The End (and Middle) of History: Environment and Politics in Flint’s Water Crisis

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When does something start, and then stop, being “history”? The Flint water crisis was the product of structural forces and path dependencies that stretch far back into the twentieth century. But since the “water crisis” only began in the last half-decade, many might not consider it to yet be a subject for historians. And in a way that perspective is correct – but not necessarily because this crisis happened so recently, but because it hasn’t ended.

That’s right. Despite what you may have heard, the Flint water crisis is still ongoing. That was one of the central messages from the tour of Flint that my senior seminar (ENVS 4500: Flint Water Crisis) took in mid-November.

This seminar is offered for majors in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, usually each semester. It is a capstone seminar for seniors in their last year, intended to integrate the skills, competencies, and knowledge that they’ve developed during their undergraduate careers. The revolving seminar topic is determined by the professor, but should be on a discrete and “problem based” theme. I’ve taught this course on various water topics (Great Lakes water policy; Kalamazoo River) but this year focused on the Flint water crisis. This seemed like an ideal course topic for a variety of pedagogical and logistical reasons: a high-profile national story that was also profoundly local and thus somewhere we could visit in-person; a problem that was a product of both historical forces and recent events; an issue involving many relevant environmental themes (e.g., environmental justice, race, urban issues, neoliberalism, water security); and several new publications on the topic had just been released (and one of the authors agreed to come visit the seminar).

When I teach ENVS 4500 I tend to treat the first half of the semester as a classic seminar where students do a bunch of reading, and we discuss it weekly in a roundtable setting. I also like to mix in field trips. The second half of the semester is about the students’ major research projects: rather than continue to meet as a group, I use our class time to schedule individual meetings with each student to help and mentor them with their evolving project.

This fall in 4500, we began by reading various articles and newspaper stories, which led us into the two recently-released books on the crisis by Anna Clark and Mona Hanna-Attisha. For one of our seminars, Anna Clark was kind enough to come from Detroit and talk with us (and also gave an enthusiastic talk on her book, The Poisoned City, that evening at a local bookstore). Incidentally, historians will be heartened by the attention she pays to the importance of history in her book (which draws from Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis).

Anna Clark (center facing camera) at 4500 seminar

Ever since my initial conception of this seminar, I planned to take the students to Flint. After all, it is only about 2 hours away. I’ve been to Flint a number of times myself, but I was really hoping that I could get a mix of folks from the community of Flint as well as academic experts to show us around – experts such as Noah Hall, a friend and frequent collaborator who teaches environmental law at Wayne State University. Noah is arguably the top environmental legal scholar when it comes to Great Lakes issues. In 2017 I had asked him to give the keynote at a water history conference speaking about Flint’s lead-in-water problems, and I brought him to campus for a talk that fall; both times, he blew everyone away.

Part of the reason that Noah can speak so effectively to the Flint situation is that he is part of the team prosecuting the Flint water crisis. But that also means he is very busy with that role this fall – and the only time my 4500 seminar could do a field trip to Flint was on Wednesday afternoons, when we normally meet. Since it didn’t look like Noah would be free, he put me in touch with Melissa Mays. She agreed to tour my class around Flint for a few hours in mid-November.

Melissa Mays (left) and Daniel Macfarlane
This was a major coup for my class. Melissa is an activist rockstar, this crisis’s version of Lois Gibbs or Erin Brockovich (who she consults with, by the way). Like Gibbs or Brockovich, Melissa was, by her own admission, an average person, a non-political music/radio promoter who didn’t believe what she was hearing when the water problems started. Melissa squeezed our tour in during a “break” from one of her two jobs, both of which are community-oriented. When we met her in a church parking lot, she was helping a woman new to town with a toddler find out about food banks and support services. On top of her employment and mother-of-three role, Melissa basically holds down another full-time job as an activist, and she is a lead plaintiff on lawsuits against the government related to the crisis, which requires plenty of unrenumerated labour.
At the former site of Chevy in the Hole
We started off driving down the city’s main strip, Saginaw Street, where the facades and businesses make Flint seem like it is undergoing a renaissance. But looks are deceiving. Much of the money that was made available to Flint during the lead-in-water crisis has gone towards prettying up the downtown core – e.g., a new theater whose tickets are unaffordable in a community where about half of the people live at the poverty level. Drive for a few minutes further north or south down Saginaw Street, as we did, and the reality for much of Flint becomes apparent: abandoned lots, and boarded-up and burned-out houses. We went by the infamous Flint water treatment plant, and then stopped along the Flint River. After that, we drove through some of the other parts of town, including the river valley area called “Chevy in the Hole.” As the former site of a major GM factory and other allied industries, Chevy in the Hole was where one of the American union movement’s most famous victories took place: the sit-down strike of 1936-7.
4500 class at Flint River lookout just upstream of Flint Water Treatment Plant

