If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?
The 274 pages of emails released by Gov. Rick Snyder this week on Flint’s water crisis included no discussion of race. Instead, they focused on costs relating to the city’s water supply, questions about scientific data showing lead contamination and uncertainty about the responsibilities of state and local health officials.
But it is indisputable that in Flint, the majority of residents are black and many are poor. So whether or not race and class were factors in the state’s agonizingly slow and often antagonistic response, the result was the same: Thousands of Flint’s residents, black and white, have been exposed to lead in their drinking water. And the long-term health effects of that poisoning may not be fully understood for years.
For civil rights advocates, the health crisis in Flint smacks of what has become known as environmental racism. Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.
Many of those advocates assert that environmental racism is a major reason black people in Louisiana’s factory-laden “Cancer Alley” contract the disease at higher rates, or why the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan is in a southwest pocket of Detroit that is 84 percent black.
Many also say that environmental racism left blacks confined to the most flood prone parts of New Orleans, and that the government was slow to respond to the agonies immediately after Hurricane Katrina. President George W. Bush staunchly rejected that assertion.
Environmental decisions are often related to political power. In some cities, garbage incinerators have been built in African-American neighborhoods that do not have the political clout to block them. In Michigan, where blacks are 14 percent of the population and the state government is dominated by Republicans, Flint has little political power.
The water contamination in Flint was born out of a decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014. The explicit goal was to save Flint, which was on the brink of financial collapse, millions of dollars. At the time, an emergency manager appointed by Mr. Snyder, a Republican, was running Flint. And in a sign of how racial issues are often not simple, that manager, Darnell Earley, who supported the switch, is black.
There were immediate concerns among residents about the quality of the murky water from the Flint River, which years ago was a repository for industrial waste from the city’s once booming, now almost extinct, factories. (Officials argued that they were drawing water from a cleaner portion of the river upstream.) Early tests showing coliform bacteria in the water were not “an actual threat to citizen safety,” Mr. Earley was quoted saying in The Flint Journal on Sept. 12, 2014.
Complaints continued to roll in — people got rashes, lost hair and were sickened by the water. But state officials sought to minimize the problem and attributed the uproar to politics. Flint is a Democratic stronghold which voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Snyder during his re-election campaign two years ago.
If the emails make no mention of race, they do at times view things through a political prism, treating some complaints from community representatives as political grandstanding. One notes that state environmental regulators believed that Flint activists were trying to turn lead exposure “into a political football.” Another email referred to the “anti-everything group.”
Even as levels of one chemical compound in Flint water exceeded federally allowable levels, a memo prepared for Mr. Snyder by his staff said that it was “not a top health concern” and that residents needed to understand the compound in context, the email records show. The memo, sent last February, also said that by the time the city connected to a new water system in 2016, “this issue will fade in the rearview.”
Dennis Muchmore, who was Mr. Snyder’s chief of staff at the time, sounded alarm bells in July. But some state officials responded tepidly. When Mr. Muchmore wrote to the state health department that people were rightfully concerned about studies of lead levels, the department responded by sending him a report indicating that the Flint water was safe. That report, however, ignored another analysis that showed elevated levels of lead in in the city’s children.
In an email sent about two months later, Mr. Muchmore, wrote that there was a “swirl of misinformation” and that the outrage was partly because of a “long-term distrust of local government.”
In recent months, the governor asked for daily briefings. On Tuesday, Mr. Snyder apologized for his administration’s stumbling response to the water crisis. “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” the governor said in his annual State of the State address. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability.”
Asked on Thursday whether the racial and socioeconomic makeup of Flint played a role in the state’s response, David Murray, a spokesman for Mr. Snyder, focused mostly on the governor’s work in Detroit, the state’s largest city that is nearly 83 percent black. Indeed, Mr. Snyder has poured tens of millions of dollars into the city’s recovery from bankruptcy. And much to the dismay of his Republican allies, he has expanded Medicaid to make health insurance available to thousands more low-income people, many of them black. But Mr. Murray’s statement did not address the lax response to the water crisis in Flint.
Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint, said he was not surprised. He called race “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint.”
He added, “They treated it like it was a public-relations problem not a public problem for the people in Flint.”