The Flint Water Crisis is nothing but an ongoing tragedy and Mona Hanna-Attisha does a fabulous job of describing an inside view to it in her book What the Eyes Don’t See. She begins with the quote “This is the story of the most important and emblematic environmental and public health disaster of this young century.
More bluntly, it is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it…..a story about what happens when the very people responsible for keeping us safe care more about money and power than then care about us, or our children” (pg 20).
To get a sense of where the story takes place, you must first understand the city of Flint, Michigan. Being a mainly African American populated city, around 40% of its citizens live under poverty and constantly struggle with problems of: unemployment, racism, violence and failing school/healthcare systems. In fact, a child born in Flint is said to live 15 years less than a child born in a neighboring city.
The everyday problems that these people must face to begin with are only worsened when their water, a basic human need, is essentially poisoned by the people meant to serve and protect them. Not only does this open our eyes to the environmental injustice that poverty stricken areas must deal with, but also the total lack of respect from the government and for scientific truth.
The story begins in 2011 when Governor Rick Snyder declared that the city of Flint had gone nearly bankrupt and is described to be in a state of local government financial emergency.
In a situation like this, an unelected Emergency Manager is appointed to take over and run the city in hopes of desperate change. The problem is however that an Emergency Manager does not answer to the people, but strictly to Snyder.
Crisis began when one of the budget cutting ideas came forward as changing the source of where Flint received its tap water from. Before this, Flint would get its drinking water straight from the Detroit Water and Sewage department, meaning that like many other communities in the southeast region of Michigan, that the water would be pumped directly from Lake Huron. After many City Council meetings, the decision of building a pipeline directly from the Flint River is passed in hopes of saving the city millions of dollars. Although it was almost common knowledge that the Flint river had been an industrial dumping ground for decades, the government was able to convince the people that the water would be perfectly safe. April 25, 2014 is the official day that disaster struck. According to an article in Politico Magazine “as news cameras rolled, Mayor Walling pushed the button that shut off the city’s connection to Detroit’s water system and switched it to the Flint River.
Although Walling had not made the decision to draw water from the Flint River, he executed the physical act that initiated the Flint water crisis. Once the switch was complete, he hoisted a glass of river water, toasting “Here’s to Flint!” Almost immediately the local media started delivering reports of complaints of the water. People were quoted saying it smelt bad, tasted even worse and even the author, Hanna-Attisha, described the water as “brown, thick and flammable” (pg 41). Instead of immediately addressing the problem however, officials took to the Michigan Radio to say they would be taking a “wait-and-see approach.” Due to the large amount of complaints, eventually chlorine was added into the water in hopes of killing the bacteria, but instead it just irritated the skin and eyes of the citizens.
The city of Flint was soon found to be in major violation of safe drinking water due to the amount of lethal carcinogens found within it, but this problem mysteriously cleared itself up with no real action taken to solve it. Eventually with an enormous amount of complaints from the residents, the City Council was able to vote to return to Detroit water. But with his inappropriate use of power, the EM decided to reject this vote simply because it would be too expensive for the city. As weeks and even months go by, no real change takes place and the people of Flint are forced to use the lead infested tap water. If you were to be uneducated on the dangers of lead exposure, you would be completely blind to this silent killer because there are no real immediate signs of lead poisoning. Since the author of this book is a well educated pediatrician she is able to list off some of the harmful side effects stating that “A large amount of lead exposure can cause swelling of the brain, headaches, lethargy, anemia, dizziness, muscular paralysis, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. It can affect vision and hearing, and in extreme cases, it can cause kidney failure, coma and even death” (pg 57).
