The Flint River runs through the city of Flint,Michigan, just like the Genesee River runs through the city of Rochester, New York.
Last week’s Go Green article written by Julie Elliot, Class of 2015, focused on getting to know the Genesee River. Elliot’s article eloquently highlighted the value and history of the Genesee while also touching upon the nature of its pollution. Such pollution stems from years of agricultural and industrial runoff. Despite how engaging Elliot’s article was, the whole time I could not help but also think about Flint, Michigan– a city with its own Genesee, its own problematic body of water, and its own socio-environmental issues.
Ironically, Flint, Michigan resides in Genesee County, the fifth most populous county in Michigan. In an effort to address a city plagued by financial distress, on April 25th, 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder implemented his decision to switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron, the third largest freshwater lake in the world, to the Flint River, a highly contaminated water source. Rather than protect and serve his constituents, Snyder consented to poisoning them. Such a decision would further distress those most prone to financial hardship.
The Genesee River, like the Flint River, is a body of water that citizens encounter daily. It runs right through some of the poorest sections of Rochester– much like Michigan’s Flint River. Like the Genesee River, no one would dare drink from Flint. Just as students often joke about how the Genesee contains radioactive fish due to waste, the citizens of Flint commented on how the Flint River was once a site in which car parts, grocery carts and refrigerators were dumped.
Switching Rochester’s drinking water from Hemlock and Canadice Lakes to the Genesee would be the Rochester equivalent of Governor Snyder’s decision to switch Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
Since April 25th, 2014, the residents of Flint have been consuming poisoned water riddled with lead. As of January 19th, 2016, between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to high levels of lead. Some of the water from the Flint River had “more than twice the amount at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies water as hazardous waste.”
In a series of reckless acts, city officials allowed a faulty system to persist. They initially declined the help of the EPA and allowed the citizens of Flint to continue to consume poisoned water for two years. Most– if not all– of the choices made during this crisis have been to the detriment of the oppressed.
Like Rochester, Flint, Michigan is home to a primarily Black population experiencing poverty. Within America, such populations have historically– and presently– continue to live out the legacies of discriminatory practices stemming from public policies, laws, and social behaviors (please see the end of the article for further reading). Decisions like the ones made by Snyder continue this cycle of violence. Flint sheds light on the importance of realizing that many environmental problems adversely affect those in a position whereby they cannot effectively advocate for themselves because they are lacking governmental representatives who look out for their best interests as they deal with the day to day challenges of life.
To really begin to understand how Flint parallels Rochester, one can look to United States Census records. According to the 2009-2013 United States Census, 56.6% of the residents of Flint Michigan are Black compared to the 35.7 percent that are white. The median household income is $24,834 and the percentage of people below the federal poverty level of $11,880 is 41.5%. In these statistics I am eerily reminded of Rochester. The Black population of Rochester is $41.7% with a white population of 43.7%. Though the statistics for Rochester appear more even, many of Rochester’s Black citizens are located within the city and much of Rochester’s white residents are situated in the more affluent suburbs. The median household income for Rochester, New York is $30,875 with 32.9% of the population living below the federal poverty level. In many ways, Rochester mirrors Flint. If we were unfortunate enough to have a representative like Snyder, we could very well be in the same crisis as the citizens of Flit.
So far, it appears that Rochesterian officials know better than to actively deceive disadvantaged members of a city already dealing with levels of poverty as well as wealth and income inequality. Though we too struggle with lead poisoning, it is not due to the type of reckless acts taken by Governor Rick Snyder. And, before I continue to point my finger solely at the reckless acts of Snyder, I also have to give voice to the increasing number of incidents being reporting concerning contaminated water sources. Every United States Citizen should be alarmed. We need representatives who are truly in office to serve us and our needs. This is especially so for those who, due to an array of government policies and individual agents, have had their voices continually silenced and their needs swept to the side.
In seeking ways to help the residents of Flint, Michigan, we can also be deliberate in our acts. While the Michigan National Guard, FEMA, and ground volunteers continue to service community needs, like other Rochester residents, we too can help Flint. But first, keep in mind that “100,000 bottles of water is enough for just one bottle per person a day.” When it comes to the water we drink, use to shower, wash our hands, and keep our toilets running, each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water per day. So, if you find discomfort in donating physical bottles of water to Flint for fear of the residual of littering, you can also donate money to Flint.
Such money can be used to purchase more filters and water testing kits for Flint residents. Though the funds may not help make a dent in the some $55 million to repair damaged lead water pipes, and $41 million to pay for several months of water distribution, testing, and filters, it can begin to directly serve citizens in need.
Authors to Check Out:
(Though some may not agree with his main argument, it is worth taking a look at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article for The Atlantic, A Case for Reparations. You may not agree with the case he makes, but you cannot dispute the history he draws upon)
Written by Darya Nicol, class of 2016