I shouldn’t have missed the story of lead-contaminated water in Flint.
Not because I’m an environmental reporter, but because my mom told me what was happening in my hometown, and I didn’t listen.
I tell people’s stories for a living. Our team at the Center for Public Integrity spent most of 2015 looking for examples of environmental discrimination — places where communities of color sat next to sewage plants, pesticide-covered fields and noxious landfills. Places where people went to meeting after meeting begging someone for help.
Our project detailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s limp enforcement of one mechanism to address discrimination — Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before I worked on it, I hadn’t realized how easy it is to ignore those fighting to be heard.
I grew up in a place a lot like the ones I now report on — Flint, Mich. I left after high school but return for holidays and milestones. In between, I call my mom for news. She still lives in the modest white house on the north side of Flint where I grew up. She’s spent most of the last 44 years there. The city long ago abandoned its part of the bargain, but she refuses to sell her hedge-lined piece of the American Dream.
When we talk, she usually details the latest city struggle — a new fee residents pay to keep street lights on in front of their homes; the police substation that closed up the street; her volunteer work with the abandoned-housing census. The day in August 2014 she casually mentioned a boil-water advisory, it didn’t even register. I brushed it off when she mentioned it again the next month. I ignored the loop of images in my Facebook feed showing hydrants flushing brown water. All of these things were routine, I reasoned. There’s nothing to worry about.
By now, you know the story.
In a cost-saving move, an emergency manager appointed by the state to oversee the city’s finances agreed to switch it from water supplied by the Great Lakes to water from the Flint River, once an industrial dump site. When the switch was made in April 2014, city officials toasted it with river water and called it “historic.”
That it was. Almost immediately, residents noticed something was wrong: Smelly, brown water came gushing from taps. People developed rashes after bathing. They complained to city officials, bringing jugs of that water to meetings. Officials maintained that the water was safe to drink. Now we know that was a lie.
From the emergency managers who ruled the city to Gov. Rick Snyder to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal EPA, pretty much everyone messed up. Residents pleaded for help. Few listened.
That wasn’t new. There is a legacy Flint residents are taught to bear early: Take what is thrown at you without complaint; just find a way to survive it. For as long as I can remember, each day in Flint seemed to come with a new indignity to endure.
As a child, I held my breath as our car crossed the Stewart Avenue bridge to block the stench from the General Motors transmission factory below. My last Christmas home from Hampton University before graduation, tears forced me to the side of the road when I saw empty lots where factories once stood.
On campus, I brushed off jokes about how I “escaped” my hometown, with its reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America. As an adult, I seethed as financial woes in Detroit were decried as a national tragedy; no one cared that this had been the reality in Flint for a decade.