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Flint, Michigan is a predominantly black suburb of Detroit, Michigan. 57% of the population is black and 41% of it lives below the poverty line. But what’s occurring in Flint cannot be compared to Hurricane Katrina, a combination of government errors and natural disaster. Rather, what’s happening in Flint is a man-made water crisis, one created at the behest of cutting costs.

In April 2014, government officials in the city of Flint decided to avoid a potential water war with the city of Detroit. After a year in which Detroit underwent a water crisis of its own, with thousands of residents being denied access, Flint decided to break away from the state’s most populated – and, in some areas, beleaguered – city.

The plan Flint adopted, had them switching from the treated water of Lake Huron from Detroit, to treated water from the Flint River. The move singlehandedly ended a 50-year purchasing agreement the city of Flint had in place regarding their water supply, the expectation being that it would save the city $5 million over two years. The new system for Flint, via the Karegnondi Water Authority, was under construction and would not be complete until 2017. But by December, Flint had already spent $4 million investing into the project, aloof and unaware of what water they were bringing in from the Flint River.

The Flint River was supposed to be a backup water source, not the primary one that it ended up becoming for the residents of the city. Beginning in January 2015, citizens of Flint began complaining about “bad water,” contaminated with leaching lead from the aging pipes in the Flint River. In spite of warning from physicians and others who noted an alarming rate of children with elevated blood levels due to lead poisoning, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality would insist that the water was safe to drink. But for most of 2015, residents complained, and with good reason – the water from the Flint River had turned grimy, orange and contaminated to the point where it wasn’t safe to drink, bathe, or even use. Amid concerns for the lead residing in the water, Flint opted to return to Detroit water, but by then, the damage had already been done.

It wasn’t until last week – two full weeks into 2016 – as images began to surface of the damage and lasting effects of the water crisis, that Michigan governor Rick Snyder formally declared a state of emergency. By that time, 10 people had been killed by the contaminated water, succumbing to Legionnaire’s disease. City officials are already saying that it could possibly take up to $1.5 billion just to fix the issue. Snyder’s then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore wrote in July 2015 about the crisis in Flint:

I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).

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There have been calls for Snyder’s arrest, as it was his decision-making that ultimately contributed to the death of Flint residents. To say nothing of how a local and state government committed unspeakable malpractice on its citizens, in the name of saving money.

As well, Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Darnell Earley, to operate Flint and fix the broken city in order to cut costs. Earley oversaw the 2014 switch from Detroit to Flint River water, and he remained the city’s emergency manager on through September 2015. It was Snyder’s 2011 legislation that enabled such a move to be made, because the 2011 law granted emergency managers near-absolute power in matters of fiscal deficiency at a government level. Though the original law was repealed, Snyder amended it and it became law once again in 2012.

Snyder formally apologized for the debacle earlier this month, calling it simply “an unfortunate situation.”

Everything going on in Flint screams, “this isn’t supposed to happen here.” Though citizens of the city have begun to shut off the tap and rely instead on the many donations of water from outside sources, the water crisis will continue for at least a little while. As slow as the turnaround has been, not just for city officials but for the state governor himself, no one – not even the residents of Flint who’ve endured unclean water for the past two years – can definitively say WHEN they’ll get clean water. Rather, it’s a matter of “if” they can get access to it, before things get even worse than they already are.

PHOTO CREDIT: MLive

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