The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy By Anna Clark
New York, NY; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 320 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
This is the story of how the city of Flint was poisoned by its own water,” writes Anna Clark early in her richly detailed and unsparing book The Poisoned City. It’s the story of public trust in city officials, and how people’s lives were damaged thanks to the failure of government to protect its citizens—most of whom were poor and black—and how that public trust vanished. Lives were upended. Children suffered irreversible harm. Twelve people died. It is an American tragedy, and a haunting cautionary tale.
As Clark reports, back in April 2014, the city of Flint opted to change its water supply to a new public water system, allegedly to save money, even though the new pipeline would literally parallel one that already existed. In the interim, while this system was being built, state officials decided to use water from the Flint River. Disaster ensued.
Many saw the indelible images on TV and social media—desperate and angry Flint residents holding up murky and brown-tinged water in plastic bottles that Michigan officials adamantly claimed was safe to drink. But Clark takes us behind those disturbing images to the far more disturbing facts of how it happened: State officials switched the water supply, and then broke federal law by not checking for corrosion. The water was corrosive, and flowing through the city’s aging lead pipes; without proper treatment, that corrosion caused the pipes to rust, flake and leak. Lead and other toxins leached into the water, contaminating it and exposing an entire city of 99,000 people to potential harm. Residents complained and complained that the water tasted, smelled and looked funny, and worse yet, people were getting sick—nausea, hair loss, rashes. Even people’s pets were dying.
Meanwhile, officials from the state environmental department and other local officials stonewalled and outright lied for eighteen months, refusing to take residents’ complaints seriously. People were told their problems were “isolated,” or due to individual plumbing; parents were advised to consult their doctors because ailments afflicting their children were not due to the river water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even sipped the water for TV cameras, claiming incredulously that his family drank it. This while the State of Michigan installed new water coolers in its Flint offices and imported cases and cases of bottled water so that state employees would be spared from drinking the city’s tap water; this while General Motors decided the water was too corrosive for its car engines and opted to switch back to Detroit water for use in its factory.
Clark is a young, accomplished journalist who lives in Detroit, grew up in a small town along Lake Michigan, and has done advocacy work for several years in the city. She’s the right writer for this tale, and with her rich narrative skills, the story reads like an environmental thriller, its villain in plain sight. A stunning account of a manmade disaster, the book traces with breathless pacing the build-up of problems caused by this insidious monster, water, a seemingly innocuous element used by all. Clark takes us through the journey of how the culprit’s hazards went from discoloration (“dark as coffee”) and foul-smelling odors, to carrying E. coli bacteria, to containing a carcinogenic disinfection byproduct, to causing Legionnaire’s disease, to the worst and most egregious crime of all, lead poisoning.
Clark delivers the story of a major tragedy we thought we knew with rich and in-depth detail that makes us realize how much we didn’t know. Her narrative is coupled with well-placed context that fleshes out our understanding of various histories—for instance, lead itself and its role in our modern lives, the Flint River, environmental activism, and the adoption of federal laws to deliver clean water to Americans.
“Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance.”
One of the most compelling aspects of The Poisoned City is how it situates this crisis through the lens of systemic racism, one “built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry, and the suburban area surrounding it,” as stated by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s 2014 report on the water crisis. Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance. Clark also powerfully shows how emergency management—when a governor foregoes democracy to appoint an unelected individual to have decision-making power over a city—has “unmistakable racial overtones,” as the communities affected like Flint and my own hometown of Detroit are nearly always majority black.
“The people of Flint had no say at all in what came out of their showers and kitchen sinks,” writes Clark. “Certainly not with four consecutive state-appointed emergency managers in place when critical changes were made to the city’s water supply ... there was no accountability for poor decisions made under the EMs tenure.”
As with any extraordinary tale, there are heroes at the center of this one. Brave community activists who protested and organized, as well as journalists and concerned scientists all did their parts to force the real story to emerge. Yet, two heroes in particular shine through in Clark’s book, both women who worked doggedly in search of the truth.
LeeAnne Walters is one of those bright lights and Clark renders her story with powerful effect. Walters set out to prove the toxicity in her Flint home after she noticed that her family had developed rashes, including her husband, her teenage son and daughter, and her three-year-old twins (who had streaks of red across their hands, feet, and buttocks). After a pool party for her daughter ’s graduation, Walters noticed that everyone who emerged from the water had “angry red blotches on their skin.” Then came hair loss and abdominal pains. She knew it had to be the water. So, Walters and her daughter brought plastic bottles of the murky stuff to a meeting at the City Hall dome, and showed them to the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose. His reply? “That’s not your water.”
Infuriated by the insinuation that she was lying, Walters persisted. It took a doctor ’s note about her son Gavin’s compromised immune system for the city to test her water. Turns out, lead levels in her water were seven times higher than federally acceptable levels. Gavin had such high lead levels in his system that he developed problems with his speech. Essentially, he had been poisoned. Yet the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality denied that her family’s ailments had anything to do with the river water or city pipes. Eventually, Walters would go above the state agency to the EPA’s District office in Chicago, connecting with a conscientious regulations manager who himself put her in touch with an activist civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech. As Clark writes, “The alliance of these three would make a citizen scientist out of LeeAnn Walters.”
Soon, Walters uncovers the lie told by a state official to the EPA that Flint’s river water had been treated with corrosion control, by tracking down public documents to the contrary. She later shares with a journalist a copy of an eight page report, “High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan,” written by that EPA regulations manager, that details her home’s contaminated water. As a result of Walters’s efforts—and, as Clark elucidates, the fact that she was a sympathetic “face” of the crisis, as a white woman married with children—an unconscionable disaster that had stayed local for an entire year became a national story.
Another clear champion in this story is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a 38-year old pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who treated some of the city’s poorest families. With the help of a research assistant, Hanna-Attisha sorted through 1,746 test results of blood-lead data for Flint children and 1640 records for children living in the same county, but outside Flint. She made sure there was no room for error before she held her now famous press conference to deliver the news. Hanna-Attisha stood in her white lab coat facing the press at Hurley Medical Center and delivered the facts: Since Flint had switched is water source, there was more lead coming out of Flint’s taps and much more lead in the blood of the city’s children. In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under five with high blood-lead levels had doubled. And in the poor areas with large African American populations, the levels had tripled. She said as many as 27,000 children were vulnerable to persistent lead exposure. “These results are concerning,” said Hanna-Attisha. “And when our national guiding institutions tells us…that lead poisoning is potentially irreversible, then we have to say something.”
Thanks to Hanna-Attisha’s own citizen science, the state finally admitted the water was poisonous. Citing the doctor ’s study, county commissioners at last declared a public health emergency. Even Governor Rick Snyder finally reversed his claims and conceded the truth. The fallout continues to this day, writes Clark, with Flint residents still using bottled water as they await the replacement of all lead pipes, a project due to complete in 2020.
Two decades ago, Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, detailed the abandonment and government neglect of American northern cities. Anna Clark’s book is equally important for detailing the urban crisis of this century. In the epilogue, Clark warns: “Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities. Another is segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding: this is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes.”
“The cure,” she writes, “is inclusion.”
Bridgett M. Davis is the author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019. She is Professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, and Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.