The water in Flint, Michigan, has been poisoning residents—especially the city's children—with lead. Worse still, city and state officials denied and dismissed the issue for years. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has now declared a state of emergency, which is necessary to receive the federal aid now being provided.
In April 2014, the near-bankrupt city cut costs by switching its water source from the Detroit system that draws from Lake Huron to a temporary supply directly from the Flint River. Over the months then years that followed, residents experienced health issues from rashes to hair loss (not to mention the long-term irreversible developmental problems caused by lead poisoning.) One auto plant noted the water was damaging car parts.
City and state officials ignored the problem until September, when a study revealed extremely high levels of lead in Flint: 40% of Flint houses with dangerously elevated lead levels and 4% of children with elevated blood lead levels, which is double the share before the switch.
Why is this important?
First, the scandal shines a light on the Rust Belt's long decline. Flint was once a thriving hub of the auto industry—before the departure of General Motors in the 1980's. Some of the issues facing Flint are endemic to the area, where cities' high population loss and dramatic economic collapse contributes to violence and poverty. From 2009 to 2013, 41.5% of Flint’s residents lived below the poverty line—2.5 times the state-wide rate.
Second, lead poisoning is an immense national problem that's going largely unaddressed. Urban soil contamination, particularly in New Orleans, New York, and Washington D.C., has reached alarming levels, particularly in low-income areas.
Finally, lead exposure is a race issue; blood lead levels are more than twice as high among black children than white. Because of it's severe effects on brain development, some studies show lead poisoning contributes to racial disparities in test scores.
In general, should government give more weight to environmental concerns when making cost savings decisions?
There is no debate that the Flint lead crisis is a tragedy and the city government's behavior scandalous. However, this disaster should not lead to the requirement or expectation that local governments emphasize environmental concerns over financial ones like bankruptcy and widespread poverty.
Flint's sister city, Detroit, recently went through a $18 billion bankruptcy—the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history. A major source of debt was the set of bonds that paid for city obligations like the Water and Sewerage Department.
That is absolutely not to say that to cut costs cities can be flagrantly irresponsible about environmental concerns, as Flint clearly was. The point is simply to recognize the current financial landscape: five out of the nation's six biggest municipal bankruptcies have taken place since the 2008 financial crisis.
It is not the time to place unnecessary constraints on cities cost savings efforts, beyond what is required for residents' safety.
U.S. cities are facing serious environmental threats, all of which exacerbate the other issues cities contend with: poverty, race inequality, infrastructure, and more. Cities need to give significant weight to environmental concerns if they are going to adequately protect their citizens, build productive communities, and avoid disasters that are costly in money and in lives.
Environmental threats in U.S. cities are shockingly pervasive. To take just one example, half of all Americans (50.3%) lives in counties with unhealthful levels of air pollution.
The well-established link between poverty and environmental problems worldwide applies to low-income areas in the U.S.—from Flint, Michigan, to the South Bronx, New York.
Cost cutting must weigh the costs—in terms of money, human lives, health, and the environment—of the disasters that can occur. The examples of the BP oil spill, VW emissions scandal, and now the Flint, MI tragedy should have taught us that.