Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis

This is a great analysis, and points out some of the ways that my work, by focusing on the question of emergency management vs. urban democracy, obscures some of the larger ways that the Flint story is embedded in capitalist political economy.

The Third Coast Conspiracy

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First there was Detroit, and now there’s Flint. After more or less staying under the radar for over a year, in the last few weeks the water crisis has become national news. The overall story is pretty clear. Back in April 2014, the city stopped getting its water from the system that serves the Detroit metropolitan area, which it had been doing since 1967, and switched over to the Flint River instead. Residents immediately noticed the difference, complaining about the water’s taste, smell, and color. City and state officials ignored or dismissed them, insisting that the water was safe—and trying to hide evidence to the contrary. In fact, the corrosive river water had caused lead in the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. A year and a half after switching to the Flint River, the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood…

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2 comments on “Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis

  1. Yes, it’s shock doctrine or capitalist this or that. BUT it is also a failure of a much different sort, which helps to further the neoliberal narrative that govt. isn’t functional (e.g., FEMA and Katrina) which further justifies shrinking the state and market oriented “public” policies.

    The issue isn’t so much that Flint River water is “bad” and Detroit water wasn’t, but that making the switch, professional water system managers know that they have to tweak the water treatment formula for the specific chemical composition of the water to reduce sediment and corrosion within the existing pipe system.

    The managers of the Flint water system never did that. They weren’t treating Flint River water to reduce corrosion once they made the switch. So corrosion happened and it was noticeable (brown water). When reported to the EPA, the EPA asked about this and the city/MDEQ lied and said they were treating the water.

    So yes there is shock doctrine, but had the water been treated maybe none of this would have happened, and the city would have saved some money. There’s nothing wrong with looking for savings when your municipality is cash strapped.

    Alternatively, had they waited to switch to Lake Huron water once a new pipe was ready, maybe nothing would have happened–if they would have tested the water in advance and come up with a treatment method for it and put it into operation. The Detroit water officials were treating the water for Flint’s system as part of their contract in providing water.

    What happened in Flint is more comparable to VW and creating software overrides for emission control systems for diesel engines, it’s not just about switching water sources to save money. Was it incompetence? Was it deliberate like VW–I doubt it, but once they made the mistake it was irreversible, and they were fumbling.

    It happens I wrote about this a couple days ago, also mentioning Parkersburg, WV, which has just as bad issues, resulting from improper disposal of harmful chemicals from Dupont manufacturing plants.

  2. […] democracy, looks to become even more significant in coming years as states like Michigan (emergency management) and North Carolina (state pre-emption of local civil rights ordinances) allow state voters to […]

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