The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy

The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy

by Anna Clark


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When the people of Flint, Michigan, turned on their faucets in April 2014, the water pouring out was poisoned with lead and other toxins.

Through a series of disastrous decisions, the state government had switched the city’s water supply to a source that corroded Flint’s aging lead pipes. Complaints about the foul-smelling water were dismissed: the residents of Flint, mostly poor and African American, were not seen as credible, even in matters of their own lives.

It took eighteen months of activism by city residents and a band of dogged outsiders to force the state to admit that the water was poisonous. By that time, twelve people had died and Flint’s children had suffered irreparable harm. The long battle for accountability and a humane response to this man-made disaster has only just begun.

In the first full account of this American tragedy, Anna Clark's The Poisoned City recounts the gripping story of Flint’s poisoned water through the people who caused it, suffered from it, and exposed it. It is a chronicle of one town, but could also be about any American city, all made precarious by the neglect of infrastructure and the erosion of democratic decision making. Places like Flint are set up to fail—and for the people who live and work in them, the consequences can be fatal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250181619
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/23/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 147,357
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Anna Clark is a journalist living in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she had been a writer-in-residence in Detroit public schools as part of the InsideOut Literary Arts program. She has also been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya, and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. Her books include The Poisoned City and Literary Luminaries.

Read an Excerpt


The Well

And pines with thirst amidst a sea of waves.

— Homer, The Odyssey (eighth century B.C.E.)


Men in jewel-toned ties grinned and held their clear plastic cups high, each filled with water poured from an insulated pot. The shine of their watches and wedding rings winked under the fluorescent lights. Outside the old treatment plant, the April air was gray and cool. The edges of the spider-legged water tower seemed to blur into the morning haze.

"Here's to Flint!" said Mayor Dayne Walling. He was a city native, born to two schoolteachers, and energy hummed through him. He had a tendency to fidget, to gulp his coffee, and to speak with passion on a fast-moving series of topics. A Rhodes scholar with a master's degree in urban studies, he returned to his hometown in 2006, the year he turned thirty-two. Three years later, he became its mayor.

And now, in the spring of 2014, Walling was leading the toast. The dozen or so others gathered that day in a small outbuilding off Dort Highway hoisted their cups higher and chorused in response. "Hear, hear!" They tilted their heads back, marking the moment when, for the first time in two generations, the people of Flint would drink from their namesake river.

"It tastes like ... water," remarked city councilman Joshua Freeman.

That was surely a good sign.

Darnell Earley, the city's emergency manager, was also at the treatment plant. He was the latest in a string of emergency managers, or EMs, that were first appointed by the State of Michigan in 2011 to lead Flint out of serious financial distress. It was a peculiar position. Earley held the full power of both the mayor's office and the City Council to do what needed to be done to stabilize the community. The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground. In Flint, that meant that the authority of Mayor Walling and the council had been suspended for more than two years. Their roles were now symbolic and advisory, or empowered (and paid) only to the extent that Earley allowed.

In a city with plenty of urgent matters competing for attention — poverty, vacancy, schools, crime, jobs — one thing Flint didn't have to worry about was the quality of its water. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had supplied Flint with good water for nearly fifty years. The big public utility drew from the freshwater of Lake Huron, a lake so deep and fierce that it once swallowed eight ships in a single storm. The DWSD then treated and pumped Flint's water at a plant near the shoreline and delivered it through a 120-inch pipeline to another pump station. From there, the flow was pushed through a smaller line until it reached the city's kitchen sinks. Flint's own treatment plant, which it had used to treat its river water before joining the DWSD in the 1960s, sat idle. It remained on hand only because the state required a backup water source for emergencies.

While the quality of DWSD water was reliable, its cost was not. Long before the emergency managers came to town, residents had urged their leaders to relieve the burden of pricey water. Monthly rates in Flint were among the most expensive in the country, and yet 42 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level. And the rates kept rising — a 25 percent increase here, a 45 percent increase there. Many residents just couldn't afford their bills. But at this point it was difficult for the city to do much about it. Its infrastructure was built to serve Flint when it had twice the people it had now; to maintain it, fewer ratepayers had to carry a heavier burden. Efforts to negotiate a better wholesale deal with the DWSD didn't go far, either. The Detroit system charged more for delivering water to higher elevations and across longer distances. While it served communities across eight Michigan counties, Flint was easily the farthest out, at the end of the DWSD's northernmost line. There was just no wriggle room. It seemed to Mayor Walling that the DWSD was taking Flint, its second-largest customer, for granted.

