protecting the pipes and it’s residents. Within a few months after the switch was made residents in Flint began to see many problems with the tap water in their homes, including its color, smell, taste and texture.


Water Equity

Just and fair inclusion of water where everyone can have a chance to participate and prosper

US Water Alliance

Many of Flint’s citizens weren’t given the chance to prosper with the water they were drinking as it was exposing them to elevated levels of lead, so it was impossible for them to have water equity or justice. Lake Huron and the Great Lakes are the largest body of freshwater in the world and has access to 84% of the United States’ available fresh water, still being supplied by natural underground springs, and is only 44 miles from Flint. So, geographically Flint should be one of the very last places in the United States without clean drinking water.


Some could argue that Flint’s water was worth $0 during the peak of the crisis, considering it was exposing most of Flint's residents to lead. Yet, they still found themselves paying between $100 and $200 in water bills. Especially in a smaller and more economically stressed city like Flint, they do not have as many resources to help detect and prevent problems with their water. 

With Flint having over a third of its citizens living underneath the poverty line, their residents often struggle to pay their bills in full and on time. Michigan's new governor Gretchen Whitmer has helped pass new executive orders that will completely restructure the states’ department of environmental quality (MDEQ), including an entire rebranding of it to the Department of Environments, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).


Newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer promises to help residents of Flint; Getty Images

Newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer promises to help residents of Flint; 

Getty Images 

The newly minted EGLE is expected to create a new clean water and environmental justice advocate and an environmental response team. With it coming a few years after the crisis and adding funding and positions to help maintain water equity and justice for all as a direct result of the Flint Water Crisis. With the new governor of Michigan Whitmer immediately going to Flint’s aid and making many visits it looks like the City of Flint’s problems could ease and hopefully be over sooner rather than later.



The community of Flint is working diligently to continue the upgrade of its water infrastructure, but it takes time and money to finish the job. However, the newly elected officials like Mayor Karen Weaver and Governor Gretchen Whitmer are committed to not only resurrecting Flint after this terrible injustice, but also helping to find other cities in Michigan who are at considerable risk of lead poisoning. This proactive approach to safeguarding basic human rights, like safe drinking water, gives hope to sentiment that the once great city of Flint will be back and better than ever. 

Special thanks to Dr. Heather Douglas at Michigan State University and Dr. Benjamin Pauli at Kettering University who can find his thorough book here. 

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