Pax Christi Michigan's
Statement on the Flint Water Crisis
The water crisis in the poverty-stricken, African-American-majority city of Flint, Michigan has its roots in decades of waste dumped by corporations into the Flint River, and more recently, surface runoff from roads, lawns and farmers’ fields. The water in the Flint River contains significant levels of chlorides, making it highly corrosive to lead pipes. In addition, state revenue sharing cutbacks for Michigan cities have exacerbated the negative impact on budgets already stretched thin by deindustrialization and the sharp decline in tax revenue.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder took office on January 1, 2011. With his accounting background, he brought to state government a corporate philosophy that was highly bottom-line oriented. One of Snyder’s first actions was legislation expanding an earlier law by giving the state sweeping powers to take over failing municipalities and school boards by appointing “emergency managers” with unchecked authority to replace democratically elected officials. In December 2011, Flint was placed in receivership under an emergency manager. After rejecting use of the Flint River for drinking water, Flint emergency manager Ed Kurtz notified Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr in April 2013 that Flint had opted to switch from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a new source of water by 2016 as a cost cutting measure. Orr gave a one-year termination notice on the city’s contract to supply Flint with water. A March 2014 letter reveals then-Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley declined a DWSD offer to continue selling water to Flint after the April contract expiration. ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette noted, “You cannot separate what has happened in Flint from the state’s extreme emergency manager law.” That law, says Guyette, “is about the taking away of democracy and the imposition of austerity-fueled autocracy on cities that are poor and majority African-American.” In April 2014, Flint, which had for decades purchased Lake Huron water treated by the DWSD, began drawing its water from the Flint River. Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the water's color, taste and odor, and to report rashes and concerns about bacteria.
From the start, Snyder administration officials discounted concerns about water quality. It was not until late in 2015 that state officials finally conceded what critics had been contending: that Flint was in the midst of a major public health emergency, as tap water pouring into families’ homes contained enough lead to show up in the blood of people in the city. Even small amounts of lead can cause lasting health and developmental problems in children. And, for more than a year after the switch to Flint River water, workers assigned to manage the city’s water system failed to lower lead risks by adding chemicals to prevent old pipes from corroding and leaching lead and other metals into the water supply.
The Flint water crisis is the latest manifestation of disturbing trends, in which low-income urban citizens are disenfranchised, uprooted, and denied the human right to safe water. Another serious injustice in Michigan began in 2014 with water shutoffs to tens of thousands of Detroit households. After a complaint charging violation of human rights was filed with the United Nations, UN Special Rapporteurs expressed concern regarding the “unprecedented scale” of the Detroit water shut-offs where, they said, the “most vulnerable and poorest” of the city’s population were being disproportionately affected, including a predominant number of African-Americans. Policies like the water shutoffs and mass tax foreclosures effectively make life unlivable in certain areas of the city, driving out long-time residents.
Officials only acknowledged the problem in Flint after a handful of courageous individuals stepped forward. Flint mothers LeeAnne Walters and Tammy Loren; the EPA’s Miguel Del Toral, who discovered deficiencies in Flint’s water testing; Virginia Tech professor and lead corrosion expert Marc Edwards, whose team conducted field tests in Flint, and who revealed that Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials repeatedly and falsely stated that no spike in blood lead levels of children had occurred; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center, who researched blood lead levels of Flint's youngest children and made the alarming results public in September 2015; and, the ACLU’s Curt Guyette, winner of the Michigan Press Association Journalist of the Year award for his reporting on the crisis.
Catholic Social Teaching maintains that water is a human right, not a mere commodity. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: 484. “The principle of the universal destination of goods also applies naturally to water, considered in the Sacred Scriptures as a symbol of purification (cf. Ps 51:4; Jn 13:8) and of life (cf. Jn 3:5; Gal 3:27). ‘As a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus, everyone has a right to it.’  Satisfying the needs of all, especially of those who live in poverty, must guide the use of water and the services connected with it. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well-being of a huge number of people and is often the cause of disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. For a suitable solution to this problem, it ‘must be set in context in order to establish moral criteria based precisely on the value of life and the respect for the rights and dignity of all human beings.’ ” And, 485. “By its very nature water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others. The distribution of water is traditionally among the responsibilities that fall to public agencies, since water is considered a public good. If water distribution is entrusted to the private sector it should still be considered a public good. The right to water,  as all human rights, finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore, the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right.” Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, amplifies the theme: “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances." (Section 29) And, "Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. (Section 30, italics in original)."
Pax Christi Michigan believes the Flint water crisis represents a tragic amalgam of racial and economic inequality as well as political exploitation and corruption. State officials, up to and including Governor Rick Snyder, have demonstrated a callous disregard for people and their lives. This indifference amounts to gross negligence, and is conceivably a criminal offense. Now an entire city of children, many of whom already faced challenges due to the high poverty rate in Flint, may have been irreparably harmed. Even with dedicated medical, financial, and social support, the ravages of lead will still be seen and felt for many years to come. It is our collective responsibility, in light of Catholic social teaching, to enforce the Constitutional imperative to “establish justice,” and as concerned citizens, to ardently remind government officials of their moral obligation to serve people above all, and to make certain that a preventable tragedy of this magnitude never happens again.
The Pax Christi Michigan State Council (February 2016)