Jeff Wright agreed. He was Genesee County's drain commissioner, holding an elected office that made him responsible for water management issues. Wright was fond of portraying the DWSD, a public utility, as a price-gouging monopoly, and he saw an opportunity to develop an alternative. He called it the Karegnondi Water Authority, using a common moniker for Lake Huron on seventeenth-century maps. This new water authority was just an idea at first, and seen as a negotiating tactic to pressure the DWSD for better rates. But then the not-yet-existent KWA got a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to pull 85 million gallons of water per day out of the Great Lakes. The MDEQ reasoned that the big diversion wouldn't be a problem for the ecosystem because it would all balance out: the Detroit system would use less water as its customers moved over to the KWA. Then the new public system incorporated, and it became a real force. Flint and its neighboring communities were invited to help build it from the ground up. At the first meeting of the KWA board, Walling was elected chair.

Unlike the Detroit system, which delivered treated water, the KWA would pump raw water to the communities it served. That meant they would have to treat the water first before selling it on to residents and businesses. For Flint, it would mean rebooting the old treatment plant off Dort Highway and navigating the complexities of water chemistry in-house.

Darnell Earley championed the switch to the KWA as a way for Flint to build self-sufficiency. "The city has had virtually no control over managing its most important resource and service, and that is the water," he argued. What's more, he said, it would save the city a lot of money. The region would gain $200 million a year over twenty-five years, and far more after that, according to the numbers from Ed Kurtz, Earley's predecessor as EM. They implied that Flint would be one of the beneficiaries of that. It wasn't lost on them that the fury over high water rates — and the shutoffs and the arrests of people with illegal water hookups — was escalating. The KWA would create a more cost-efficient water system over the long term, they said, and it would spare residents unpredictable fee hikes.

With Flint under emergency management, the EM was the sole person with the authority to make decisions for the city. So the council was surprised when it was convened for a rare vote in 2013, to decide whether it should join the KWA. At the time, a pending lawsuit threatened to overturn Michigan's emergency manager law, so the champions of the KWA wanted to get Flint's elected leaders on the record as supporting the switch. As an engineering consultant described the strategy in an email, the emergency manager "has given powers back to Mayor and Council to make the decision on KWA as a precaution if the EM court challenge holds up. This will enable the Mayor and Council to approve the KWA agreement and not be challenged in court!"

After a heated hearing, the council voted 7–1 in favor. The one "no" vote was cast by Bryant Nolden, or BB, a middle school teacher who represented the Third Ward in north Flint. "It wasn't that I was really against the KWA," he said later. "It was just the process in which it was done, and having people wanting you to vote on something without having all of the information. And I just wasn't going to be a party to that."

While the council vote had no power behind it, the event was played up to suggest that the city had determined its own future. "I have said from the beginning that this decision must be made by Flint's City Council and Mayor," said Jeff Wright in a press release. He indicated that while the emergency manager supported the switch, the council vote was a condition for Flint to join. "There is a basic tenet that government is best when it has local control."

Michigan's state treasurer approved the change (even though it meant that Detroit's water department would lose a major source of revenue just as that city, which was also under emergency management, was about to declare bankruptcy). Flint's EM then contracted with the KWA to purchase 18 million gallons of water for the city per day, 2 million more than the council had approved in its vote.

But construction on the KWA hadn't even begun yet. The new system wouldn't be able to deliver water for at least a couple more years. Until it was ready, the other Genesee County communities that were moving to the new system simply paid the DWSD for continuous water service. Flint, however, made the unusual decision to enlist a different source of water during this transition period. The city turned to its emergency supply: the Flint River.

To treat the river water, the old Dort Highway plant needed a series of upgrades. Many of these improvements would be required anyway, since the plant would soon have to treat raw water from the KWA. But getting the facility up to speed was difficult, and while cost estimates varied widely, only a fraction of the early figures proposed by the engineering consultants was spent on the project.

The month of the water switch, Michael Glasgow, Flint's utilities administrator, didn't believe the plant was ready. He emailed three people at the MDEQ, the state environmental agency, with a warning. "I have people above me making plans" to distribute the water as soon as possible, Glasgow wrote, but "I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda."

Still, other decision makers gave the treatment plant their vote of confidence. And so, on a dull spring morning, Mayor Walling's toast was the start of a cheerful ceremony. Metal chairs for the guests and media were lined in rows on the yellow tiled floor, facing a podium that stood between the national and state flags. After remarks from several officials, Walling approached a circular gray box that was mounted on the cinder block wall. It controlled the rush of water through Flint.

"This is our moment, so I think we need a countdown," Walling said, looking back at the crowd. He wore a navy blazer, a light blue tie, and an American flag pin on his lapel. His left index finger was poised atop a small black button. "From three?"

The men smiled back at him. "Three! Two! One!" they chanted. Then, a hush. Walling pushed the button, and the system powered down. He pulled his hand away but kept his eye on the controls until the green light darkened and the red light sparked to life, showing that the freshwater supply from Detroit had been closed off. That's when the applause started. "Yeah!" someone hollered madly. After the residual water flowed out of the system, the City of Flint would be relying solely on the river water.

