FLINT — For nearly three years, the residents of Flint, Michigan, a city located just 70 miles north of Detroit, have had contaminated water running through their pipes, poisoned by lead and other dangerous metals. The crisis began when local authorities decided to switch the city’s main water source in April 2014, choosing to pull water from the notoriously polluted Flint River in the interest of saving money.
Flint’s water was subsequently contaminated, making it unsafe to drink or even bathe in. A method of corrosion control that had previously been in place was eliminated in the switch, causing $1.5 billion in damage to the city’s infrastructure, on top of the incalculable damage done to the health and welfare of Flint residents.
Since the contamination was made public, the people of Flint have been forced to rely on bottled water for everything from drinking to cooking, and even bathing. To date, every child in Flint under the age of 6 is believed to have been exposed to lead. And with the impact of lead poisoning still being monitored by doctors, the after-effects have not yet made themselves known.
There are many community organizers in Flint who are working to raise awareness of the issue and resist the local government’s attempts to deflect blame. But Flint resident Melissa Mays has stood out as a powerhouse in the movement against water contamination. Mays is a mother of three who founded Water You Fighting For, a grassroots organization dedicated to spreading awareness of the Flint water crisis.
Mays and her family represent the many people who have had their health impacted by the crisis. Lead poisoning has significant long-term health consequences, particularly for children, whose growing bodies are highly susceptible to both absorbing and retaining the potent neurotoxin. Compromised immune systems, brain damage, and memory loss are just a few of the symptoms that the poisoning has caused and will continue to cause for years to come.
Mays explained to MintPress News that Flint residents feel completely abandoned by the media, as news outlets have largely stopped covering the story. “It seems that the residents of Flint are being forgotten, ignored, and dismissed all over again,” Mays lamented.
As media coverage has dissipated, Flint residents are having their water services terminated. Other households are being threatened with eviction and credit penalties for refusing to pay their water bills, even though the water they’re being charged for isn’t possibly safe to use. This represents yet another slight against a community that has been marginalized by racial discrimination for years, as well as struggled with poverty.
Mays is one of over 8,000 residents who are receiving letters from the city, demanding that they pay for the unsafe water. “I received a letter stating that if I didn’t pay $891 of my $2,057 water bill in less than 3 weeks, they would send a notice off to have a tax lien put on my house. There was no notice ahead of time and when I called, there was no way out of it,” Mays said.
Despite the tremendous hurdles in their way – including a local administration that had to be ordered by a judge to deliver bottled water to residents – the people of Flint have remained determined in their fight for clean water. Their tragedy has pulled the curtain away from an even larger, albeit hidden, water crisis that spans the country. After Flint officials were exposed, similar cases began to pop up around the country. These cases indicate that Flint was no anomaly, but that there may, in fact, be a conspiracy of greed behind the country’s toxic water.
According to a report from CNN, at least 5,300 U.S. water systems “are in violation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lead and copper rule.”But the EPA has been allowing water agencies to “game the system” by overlooking practices that allow authorities to use compromised water testing results. Such practices include only testing homes where finding lead would be highly unlikely or taking water samples at a slower rate, thereby lowering the possibility of finding harmful metals in the water.
According to Robert Doyle Bullard, former dean of the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School Of Public Affairs, environmental injustice has undeniable elements of racism and anti-poor sentiment that allow it to continue. After reviewing 80 years of disaster responses from state officials for his book “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities,” Bullard found that government is slower to respond to disasters when people of color are involved. This is exactly what advocates have been saying about Flint, where 57 percent of the population is black and 41.5 percent lives in poverty.
While much has been said about who has worked to save Flint, including the publication of stories where 38-year-old Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is described as having single-handedly rescued the city’s residents, Mays wants people to see the story differently.
“…this was not a story where a PhD and a doctor ‘saved’ Flint. They validated what residents had already tested for and found months before we brought in outside experts [who reaffirmed our own findings],” Mays said.
While unmistakably appreciative of what doctors and other figures have done for locals, Mays argues that the residents themselves are being treated like secondary characters in their own story. “Residents have brought in the amazing attorneys and experts because we knew something was wrong with our water. Just like we know that pathogens exist now and have been in our water since the switch. Too many people are getting sick and around 200 people have died in 3 years since the switch,” Mays said.
Even now, people who residents previously trusted are outright dismissing the burgeoning cases of rashes, hair loss, bacterial infections and other illnesses in Flint, just like the state of Michigan did at the start of the city’s nightmarish ordeal.
“[Still,] what we want people to know is that Flint is tough. We don’t want a handout. We have been betrayed repeatedly, poisoned and left for dead. But we have not let that stop us from standing up and fighting back – and not just for us, but the whole country,” Mays said.
Flint residents have been joined by allies from around the nation, including Standing Rock water defenders and organizers who see the two crises as being linked. Kyle T. Mays explains in the Journal of Cultural Anthropology that “Flint presents alternative narratives – even renewed possibilities – of solidarity between black and indigenous people, acknowledging differences and commonalities.”
Mays not only sees these commonalities but has been energized by the prospect of being able to turn the ever-growing movement in Flint into a nationwide effort to protect that most crucial and vital of resources – water.
“We are not going to stop until we see justice for Flint, but we hope to be a good example for all other cities fighting this same uphill battle. It’s not easy, but Flint lives matter, we all do, we just have to fight to prove it,” Mays said.
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