The author of the article, Louise Lief, is a former Wilson Center fellow and current scholar-in-residence at the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.
A couple of weeks ago, the task force Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed to investigate Flint’s now infamous water crisis issued its long-awaited report.
The findings detailed failures in multiple government agencies to address high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the city’s water. To cut costs, in the spring of 2014 Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the more polluted Flint River and kept it there, despite community protests, for 18 months.
Calling the crisis “a clear case of environmental injustice,” the task force issued 44 recommendations that will cost millions to implement. The long-term damage to many Flint children is irreversible.
The hidden success story in this disheartening tale of denial and indifference was the collaboration of an ad hoc coalition of journalists, citizens, and academics whose combined efforts finally compelled the state of Michigan to act. “Without their courage and persistence,” the report noted, “this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”
As New Jersey and Ohio have discovered, lead’s story doesn’t end in Flint. There are an estimated 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., part of the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure that will require an estimated $1 trillion to rehabilitate.
As other communities wonder what perils they face, the Flint collaboration offers a road map on how to tackle environmental and other problems when government fails to act, especially for the most vulnerable communities.