Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Newark, New Jersey currently has drinking water lead levels higher than Flint, Michigan. Children are testing positive for lead in their blood and water bottles are being distributed to residents, yet the local, state, and Federal government are doing little to address the root cause of this issue: lead corrosion contaminating Newark's drinking water. Participating community organizations include Extinction Rebellion, the Newark Water Coalition, the Green Party of New Jersey, the Newark Water Coalition, and the New Afrikan Black Panther Party. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In 2014, the water source of the city of Flint, Michigan, was switched from Lake Huron to the untreated and polluted Flint River, tainting the city’s water supply and setting off a chain of events that led to at least 12 deaths from Legionnaires disease, as well as miscarriages, brain and developmental damage to children, and lead poisoning for the 100,000 residents of Flint. 

In late August, the state of Michigan offered a $600 million settlement to those affected. Activist Melissa Mays of the Flint advocacy group Water You Fighting For says that the settlement does not go far enough to compensate the residents of Flint. 

“$600 million sounds like a lot, I know that it does from the outside, but you got to figure there are 100,000 people in Flint,” Mays said.

Mays argues that even over 2,300 days since the start of the crisis, the city of Flint still does not have safe water, and most residents are still buying bottled water for their daily needs. Thousands of damaged water service lines have not yet been replaced. Every time a community water line bursts, chlorine, which is necessary to kill residual bacteria, is lost from the system. In addition, the corrosive water that went through Flint’s pipes did not stop at the city-provided ones—It affected every pipe and fixture in residents’ homes, making them all a source of danger until they are replaced. 

The city of Flint was part of an austerity effort by the state of Michigan to appoint emergency managers to handle cities’ “fiscal crises.” Emergency managers have been appointed in 89% of Black majority cities in Michigan and no white majority cities. These managers are able to ignore citizens and city councils, and have privatized many of the cities’ resources. In 2014, Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, was responsible for switching the water source to the polluted Flint River. This decision was made knowing the potential grave consequences for residents’ health. Later in 2015, a new emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, overruled a unanimous decision by Flint’s city council to stop using the water from the Flint River. 

Because of this history and the continuing problems in Flint caused by emergency managers, Flint residents do not have much trust in the government officials who are supposed to help them.

“The minute they stop saying ‘everything is fine and they are going to move Flint forward,’ that will be a good step to earning our trust,” Mays said. “Just because we don’t have Ph.D.s doesn’t mean we didn’t learn quick.”

The original lawsuit in this case was filed in January of 2016 and is only being settled now with one party (the state of Michigan). According to May, this is evidence that everyone involved has not been interested in the welfare of the people of Flint. The coalition Flint Rising (Mays’ organization is a member) has been the only group talking to the residents of Flint about what action they actually want to resolve the crisis, by going door to door and interviewing them. Flint Rising found out that the people of Flint want all pipes and fixtures impacted by the crisis replaced, residents hired to make the necessary repairs, every water bill to be refunded, and full holistic health care for life. 

“We should be full of federal and state supports because people are supposedly sorry for what they did to us, but where are the resources?” Mays said. “This is a huge disaster, everyone in the world knew about it, why isn’t it getting fixed?”

The settlement, which has yet to be finalized, is mainly structured to go to children who will likely have a lifetime of health issues resulting from this crisis. Approximately 25,000 children will be awarded an average of $16,000 each by the state. The settlement does not stop the lawsuit from going forward against the other parties in the case, which include the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Flint, and the private engineering companies who were all involved in the decisions that caused the water crisis.

Mays feels like the settlement is the first time the state has admitted any fault for what happened in Flint. The state has dodged responsibility and has failed to criminally prosecute anyone for the series of decisions that were made that caused this poisoning. Initially the state brought charges against 15 individuals, including emergency managers Earley and Ambrose, but in July of 2019 those charges were dropped by new Attorney General Dana Nessel (a Democrat). Since dropping the charges, Nessel has not communicated with Flint residents about whether any new charges will be brought. Mays worries that the criminal prosecution was dropped in order to make it easier for the state to settle with residents for less money. 

“Everything is about money,” Mays said. “Everything is about saving money and cutting corners and not about giving Flint anything except poisoned water and excuses.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Flint has been even further devastated. Many of the people of Flint are immunocompromised. Flint has a 9.5%—12.5% death rate from COVID-19, which is higher than the rest of the country. The water crisis has made it difficult because people cannot even safely wash their hands—one of the most effective steps in fighting the virus. High water bills mean many residents face shutoffs, and have no water at all.

Mays says that Flint is being ignored because it is a majority Black and poor city, but she cautions other communities who think that what happened in Flint can’t happen to them. 

Austerity measures like the ones that were used to take control away from Flint residents are being employed across the country. Many places like Lowndes County, Alabama, the Navajo Nation, and Inez, Kentucky, have water problems just as severe as the ones in Flint. 

“I don’t know where I would move to,” Mays said. “I’ve travelled all over the country… and nowhere is safe. They either are on the verge of becoming Flint or they already are in the same boat as us.”

With additional reporting from Molly Shah

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Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.