By Jim Olson, FLOW founder and senior legal advisor
Recent reports show that four decades ago, Congress was advised that citizens in our cities and towns would face lead poisoning from lead pipes in municipal drinking water systems. Nothing was done. The failure of Congress to address this crisis then and now is a window into the collapse of our society’s shared view that government exists for the common good of all.
A recognized research scientist advised Congress in the 1980s that citizens in our cities and towns would be exposed to lead in drinking water. But as with tobacco, asbestos, agent orange, PFAs, and climate change – the list goes on – government leaders sat and sat and sat again on the lead poisoning threat. Imagine, Congress didn’t act for forty years to address something as fundamental to life and health as drinking water, and it did not act until the lead-poisoning of residents in Washington D.C., the City of Flint, and elsewhere boiled into national outrage.
Behind the lead poisoning and similar health issues is the failure of Congress to restore federal grant funding to communities across America. Beginning in the late 1980s, Congress halted federal grants, monies that had made municipal drinking water safe and affordable since the early 1970s. By the mid-1990s, federal aid turned into massive loans that shifted the financial burden to cities and towns and their resident ratepayers to pay for their drinking water.
The result: grossly unaffordable water bills and a plague of deteriorating drinking water systems, all dumped on the backs of the poor and middle class. This outcome is not surprising given that in 1977 federal funding provided 63% of funding for water infrastructure systems in the United States. But by 2014, this had fallen to 9% – with most of the funding coming in the form of loans to be repaid by local ratepayers.
Politicians too often wait to do anything until there is an emergency or crisis. Then they drag their feet until hauled into court or public pressure becomes too strong to ignore. By the time an emergency exists, the damage is devastating and irreparable, and the costs to fix the problem are magnitudes higher than the cost if the problem had been met head on in the first place. Rather than “win-win,” our leaders chose “lose-lose.”
In the 1980s, deregulation, neoliberalism, so-called free markets and tax cuts, heavily tilted toward the wealthy, became more important to presidential administrations and leaders on both sides of the political aisle than the safety of citizens. Now, this bury-the-problem disease is endemic.
Water is public, not owned by anyone. Water is held and managed by states as sovereign for their people. Why? The reality is that water is essential to life and health and serves everyone. Water must not become the victim or servant of political self-interests and ideology.
FLOW: How would you characterize the state of the community while you were volunteering there? Did you see resilience as well as tragedy?
The folks who invited me into their homes never failed to challenge my narrow assumptions about what kind of people live in Flint. I arrived armed with a story of the city acquired over time from local news, hearsay, and Michael Moore. It wasn’t completely inaccurate, but it was unbalanced and biased, absent the perspective of first-hand experience. Resiliency and hope exist alongside despair, complacency, and anger. I would say that the citizens of Flint, by and large, are not defined by crisis, be it lead-poisoned water, racial injustice, economic inequality, or post-industrial decline.
The human spirit is vast. It encompasses both good and bad and in between, something I was reminded of every day in Flint.
FLOW: Some of the most affecting passages in the book are where you describe individuals.
Trying to preserve memories of the people I met was the genesis of the project. I didn’t set out to write a book, but only to capture brief sketches of interesting people going about their lives in the midst of an existential, urban crisis. My heart went out to the children I met. Growing up in Flint is challenging, but many of the struggles are born of abstraction: institutional racism, lack of political agency, poverty, deindustrialization. Access to fresh water is concrete, inarguable, the reason humans settled along the banks of the Flint River in the first place. The book is full of portraits of citizens and fellow Red Cross volunteers. I like to think of them as small jewel-like paintings.
FLOW: What has the experience of volunteering in Flint taught you about the value of water?
I grew up taking clean water from the tap for granted. I’m fortunate to have been born at a time, in a place, where clean water was seen as essential to a functioning democracy, a fundamental communal right, not a privilege for the few. Community activists and public health officials worked long and hard to pass laws to insure everyone has access to safe, clean water. I no longer take it for granted. The work continues. Communities around Michigan are struggling with water problems, from Ann Arbor to Muskegon. The wells of people living near former or active military installations are threatened by the class of chemicals known as PFAS. Lead service lines and antiquated municipal systems affect millions.
The folks who invited me into their homes never failed to challenge my narrow assumptions about what kind of people live in Flint. The citizens of Flint, by and large, are not defined by crisis, be it lead-poisoned water, racial injustice, economic inequality, or post-industrial decline.
FLOW: Your narrative intersperses the story of the people of Flint with episodes of your own story. What inspired this idea, and what do you see as the connection?
Weaving together my experience in Flint with the arc of the fractured relationship I had with my mother seems obvious, in hindsight. It took quite a while before I was able to recognize my own feelings of loss, grief, rage, and helplessness mirrored in many of the people I met in Flint. These emotions are nothing new to the citizens of Flint; my troubles pale in comparison to the woes of a city long in decline. But finding empathy for them enabled me to be with my own feelings in a more skillful way and move toward equanimity, a practice that never ends.
FLOW: As you make the rounds promoting your Michigan notable book, what kind of responses do you get?
Those who haven’t read the book assume it’s a journalistic account of the Flint Water Crisis. Some very good books have been written about the origins of the water crisis and threats to the health of Flint’s citizens. I hope Standpipe complements these fine books and gives readers a different perspective on an issue that continues to resonate here in Michigan.
I grew up taking clean water from the tap for granted. I’m fortunate to have been born at a time, in a place, where clean water was seen as essential to a functioning democracy, a fundamental communal right, not a privilege for the few.
FLOW: How did you emerge from the experience psychologically?
I volunteered in Flint only for a short time, as compared to many others. On a typical day, my emotions ran the gamut from determination to gratitude to wariness to joy to boredom to anger–repeat. Going to Flint in the first place was a direct response to personal grief over my own loss. I left with mixed feelings: guarded hope for a better future for the citizens of Flint, anger toward those in power responsible for the crisis, and a sense of gratitude for having made a difference, however small–putting a check mark in the good column.
Access to fresh water is concrete, inarguable, the reason humans settled along the banks of the Flint River in the first place.
FLOW: Are you hopeful or pessimistic that our government can treat communities like Flint with respect?
I would like to think otherwise, but I’m afraid our native sense of working for the common good has been eroded by economic inequality, corporate greed, fear, misplaced anger, and the machinations of those who would fuel populist rage for political advantage. Divisions over masks, vaccination, and the settled science of climate change–our ongoing culture war, sometimes leave me feeling pessimistic. However, the human spirit is vast. It encompasses both good and bad and in between, something I was reminded of every day in Flint. At the end of the day, my grandsons give me hope for the future.