Anatomy of a Water Crisis

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark
Metropolitan Books, 2018, 320 pages

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy is a galvanizing account of an all-too-relevant crisis. It’s full of astounding moments, from a GM-funded researcher blaming auto workers for their own lead poisoning to state environment officials deliberately fudging measurement techniques to reduce the amount of lead detected in water. These anecdotes make it clear that many people in positions of authority were not just irresponsible or neglectful, but actively working to cover up how the city’s cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water that contained lead and other toxins, causing a public health crisis.

photo of a flint water crisis
Bottled water is distributed during the Flint water crisis. Photo by Lance Cheung / USDA.

Author Anna Clark, a Detroit journalist, excels at drawing together the complex factors that led to the 2014 crisis. In her analysis, Flint suffered from some unique problems, including a severe financial shortage that led to the city being taken under emergency management in 2002 and again in 2011. The management change led to a loss of accountability and the imposition of fiscal austerity measures, including changing their water source.

While these factors played a role, the critical inattention to infrastructure that led to the crisis was not unique to Flint, as governmental policies that favored suburban sprawl while neglecting the infrastructure of core cities were features of small cities across America. As Clark notes, “This isn’t just Flint’s fight. We built all our cities out of lead.”

Clark’s historical explanations about factors underpinning the Flint crisis are necessary, even if they are sometimes less compelling. A particularly lucid explanation shows how racially discriminatory housing policies during the post-civil rights era led to white flight across cities in the US. As middle-class white families moved to the suburbs, jobs and public services generally accompanied them. And those remaining in hollowed-out cities like Flint often ended up paying more for lower-quality basic services like their water supply.

book cover

The Poisoned City frequently causes outrage, as it should. Clark should be credited for her measured and clear explanations. Flint’s toxic water is an emotional subject, but rather than over-dramatizing or sentimentalizing, the book wisely allows emotions to come through the stories narrated by its characters, and through quotes that reveal the deep-rooted discrimination that led to not just the crisis, but also the official response to it. During an EPA debate over whether to buy home filters for Flint residents, for instance, an official wrote: “I don’t know if Flint is the kind of community we want to go out on a limb for.”

The book has its fair share of heroes as well, such as a mother named LeeAnne Walters, who made the connection between her children’s health problems and the strange new source of water. Walters pursued answers by contacting the EPA and an engineer specializing in drinking water safety, linking them with a local journalist, and speaking out against local officials’ cover-ups. Another Flint resident, a pediatrician named Mona Hanna-Attisha, proved that the proportion of children aged 4 and younger with high levels of lead in their blood nearly doubled in the city over 18 months. Hanna-Attisha and Walters are just two of a number of clean-water advocates whose efforts finally paid off in October 2015, when Flint was reconnected to its previous water source.

Clark believes that Flint’s lessons have resonance for the wider environmental justice movement. Flint is majority African American, and it’s clear to local residents that they were neglected for so long because they were considered politically marginal. Clark points out that environmental racism extends far beyond Flint, writing that in the US, “race is the very best predictor of the presence of pollutants, even when controlled for other factors such as income and property values.”

The Poisoned City is very readable; I finished it in a weekend. The pacing does suffer slightly from the book reaching its climax too soon. The chapter on Legionnaires’ disease, for instance, could have been integrated with the discussion of lead and coliform bacteria in the water supply, rather than coming after the start of the resolution to the crisis. But this is a minor structural critique of a book that’s generally masterful at detailing the interplay of politics, engineering, urban history, and environmental justice.

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