Rising Scholar: Flint Water Crisis: Impacts on Human-Environmental Interactions and Reflections for Future Solutions.

AuthorShen, Julia
PositionArticle 19 - Essay

Sixty-six miles northwest of Detroit, bordering the Flint River is Flint, a city in Genesee County in central Michigan, home to approximately 100,000 residents. In April 2014, the Flint water crisis erupted. Flint's drinking water became contaminated after its water supply source switched from Detroit to the Flint River as a result of the city budget shortage. It was one of the largest-scale, most intensively-reported water crises in our nation's history, and it had huge economic, psychological, medical, and educational implications for local residents.

On April 16, 2013, the city of Flint joined a new regional water system to conserve money by obtaining water from Lake Huron instead of buying treated drinking water from Detroit's Karegnondi Water Authority. However, this new pipeline system from Lake Huron would not be accessible for three years. To meet immediate needs, the city of Flint decided to use water from the Flint River via a city-owned treatment facility, without any prudent planning or precautious water testing. (1) The Flint River water was over sixteen times more corrosive than the city's regular water supply source, so it was not surprising that after the switch, the highlycorrosive river water immediately damaged the interior of the already-aging pipeline system in Flint, causing the leaching of lead of service lines and solder joints into drinking water. (2) Soon after, local residents began noting unusual changes in the water and filing complaints. For instance, LeeAnne Walters, a resident of Flint and a mother of four children, reported that her whole family was their losing hair, and many other citizens noted the water's abnormally strong smell and murky color. (3) On October 13, 2014, the General Motor plant in Flint even refused to use the river water as it was causing car parts to rust. (4) However, the city officials and a hired consultant insisted that the water was safe to drink, despite the presence of sediment and discoloration. The lead contamination was not acknowledged for an entire year--until a manager from the Environmental Protection Agency finally informed Michigan officials on February 26, 2015, that the water chemistry indicated that a number of contaminants from the pipes were leaching into the water system. (5) The city then admitted that it had flunked a Safe Drinking Water Act, and six months later, state officials publicized new data analysis, which revealed that a significantly higher number of children had elevated lead in their blood following the water switch. (6) On October 2, 2015, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced that the state would be buying water filters and testing for lead levels in schools. Later that month, the water supply was switched back to Detroit. Unfortunately, the aging pipe system and public health had already undergone irreversible damage. More time and more funding was needed for Flint to fully recuperate, and on December 9, and 10, 2016, the U.S. Senate and the Congress approved approximately 120 million dollars to go towards the city's recovery from the water crisis. (7) However, that amount is simply not enough to cover the multitude of repercussions from the water crisis, and can serve only as temporary relief.

During the past two years, the media extensively covered a range of issues related to the Flint water crisis, and similarly, in academic fields, numerous technical papers have been published in journals and conference proceedings. (8) Most of these studies focused upon certain elements of the crisis in particular, namely infrastructure, children, health, and education--yet little was devoted to study this event from a systematic viewpoint of human-environmental interactions. An abundance of existing discussions focus on the effects that poverty, race, and environmental injustice had on the crisis--and admittedly, these factors did play a vital role in the occurrence of the Flint water crisis--but many studies still neglect analyzing the fundamental causes of the crises. To shed light on the fundamental causes of the crisis, the two main objectives of this study are to analyze the impacts of the crisis from the perspective of humanenvironmental interactions and to reflect on the event for future solutions from a perspective of economic development of post-industrial regions. The next section of this paper offers an analysis of the impacts of the Flint water crisis on human-environmental interactions on the basis of existing data, and the third section proposes a number of future solutions to avoid similar tragedies.

Impacts on Human-Environmental Interactions

Human-environmental interaction is traditionally defined as the people change their environment and the environment changes them. (9) In an ecosystem that consists of environment and human, any impact on one would eventually affect the other, and vice versa.

Infrastructure is, more or less, intrinsically linked to humans and their environment in a chain of relatedness, with each component impacting the other in a considerable number of ways. From an infrastructural point of view, eighteen months worth of exposure to corrosive Flint River water not only severely damaged the interior of the water supply lines in Flint, but also caused the leaching of lead from the pipelines into the drinking water. Initially, as a short-term fix to the complication, the pipelines were treated with phosphates to form a scale layer that inhibited any further damage. Flushing the phosphates through the pipelines demanded simultaneous cooperation from all the households in order to treat all the water lines thoroughly. Nonetheless, this solution could only alleviate the problem of the damaged interior of the service lead lines for only a short period of time, and without any guarantee on the final result. For a permanent solution to the damaged pipelines, a complete replacement of all lead service lines is imperative. This would involve replacing all the water lines in the front yard and driveway of each household in the city. Doing so is estimated to cost over 1.5 billion dollars, according to Flint's mayor, Karen Weaver, and the collateral impact on residents' daily life would also be painfully inconvenient. (10) Up until October 26, 2016, lead service lines were replaced in only two hundred twenty-four Flint homes out of more than 17,000 households and at that time, construction companies still did not have all the information on the locations of...

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