When Benjamin J. Pauli, an assistant professor at Kettering University, moved to Flint, Michigan, with his wife and three-year-old son in the summer of 2015, he knew that the world saw Flint as a once-proud General Motors company town now decimated by deindustrialization and white flight. But to Pauli, “Flint was a city with character” and a distinctive place in history. It was one of the first cities in the U.S. to have a black mayor, and the site of a sit-down strike that launched the American labor movement. “Flint was not the kind of city where people rolled over or gave up,” writes Pauli. “It had a fighting spirit.”
Pauli witnessed that spirit firsthand in the wake of the Flint water crisis—a crisis that directly affected Pauli’s own family when it emerged that his young son had potentially been exposed to dangerous levels of lead. Flint Fights Back is part sober analysis of the water crisis, part dispatch from the frontlines of the environmental justice movement, and a moving testament to a city’s fighting spirit.
When I arrived in Flint I was only dimly aware that some of its residents were in the middle of yet another fight, one that would rival anything in the city’s past. I’d heard that there had been some issues with the city’s drinking water and been warned to expect fluctuations in the water’s taste as the utility fine-tuned its treatment methods. But I was given no reason to believe that the water was a safety hazard. Within my social circle, as an assistant professor at a private university and a resident of a predominantly white and (by relative standards) affluent neighborhood, no one seemed particularly alarmed. When I turned on the bathtub faucet one evening to fill the bath for my son and brown, grainy water gushed out, I wrote it off as an anomaly, having been told that periodic fire hydrant flushing could dislodge sediment and cause temporary discoloration. The resident voices pleading that the water was not safe were, from my perspective at the time, faint, drowned out by the reassurances of neighbors and government authorities who said the water was fine and presumably knew what they were talking about.
Over the next few months, those voices were amplified and vindicated in dramatic fashion. In July, EPA drinking water expert Miguel del Toral leaked an internal memo he had written to his superiors outlining his suspicion that Flint’s water supply was experiencing system-wide lead contamination. In August and September, a collaborative water sampling effort by Flint activists and Virginia Tech engineers confirmed that there were high levels of lead at the tap in homes across the city. Toward the end of September, a team of researchers led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint’s Hurley Hospital showed through a statistical analysis of blood lead levels that the lead in the water was finding its way into the bodies of the city’s children, putting them at risk of a host of developmental deficits. Residents rushed to get their water and their children’s blood tested. Politicians declared states of emergency at the city, county, state, and federal levels. The national news media began to pay attention to what was happening in Flint. By early 2016, the “Flint water crisis” had become the subject of widespread public outrage and, in the heat of presidential primary season, a political cause célèbre.
For Flint residents like myself, however, the water crisis was first and foremost a deeply personal affair. Our water test results came back at 6 parts per billion (ppb) lead and 70 ppb copper—both below the EPA’s action levels of 15 ppb and 1,300 ppb, respectively, but hardly reassuring with a young child in the home. I found myself asking questions I had never fully confronted before: Did the fact that our levels were below federal thresholds mean our water was “safe”? Should the levels that trigger administrative action be the same ones that spur me as a parent to take steps to protect my family? Why had no one ever encouraged me to ponder that distinction or to be proactive about testing my water? It was disconcerting to think that neurotoxic heavy metals were entering my son’s body in any quantity, and disillusioning to learn that regulatory agencies recognized and tolerated it. Furthermore, how much could one grab sample actually tell us about the quality of our water day by day?
Hoping to avoid bottled water, I purchased a lead-certified filter (in the days before they were widely available for free), only to conclude after two infuriating weeks of repeated trips to the hardware store and many torrents of profanity that it could not be made to fit my kitchen faucet. The whole faucet had to be replaced: an expenditure of time, effort, and resources that many Flint residents confronted by the same problem could ill afford. Then there was my son’s blood test. Our family physician informed me that his level of blood lead was normal—“normal” defined as around two micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (2 μg/dL). The catch was that we had delayed getting the test done until two months after switching to filtered water, a lag caused by our doctor’s initial counsel that such a test was not necessary. Because lead leaves the bloodstream in roughly a month’s time to roost in the bones, we will never know if, during our use of unfiltered tap water in the months prior, our son was lead poisoned. This is not just our predicament, but that of many, many other Flint parents for whom a “normal” test result did little to assuage their feelings of guilt and anxiety.
Personally, I felt guilty for another reason, too. As someone with a history of activism and an interest in political dissent and social movements, I was ashamed at having written off the voices in the wilderness that had helped to expose the water crisis for what it was. I started paying close attention to the water activists, an easier task now that their activities were getting more coverage. I began to realize that the explosion of the lead issue into a national scandal owed much more to a groundswell of popular agitation than I had previously appreciated—in fact, to something that could legitimately be termed a water movement. In January 2016, as Flint activists shifted their focus from convincing the world of the harm being done by the water to fighting for accountability, remediation, and reparations, I decided I could no longer watch from the sidelines.
Excerpted from Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis by Benjamin J. Pauli, The MIT Press, 2019.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.