Granted, this isn’t a history seminar, and none of the students are majoring or minoring in history (though all have to take a third-year environmental history course as part of our program). Teaching in an environmental studies department rather than a history setting has advantages and disadvantages. One obvious advantage is that we aren’t limited to studying stuff that only happened in the past. I may have to work a little harder to convince students about the utility of history, and get them to read entire books, but it is also rewarding when they recognize the value of a historical perspective. On the flipside, when discussing the chemistry of lead in water or the biology of invasive species in the Great Lakes, it is quite beneficial to have chemistry and ecology majors around!

In this Flint seminar, we did plenty of readings on the long-term and more recent history that created the Flint water crisis. This city seemed to become the quintessence of various twentieth-century American trends, both good and bad. Flint had been ground zero for the automobile revolution, and it’s been said that Flint is where the American middle class was born because of the jobs, workers rights, and living standards that came with the vehicle industry. But because of these heights, the fall was that much bigger and louder. After the Second World War, Flint became the poster child for redlining and white flight; in more recent decades, it was the exemplar of deindustrialization and urban decay. While the water crisis that began around 2014 was a contingent event brought about by cost-cutting, austerity, and the installation of an emergency manager, it was equally the product of long-term structures of indifference, neglect, racism, and extractive capitalism. As Melissa talked to us, the role of history on the ground came into even sharper focus.

Melissa’s ability to hold me and my class captive for several hours, weaving in chemistry, history, politics, and more was simply amazing. Listening to her talk, it became apparent how much the “experts” failed Flint during the crisis – not just the government officials, but academics and others that should have been standing up for locals, but who were dismissive of ordinary Flint folks because they didn’t believe them or felt their expertise was threatened. In her outstanding and groundbreaking book Sensing ChangesJoy Parr writes about how the lived, embodied experiences of people were ignored in the middle parts of the twentieth century. In Flint, that is still happening.

People with Ph.D.s were just as often the enemies as the allies, which should make those of us in academia think long and hard about our roles. There’s a tragic irony that experts like Marc Edwards are held up as white saviors by the hero-narratives that have coalesced around the Flint story, even though he is now suing activists like Melissa for defamation because their current reality doesn’t jive with his science – i.e., people in Flint are still getting leaded water, but Edwards says they’re not. Even the lionizing of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha serves to obscure all the other local heroes (though in her case at least it is nice to see that the press is celebrating someone who isn’t a white male). Many people didn’t listen when black residents of Flint spoke up about their water – but only when white mothers, like Melissa, or experts (like Dr. Hanna-Attisha) raised their voices.

And then there are all the accusations that it was Flint’s own fault. Sometimes this is just disguised racism. But as Melissa pointed out, many outsiders adopt a victim-blaming mentality as a way to cope: if it is the people of Flint’s fault, then no one else needs to worry about similar things where they live.

But it is clear that all levels of government, and both political parties, contributed to the debacle. This particular crisis certainly doesn’t happen if not for the actions of the government of Republican governor Rick Snyder, and its emergency manager and austerity measures;  but it is clear that Flint people felt the Democrats had let them down, too. They held so much hope when Obama came to visit, but he actually made things worse by drinking a glass of “Flint” water in front of the cameras; in suggesting that the water was fine, he prevented the declaration of a federal disaster and the connected funds.

Michigan fancies itself the Great Lakes State. But this moniker belies a tragic irony: despite being at the heart of the largest freshwater system in the world, Michigan is beset by water problems. Smug Canadians might think that isn’t a problem for them to worry about. But the denial of basic environmental science, neoliberalism, austerity politics, and toxic racism are all readily apparent north of the border. Oh, and Canada has lots of lead pipes too. Furthermore, as I recently wrote about in Maclean’s, a new type of water crisis is emerging in Michigan and around the United States: PFAS. This suite of deadly toxins has already been found in Canada, where they are likely as widespread as in the United States.

One of the major takeaways from our exciting, but sobering, trip is this: the Flint water crisis isn’t over. But many of the same forces and interests that initially tried to keep it quiet are trying to sweep it back under the rug. The people there felt abandoned, and still do. Environmental justice still needs to happen. A historical perspective is required to understand what happened in Flint; but it is too soon to speak of the Flint water crisis as history.

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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