With 75% of our bodies being made up of water, this is a completely appalling fact. Not only is lead exposure extremely harmful to adults, but it can quite literally be life threatening to infants and children. In any child the results caused by lead exposure, let alone ingestion, can lead to irreversible damage accompanied by developmental delays, impairments to cognition, as well as memory and attention disorders. As stated by Dr. Hanna-Attisha, “Brain scans show that lead exposure can make it harder for a child to pay attention, regulate emotions and control impulses. It also affects the white matter of a child’s brain, which acts as a conduit for signals within the central nervous system” (pg 58). If affected at a younger age, these children are more likely to reach their teens and twenties with the tendency to drop out of school and even commit a violent crime. Lead poisoning can quite literally alter a person’s DNA. As conditions begin to worsen with no real hope or change in sight, the people began to take things into their own hands.
MLive reports on October 13th that “ General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water, fearing corrosion in its machines. ‘Because of all the metal … you don’t want the higher chlorine water (to result in) corrosion,’ GM spokesman Tom Wickham tells MLive. ‘We noticed it some time ago (and) the discussions have been going on for some time.’ If this so called drinking water is found to be not safe for use on cars due to the corrosion, then it is absolutely not safe to be consumed.
On January 2, 2015 NPR then reports that “Flint is found to be in major violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because of the level of total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, in the water. In response, the state starts buying bottled water for its employees at government offices.” It is not until September 25th, that the city of Flint issues an official lead advisory to its residents, even though the majority of the damage has already been done. The entire city has been without clean and safe drinking water for over a year now and Snyder’s only plan of action to fix this is to provide free water testing and filters. With the city still in complete chaos, Flint decides to officially switch back to the Detroit water supply on October 16. As many more months pass, an official state of emergency is declared by both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and President Obama.
However, this seems to do absolutely nothing as the residents of Flint still see absolutely no change in the water. The EPA soon sweeps in to issue an emergency order on the crisis stating that “EPA has determined that the City of Flint’s and the State of Michigan’s responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate and that these failures continue.’ The full report No. 18-P-0221 goes into full detail on how the drinking water conditions are still found to be non consumable, and blames many people including the State of Michigan for the poor judgments made. After this report is released, the state outlines a more detailed plan of action for the Flint crisis. Some details include providing help for children under the age of 6 with extreme lead levels, increasing and adding more resources for schools in order to help the affected children, and fixing some public facilities such as lead service lines. Even after all that has been done, Virginia Tech researchers have since discovered that the water is still extremely unsafe to drink without a filter, despite the fact that Rick Snyder had gone on national television claiming he will drink the water for the next 30 days.
Finally the slightest bit of peace is offered to the residents of Flint as criminal charges begin to be filed against the handful of officials involved in this terrible tragedy that affected many. This book What the Eyes Don’t See does a fabulous job at giving an inside look at not only how the people that experienced this crisis lived and handled it, but it also depicts how eventually everyone around the country had bonded together in order to fight back the total injustice that was casted upon the people of Flint. With the underlying villain of this story being this countries racism, inequality towards poverty and overall government greed, it still shows that each and every person has the ability to make a change towards an overall better world no matter how large the problem. “Flint fought hard, never gave up, and turned a devastating crisis into a model of resilience” (pg 22).
The first concept that I found throughout this book is Milgram’s study of obedience. This applies to the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, because he is a major form of authority to the citizens and any naive person will listen to and believe what he has to say. Milgram’s study shows that even if a person knows that something is morally wrong, they will still obey the orders of the person in power because they believe they wouldn’t lead them in the wrong direction. Governor Rick Snyder displayed this study when he visited a Flint home and went on live television and drank the water out of the kitchens tap, adding that “he plans to continue drinking Flint tap water for the next 30 days to show it is safe” (Egan, 2016).
The second idea that I found to be extremely relevant throughout this entire book is social class. Although this idea can be applied to the city of Flint as a whole, I have decided to apply it to the author herself. Due to the fact that she is a pediatrician, she would be classified as being in the middle class. Social class itself can be defined based on a person’s rank in education and wealth status. This would mean that the middle class is typically defined as being professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers and only make up about 36% of our population. A specific example of how the author demonstrates her social classes power over another is when she states that “we pediatricians are at the pivotal intersection of clinical care and prevention. Every aspect of my job…is not just about ensuring kids are healthy today. It’s about tomorrow, next year and twenty years from now. We see life as its beginning, when it can be shaped for good” (page 28).
