The Flint Water Crisis and Syracuse

From the March/April 2016

Richard Vallejo and Brian Escobar

In January 2016, news spread that Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder had ignored blatant warning signs that the water in Flint was dangerously contaminated.

A host of factors created this situation. In 2011, the governor appointed a panel to examine Flint’s financial situation. That November, the panel determined that Flint was in a financial crisis and appointed an emergency manager to make unpopular budget cuts, with the power to overrule the elected city council.

In March 2014, in an attempt to save money, the emergency manager overruled the city council and switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River. Chemicals from the river caused lead pipes serving Flint to corrode, leaching lead into the water supply. Residents of the post-industrial and predominantly black city immediately complained that their water was discolored, smelled odd, and caused rashes. Some households were found to have extremely high levels of lead in their water. Both the governor and the state Department of Environmental Quality dismissed these reports until a Virginia Tech study, completed over a year later, showed high levels of lead in households. At that time, the governor returned the water supply to the Detroit water system.

But with officials unwilling to replace Flint’s corroded pipes, lead continued to contaminate the water. Thousands of children now have high levels of lead in their blood, which harms brain and bone development in young children. Worried that the high levels of chlorine used to treat Flint River water were corroding the pipes, officials reduced the chlorine content to low levels, allowing bacterial diseases to flow through the pipes, which may be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease.

When the crisis was acknowledged in late 2015, taps were turned off and tax money was used to purchase truck loads of bottled water from companies like Nestlé.

In the richest country in the world, multiple levels of government placed other budget priorities before the right to clean water in a predominantly black city, treating poor black children as disposable. As journalist Shaun King put it in the NY Daily News, “What we have here is a horrific clash of race, class, politics and public health.”

It’s not just Flint. In Sebring, OH, St. Joseph, LA, Durham, NC, and even in the nation’s capitol, federal regulations create incentives for cities to ignore threats to public health, particularly in predominantly black and brown, working class communities.

The EPA’s “Lead and Copper Rule” (LCR) permits lead levels of up to 15 parts per billion for 90% of homes tested within a municipality or district, and mandates that the public be alerted when this standard is not met. Alarmingly, for the remaining 10% of homes, there is no limit; there is no requirement to alert the public; and, though the rule includes some guidelines for selecting test sites, it is unclear what oversight exists to enforce those guidelines. Flint had managed to meet these water quality standards even as lead poisoning incidents increased, making it easier for the governor to deny the problem for so long.
It’s a familiar story for cities like Flint and St. Joseph with a majority “minority” population. Municipalities assume they can get away with money-saving measures and game regulations at the cost of public health because black and brown lives are valued less; black and brown residents aren’t seen to have the political power or will to fight such injustices. Municipal, state and federal officials can all claim austerity measures are necessitated by a shrunken tax base. In doing so, officials shift blame onto “unfortunate realities,” rather than take responsibility for their budget priorities.

This is environmental racism. When a community has a high incidence of environment-related health problems, government negligence is a form of violence. Lead poisoning can result in long-term neurological damage and other health problems. When black and brown children have a higher risk of exposure to lead and other environmental contaminants in their homes, schools, and playgrounds, there can never be a “level playing field.”

Could this happen in Syracuse?

The city of Syracuse was mandated to replace 7% of lead service pipes annually until water quality met federal standards in 2006 and 2007. Without widespread local reports of contaminated water here in Syracuse, one might assume the city water quality is under control. Syracuse is fortunate to have as a primary water source Skaneateles Lake, one of the few clean water sources in the country. However, the city’s water quality reports provide no real data regarding current levels of lead in our drinking water. While images from Flint of brownish-yellow tap water made their contamination visible, it is important to remember that lead is actually invisible and odorless in water, and can go undetected by residents.

NYS Department of Health data show higher-than-average levels of lead in children living in neighborhoods with greater poverty and a greater proportion of residents of color. A map of these neighborhoods shows overlap with a map of tenant-based rental assistance in Syracuse, especially around the Near Westside and Southside. All of this seems to confirm what is commonly suspected: low-income and communities of color are at higher risk of exposure to lead and other environmental dangers.

Infrastructure improvements are neglected in neighborhoods away from business districts or downtown city centers. Old service pipes are less likely to be replaced in those neighborhoods, and absentee landlords often leave in place aging lead pipes and solder.

Syracuse is not Flint; we have not seen the specific and unique circumstances which led to Flint’s public health disaster. In Flint, the crisis is a result of emergency managers, feigned ignorance, budgetary excuses, and insufficient regulations, all of which were deemed “acceptable” because the constituents are not white or wealthy. In Syracuse, we’ve seen politicians cozy with developers; commercial development prioritized over community needs; poor engineering of sewage treatment plants (ultimately defeated by community resistance); and we could see a shift in political power towards the whiter, wealthier suburbs with the proposed municipal consolidation.

Elites claim that austerity measures are necessary and that deregulation is needed to promote economic development and create jobs. The harms resulting from these policies are presented as a shared sacrifice, but that is a lie. These harms are not distributed evenly among all communities. In Syracuse, as in Flint or anywhere in the capitalist world, communities with less power bear the brunt of any environmental damage and subsequent threats to health. Far from addressing poverty and racism, decisions that compromise health protections exacerbate economic and racial injustices.

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