The story of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
In 2014, the city of Flint—pop. 99,000, majority black—turned off its drinking water in preparation for joining a new regional water system. In the meantime, the city began using Flint River water. Officials said the interim source was safe. It wasn’t. In this complex, exquisitely detailed account, freelance journalist and Detroit Free Press contributor Clark (Michigan Literary Luminaries, 2015, etc.) draws on interviews, emails, and other materials to describe the ensuing catastrophe, in which city, state, and federal officials engaged in delays and coverups for 18 months while residents complained of discolored drinking water that caused rashes, hair loss, and diseases. Citizen demands for government action went ignored, “even ridiculed,” until public pressure, media coverage, and independent studies revealed the cause of the contaminated water: lead and other toxins traveling through aging pipes that lacked mandated corrosion control. The shameful story has its heroes—e.g., persistent engineer Marc Edwards, journalist Curt Guyette, and NPR’s Michigan Radio—and its “buck-passing and turf-guarding” villains, including countless officials who dodged responsibilities while lead-laced water killed 12 people and left a lingering uncertainty over possible long-term health effects. “An Obscene Failure of Government,” said a Detroit Free Press story. Clark goes far beyond the immediate crisis—captured nationally in images of bottled water being distributed to Flint’s poor, the most severely affected—to explain “decades of negligence” that had mired the city in “debt, dysfunctional urban policy, disappearing investment, disintegrating infrastructure, and a compromised democratic process.” She warns that other declining American cities are similarly threatened. A report of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission pointed to the long-standing “systemic racism” of segregated Flint, once a General Motors–led innovation hub that attracted many African-American workers. The city faces continuing lawsuits and use of bottled water until lead pipes are replaced by 2020.
A potent cautionary tale of urban neglect and indifference. Infuriated readers will be heartened by the determined efforts of protesters and investigative reporters.