The third theory that I found to be rather relevant in this book is the Leader Member Exchange theory. This theory would directly apply to the government and its workers because even though they were reporting to the rest of the city that the tap water was still safe to drink, the government began giving special treatment to its workers. This theory is defined as being mainly a relationship based type that only focuses on the alliance between leaders and their followers, specifically giving special treatment to its “in group”.
A specific example of the government demonstrating the LMX theory is when on January 2, 2015 “the city of Flint was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act due to the amount of total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, in the water. In response, the state starts buying bottled water for its employees at government offices in the area” (Kennedy, 2016). This blatantly shows the special treatment that the workers, or “in group” were receiving, despite the fact that most residents living in Flint would be unable to afford buying bottled water in such large quantities.
The fourth concept displayed within this book is the use of power. The Emergency Manager elected to the city of Flint has a tremendous amount of power and control over even Mayor Walling, meaning that he did not answer to the people, but to Governor Snyder. In terms of power, it can go two different ways, appropriate use and inappropriate use of it.
Appropriate generally meaning that the power is used to achieve the goals in a fair way, and inappropriate meaning that power is used to only achieve personal goals mainly at the cost of the organization itself. The Emergency Manager in this case demonstrated a very inappropriate use of power in many ways. One major example and turning point in the story of Flint is laid out on page 55 of the book. “Just five months before, because of general water-quality issues and an outcry from residents, the Flint City Council had voted to return to Detroit water, but Governor Snyder’s appointed emergency manager described that decision as “incomprehensible” and rejected it as too costly,” it reads. This clearly demonstrates the inappropriate use of his power due to the fact that he rejected the switch to safer water simply because it was the “cheaper” thing to do, even though the entire council voted differently. This shows a direct example of achieving his personal goals, at the cost of Flint.
The fifth concept consistently used throughout this book is the idea of ethics. Although every character mentioned throughout this book uses a form of ethics in a way, I have chosen to focus mainly on the government and Rick Snyder himself. Ethics can be defined as the moral principles that typically forms a person’s behavior or how they would go about conducting an activity. In regards to using ethics involving leadership there are a few guidelines to follow, these being: greatest good for the greatest number, allowing people to flourish and moral means to moral ends. It is a widely known fact that consumption of lead in any amount can have detrimental effects on a human body, specifically in children. Research states that “it can cause irreversible damage involving developmental delays, cognitive impairment and a major change in behavior” (page 58). When Rick Snyder continually went on air giving statements saying that the water is still safe to drink, he demonstrated enormous amounts of unethical leadership.
Never once did he consider the moral means of this entire situation, leading to the completely immoral end of life threatening effects on the children and people of Flint. Due to the fact that Flint is a minority filled suburban, not only did this decision not allow the citizens to flourish but it completely destroyed its trust in the government. The final concept I found to be important throughout this book is expert power. Again, this concept could be applied to a tremendous amount of people described in this book, however I found that it largely applies to General Motors and the action they decided to take on October 13th.
Expert power can be defined as the perception that anyone in charge or someone assumed to be knowledgeable in that field would possess specialized skills that others might not have or understand. In an NPR article on the timeline of the Flint Water Crisis it states that on October 13th “General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water, fearing corrosion in its machines. ‘Because of all the metal … you don’t want the higher chlorine water (to result in) corrosion,’ GM spokesman Tom Wickham tells MLive. ‘We noticed it some time ago (and) the discussions have been going on for some time.’ By General Motors publicly putting this statement out, they exercised their expert power in that it shows the citizens of Flint that if a major corporation will no longer be using the water to simply wash its machines, then you probably shouldn’t be ingesting it as well.