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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Flint Water Crisis Fading from Public Consciousness

It’s been three years since Flint, Mich., last had clean water. The crisis began in 2014, when it was discovered that the city’s recently switched water source to the Flint River was operating with corrosive damaged pipes, which exposed over 100,000 residents to high levels of lead. The crisis garnered brief media attention when a federal state of emergency was declared in early 2016 and Flint residents were instructed to use bottled or filtered water for drinking and bathing.

A recently published report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission criticized the media for limited coverage and questioned whether reporters would have been more interested had the crisis happened elsewhere. The report, which was authored by a bipartisan committee appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, pointed to historic and systemic racism as the primary cause of Flint’s water crisis and the reason why government was slow to act.

During the 2016 democratic primary, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders held a debate in Flint to demonstrate the urgency of this crisis and address how systemic racism had played a role in its oversight. (However, neither has visited Flint since.) Several celebrities and organizations raised money for the city, with Beyoncé donating over $80,000 through ticket sales and Mark Wahlberg and Diddy donating a million bottles of water. Flint native Michael Moore attempted to circulate a petition demanding the resignation of Snyder, however, efforts stalled after the Democratic primary debate. It’s no wonder voter turnout decreased by 5,000 in the general election, with Clinton only narrowly winning Genesee County, where President Obama received 64 percent of the vote in 2012.

One need only look at the overwhelming support for Standing Rock to see the gap in public concern. Dakota Access Pipeline protests attracted celebrities, politicians and environmental activists, leading to an executive order from President Obama to halt the pipeline, which was later reversed under the Trump administration. As construction on the pipeline moves forward with plans to be operational in just a few weeks, thousands of demonstrators, including members from dozens of Indigenous tribes, organized a four-day protest against the pipeline and took to the streets of the nation’s capital over the weekend.

That is not to say that support for Standing Rock is misplaced, only that the Flint water crisis is just as deserving of our attention. We’ll all benefit from the solution, as the crisis is indicative of a larger problem America must soon face — the fact that as many as 6 million underground lead pipes might have to be replaced.

The state has so far replaced 800 out of an estimated 28,000 pipes and the process isn’t predicted to be completed until 2019 — if they can secure funding. Snyder and state legislators have so far approved roughly $253 million in funding related to the Flint water crisis, including $27 million for lead pipe replacement. Congress has approved another $100 million for Flint, and the city plans to spend approximately $40 million of that federal funding on pipe replacement. However, the final price tag for pipe replacement will top $100 million and currently, Flint does not have enough money to complete its three-year plan, even with anticipated federal funding.

Meanwhile, problems are still ongoing in Flint. It’s since been discovered that the high lead levels were the cause of a recent outbreak of Legonnaires’ disease, which led to 12 deaths. The city received another blow in late February when the state abruptly decided to end its program providing residents and business owners with a credit to cover a portion of their water bills. This decision was made when lead levels dropped below the 1991 Federal Lead and Copper Rule, which stipulates a threshold of 15 parts per billion in order to consider water safe for drinking, though they still exceeded Synder’s new state recommendation of 10 parts per billion. Residents have been advised to continue drinking filtered and bottled water. The crisis only serves to highlight how out-of-date the law is.

In order to address the root cause of the crisis, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s report recommended a rewrite of the state’s emergency manager law and bias training for state officials. The report also called for the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a model that was used in South Africa after apartheid as a way of rebuilding government trust and credibility.

Currently, more than 400 civil and class-action cases have been filed and are expected to be ongoing for years. Of the nine government employees who have been charged, two have cut deals with a special prosecutor. On Monday, former Michigan Director of Disease Control Corinne Miller pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect and was sentenced to a year’s probation and ordered to write a public apology. The remaining seven defendants have scheduled preliminary exam dates for September and November. If the public doesn’t continue to pay attention and make a fuss, other government officials could receive similarly inadequate punishments.

The latest tests have shown Flint’s lead levels declining, but after so much deception and oversight, many residents don’t believe their tap water will ever be safe to drink again.

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