"Water is an absolute vital service that most everyone takes for granted," Walling said the day of the switch. "It's a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply." That rousing sentiment was echoed in the local paper. An editorial heralded the switch as a way for the city to reclaim its sovereignty, which had been undermined by disinvestment and emergency management. "Switch to Flint River Water Represents a New Era in Flint," ran the Flint Journal headline. "Let's raise our drinking water glasses and cheers to a new direction for the next 40 years," the editorialists wrote.

Stephen Busch, a light-haired district supervisor from the MDEQ's drinking water office, was at the ceremony too. A year earlier, when the city was wrestling with its long-term water options, he had expressedworry about what would happen if Flint treated its own river for drinking water — bacterial problems, exposure to dangerous chemicals, additional regulatory requirements.

In other words, the state's environmental agency had thought that the city should avoid the Flint River. And now Flint was using the river anyway. For all his earlier concern, though, Busch seemed tranquil at the treatment plant that April morning. Regarding the drinking water, he said, "Individuals shouldn't notice any difference."


In the beginning, the water was a blessing. Native people were nourished for centuries by the river, which flowed for 142 curving miles. It merged into a broader river network that pours northward into Saginaw Bay, the body of water that separates the Michigan mitten from its thumb. The Ojibwa called it biwânag sibi, which translates as "Flinty River." It ran gently downslope. Trees grew along the banks, casting shadows in a flickering lace over the glassy surface. People crossed the river at a shallow point shrouded by alder and black ash trees, near a meadow where some Ojibwa grew corn. It was part of a trail that ran between the young cities of Saginaw and Detroit. French traders baptized this point as the grande traverse, or the "main crossing." Or Grand Traverse, as it is today rendered in the name of a street and a neighborhood in Flint.

In the early 1800s, this swath of riverside land caught the eye of Jacob Smith, a butcher from Quebec who remade himself into an enterprising fur trader in the territorial woods. Smith was an agile man with a slight frame who would later be depicted by an artist in the costume of an archetypal frontiersman: buckskin, boots, a wide-brimmed hat. He moved to a country that had only just won its independence, settling in Detroit, but he often spent time trading in the Saginaw Valley woods. He spoke a local dialect fluently, and he extended thousands of dollars of credit in trade to the Ojibwa. They called him Wah-be-seens, or "young swan."

Fortunes were made in the forests of Michigan Territory. For nearly two hundred years, traders bought and sold beneath the heavy branches. Competition was fierce. In the uneasy peace after the Revolutionary War, the British did not forget the wealth in these woods. Just across the border, in Canada, they held out hope that they might regain the Michigan peninsulas for themselves. When war broke out again in 1812, British troops marched into Detroit, which they reclaimed without firing a shot. The hostilities brought the fur trade to a halt, but meanwhile Smith collected wartime experiences that are the stuff of novels: he was a soldier, spy, prisoner, escape artist, and military captain. Eventually, in 1819, he used sneaky tactics with both Ojibwa leaders and the territorial governor Lewis Cass to get a controversial treaty signed that created Indian reservations and opened up about 4.3 million acres of Michigan Territory for white settlement. It also allotted eleven square miles of land around the grande traverse, where Smith wanted to set up a trading post, to his children. Much of that land would become modern-day Flint.

About ninety feet from the river, Smith built a small log cabin and opened for business. All went according to plan: Ojibwa trappers brought him pelts of beaver, muskrat, mink, otter, and raccoon, and Smith in turn sold the pelts to merchants from Detroit and Saginaw. He hired several employees to keep up with the brisk work. As native people were pushed farther out, and eastern settlers felt that the territory might be safe enough to buy land, traders such as Smith developed a habit of exaggerating stories about "ferocious animals"— mosquitoes, especially — and "treacherous Indians" as a way to keep out people whose presence would hurt their supply chain.

But within six years of the treaty Smith was dead. Thus, the man who is conventionally credited as the founder of Flint never lived to see it as a real city. And thanks to years of reports about the land by the river being swampy, sandy, and damn near uninhabitable — not to mention land titling problems, cholera outbreaks, and the fearsome reputation of the Saginaw Ojibwa — there were few other white settlers in the area. The community did not even have its modern name yet. Smith's grave marker declares him only to be "the first white settler at the Grand Traverse of Flint River Michigan where he died."

The followers came slowly, but they did come (and no doubt most Ojibwa would have preferred they not come at all). More than a decade after Smith's death, someone set up a sawmill on the river. Families from upstate New York and New England began to move in, one of them taking over Smith's empty cabin. Others built themselves frame and clapboard houses, and even some brick ones. There were so many people in the community from New York State's Genesee Valley that when the settlers finally traced their political boundaries, they named their county Genesee. Flint, sitting directly in the center, was its seat.


Excerpted from "The Poisoned City"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Anna Clark.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents




1. The Well

2. Corrosion

3. Revelations

4. Saturation


5. Alchemy

6. Citizen/Science

7. Meditations in an Emergency

8. Blood


9. Switchback

10. Legion

11. Truth and Reconciliation

12. Genesis


Afterword to the Paperback Edition


Selected Bibliography



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