By Robert R. Thomas
A current Flint kerfuffle is the Hurley Medical Center controversy about whether we Flintstones were “lead-poisoned” or “lead-exposed.”
Anna Clark’s riveting reply to that question and many more is The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. The book will be officially out in July, but will be launched in Flint at Tenacity Brewing on Saturday, June 23.
Key elements in Clark’s examination of Flint’s water woes involve power, politics, arrogance, ignorance, authoritarianism, elitism, poverty, and environmental racism—what the author describes as “the broader patterns of power in a community.”
Her narrative digs deep into these minefields. Lots of dots are connected as State power comes under Clark’s searing scrutiny. The lack of accountability keeps creeping up into the equation of who did what and why to Flint’s water.
The book’s comprehensive investigative journalism is impressive. The account is loaded with detailed documentation. The 67 pages of Notes are real notes, not the abbreviated references of usual footnotes. For example, one of her Notes is a compact timeline of the history of Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) law. The notes often tell backstories I had not known. And Clark’s narrative voice makes the research come alive like the ongoing story it is.
Her account shines light into darkened corners of a state power that has a terrible transparency record and an EFM law that remains in place. How that all came to be is enlightening contemporary Flint history. She points out that Michigan places dead last in transparency among the 50 states, and that the governor and legislature are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) access.
Clark backs the word “poisoning” of the book’s title with a myriad of scientific evidence, documents, and journalistic accounts. For example, she offers this from a press release from the state Attorney General’s office: “(AG) Schuette Files Civil Suit against Veolia and LAB for Role in Flint Water Poisoning.”
Chapter Two (Corrosion) and Chapter Five (Alchemy) convincingly delineate for readers that lead is poisonous to the human body even if the “approved” levels are considered “normal.” While both chapters elucidate the science of lead and its effect on the human body, they also address the alchemy of how lead became acceptable and how the federal Lead and Copper Rule has been laxly interpreted.
The role of Charles Kettering in developing and promoting leaded fuel was a piece of ironic Flint history I did not know. The introduction of leaded gas, initiated by Kettering–founder of Delco and research director of General Motors from 1920-1947, and for whom Kettering University is named–led to the release of large quantities of lead into the atmosphere around the world, until it was banned from leaded gas in the 1990s.
Clark’s report on citizen, scientist, and journalist activists focuses on the usual major figures: Melissa Mays, LeeAnne Walters, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, journalist Curt Guyette, Virginia Tech scientist Marc Edwards, EPA whistleblower Miguel del Toral. It was their stories and their interactions I found most fascinating. I tucked into these sections of Clark’s narrative like I might a good mystery story.
Citizen activist Claire McClinton said in 2016: “The people in the city of Flint are resilient, and we’ve created our own paths to resolve this problem.” I found her quote revealing, especially when juxtaposed with one from Governor Snyder on the Oct. 8, 2015 switchback from Flint River water to Detroit water, revealing. Here is Clark’s account:
“Snyder salted his announcement with a distinct desire to move on. Again, this isn’t about blaming anyone, he said. ‘Right now, I want to stay focused in on the solutions and taking actions to solve problem.’ It was a remarkable turnaround. Just days earlier, Snyder had insisted in a news release that Flint’s water was safe.”
But, as Clark writes, “Much as Governor Snyder wished to face forward, there was a reckoning to be done. How had an entire city been poisoned by its own water?”
The Poisoned City offers a sobering read through all the spin and cover ups.
“A ready explanation for what happened in Flint,” writes Clark, “quickly took on the appearance of fact: a flawed and hasty decision motivated by careless and petty cost-cutting to meet a budget. But this was not quite the case.”
Clark then injects the involvement of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) into the mix. As the Flint Water Advisory Task Force noted: “Whether KWA’s influence is just an extreme and tragic illustration of politics as usual or whether there is something more at work is still unanswered.” Earlier in the Task Force’ “Final Report,” they noted: “The influence that KWA and Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright exercised was undeniable. They got exactly what they wanted from Flint City Officials, Emergency Managers and State Officials at DEQ and Treasury.” What we Flintstones will be on the hook for now that we have left the KWA and returned to Detroit water shocked me, making me smell more Flint smoke and mirrors and a story that needs to find light.
Three months after the city returned to Detroit water, along came the Legionella outbreak. The book’s report of the ensuing spin and coverups over accountability again demonstrates the intransigence by leadership to listen, learn or act in a timely manner to a public health crisis.
One of the book’s takes on accountability at the highest levels of state government offers a letter from a citizen to the Detroit Free Press dated Jan. 31, 2016. Titled “Government Run as a Business Doesn’t Work,” Kathryn Ross notes that Michigan had “voted for a business person” in electing Snyder. For Ross, they got what they wanted: “someone who is from a culture of what’s best for the bottom line and what’s best for the investors. As governor, his bottom line has been the state budget and his investors are his donors and fellow Republican legislators. Ross continues that Snyder “missed his duty to the people.I don’t question his genuine remorse and anger…but he is certainly responsible for the decision his emergency managers made….on his behalf. Governing a state as well as governing a nation is not like running a business. He and the people of Flint have found out the hard way.”Further proof of Citizen Ross’s contention is, of course, in the details.
Shortly after reading Clark’s book, I read an MLive account of the Hurley contretemps. The report concluded with a quote by Flint pediatrician/scientist/citizen activist/humanitarian Mona Hanna-Attisha, one of Flint’s revered heroines: “Our water was poisoned,” she said. “That is scientifically proven.”
Anna Clark’s The Poisoned City backs the good doctor’s play on the issue. A cornucopia of history and responsibly researched details is at the core of Clark’s work. I have yet to encounter a more thorough, accurate or readable account of the poisoning of Flint’s municipal water supply than The Poisoned City. This is an important book, for Flint, for all American cities, and for our nation.
The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, Metropolitan Books, 320 pp. July, 2018.
EVM reviewer and board member Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.