A Case Study of Flint Water Crisis

How the Government Poisoned Its People

Sixty-six miles northwest of Detroit, situated along the Flint River is Flint, a home to 100, 000 residents making it the largest city in Genesee County, Michigan (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). In April 2014, criminal actions by state and local authorities triggered the largest-scale water crisis in the United States history that is still active today and has harmful medical, economical and psychological implications for the residents, in particular children (Shen, 2017). Social, economic and power dynamics allowed government to expose residents of Flint to high levels of lead, a highly toxic metal which poisoned thousands of people. Nevertheless, despite the level of danger it took more than one year for the local people to learn the extent of the water contamination. Therefore, this essay will discuss all levels of government - federal, state and local-responsibility in poisoning Flint residents since 2014 by prioritizing economic accumulation and being negligent in various ways. During the crisis, officials failed their obligations to ensure clean water for its people and for this reason Flint water crisis should be recognised as a state crime. This paper will start by exploring proximate and structural causes which resulted to this crisis followed by discussion how and why we define Flint waters crisis as a state crime. Also it will analyse and confirm Mullins and Rothe (2008) theory on the relationship between democracy and state crime since financial gain was the driving force behind unlawful actions of Michigan state officials. Moreover, the second half of the paper will look into the role of bystanders domestically and why until today no one is punished for these harmful actions and poisoning of the entire city. This essay will also discuss the possibility of another water crisis in the near future due to ageing America’s infrastructure.


In 2014, state-appointment emergency managers made decision to change to a new cheaper water supply and no longer use Detroit-supplied Lake Huron water. However, there was a need for temporary water supply until new pipeline to Lake Hurton was built and therefore it was decided to source water from the local Flint River (Hanna-Attisha et al., 2016). Unfortunately, even though state official were well aware about the ageing Flint water distribution system that has lead pipes. Lead plumbers failed to implement corrosion treatment after the water was switched on and dangerous levels of lead leaked from old pipes into the drinking water which was being used by Flint’s residents (Renwick, 2019). Nevertheless, the extended harm to people was caused by the government denial of issues regarding safety of water. Shortly after the switch to Flint River water residents voiced concerns regarding the odor smell, taste and color of water and the spread of rashes however, the city and state officials assured people that the water was safe to drink (Chavez et al., 2017: 13). Therefore, failure to treat water and lies about the water being safe to consume are the main proximate causes that resulted to poisoning of thousands of Flint residents, by their government. This case confirms Cohen’s (2001) theory on the spiral of denial and that the ruling class has power to presents actions in a particular way, often to completely deny the issue or their involvement, when accused of human rights violations (Shoham, 2012).

Flint city’s financial situation is one of the deepest root cause to the water crisis. General Motors (GM), one of the world lagers automakers, was originally founded in Flint. Therefore, between 1940s and late 1970s the Flint city and its population were growing as GM provided thousands of jobs for unskilled workers. However, from 1980s the city started to sink economically due to closures and relocations off General Motors manufacturing jobs. Soon Flint lost almost half of its population, experienced high unemployment rates and low-income levels (Chavez et al., 2017). Thus, from once being one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S, today Flint has the nation’s highest poverty rate with over 40 percent residents living below the poverty line (Adams, 2017). Consequently, new appointed emergency manager was ordered to increase revenue and to bring the city back to financial stability. As a cost-cutting move, he decided to stop using water provided by Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) and instead switch to a more affordable option (which was the option-indicate ) (Forrer et al., 2019). Therefore, demolition and reallocation of General Motors factories resulted in financial crisis and budget cuts and therefore encourage to change for cheaper water supply.

Moreover, for decades Flint River has served as unofficial waste disposal site for the many local industries. Underlying reasons for water pollution can be traced decades back to 1996, when General Motors automobile industry dumped 10 million gallons of waste into the Flint River every day including engines, spark plugs and minimally treated oil (Renwick, 2019). The river has also received million gallons of human, industrial, and commercial waste from city’s waste treatment plant and other industries spouted along river shores. Consequently, today Flint River water is highly polluted and sixteen times more corrosive compared to other water sources in the US (Shen, 2017).

However, it can also be noted that, the water crisis began with the decision to approve Flint’s participation in the new Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline project. This decision raised many questions since at the time, the already distressed City of Flint could not afford multi-million dollar project (Hammer, 2016). Moreover, inappropriately close relationship between city officials and those associated with the KWA project raised concerns after municipal financial rules were manipulated to acquire financing for the pipeline construction. Emergency managers and city officials requested to borrow $87 million to clean up a lime-sludge lagoon. However, ‘this was a sham transaction designed under false pretenses to obtain money for the KWA’ project (DeVito, 2018). Therefore, evidence signal that decisions to change water supply were made for political and not economic reasons (Hammer, 2016). Various actors had a clear agenda to purse the KWA project regardless of the needs of Flint city and its people.

Flint water crisis falls under all three definition of state crime: law violation, deviance and social injury. Firstly, the most common and clear is juridical meaning of state crime which Chambliss et al., (2013) describe as ‘acts defined by law as criminal and committed by state officials in the pursuit of their jobs as representatives of the state’ (Chambliss et al., 2013: 15-16). Michigan State had an obligation to treat the Flint River water with the anti-corrosive agent under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) which protects public drinking water supplies and sets standards for drinking water quality in the USA (Epa.gov, 2018). Therefore, it is clear that by failing to comply with the primary standards, Michigan State violated one of the federal law. As a result number of lawsuits were filed against Michigan state and the City of Flint after high lead contamination in water was discovered (Waldrop, 2019). However, this definition is often criticised since the state is the source of law and therefore it has the power to define what is criminal. Studies suggest that, the state rarely criminalise its wrongful acts which are committed while pursuing personal interests (Chambliss et al., 2013).

Secondly, the state can commit harmful acts that are not illegal by the law but are wrong and should be prosecuted as crimes (Green and Ward, 2004). These wrongful acts that violate established ‘conduct norms’ refer to social deviance (Chambliss et al., 2013: 15). One of the most common features of state crime as deviance is that, it attracts public attention and often results in protests. While the government role is to serve its people in this case elected leaders lied to the people of Flint. Hence, trust between local people and government have been provoked which resulted in a number of protests outside Michigan state Capitol and which gathered dozens of residents (Clark, 2018). While this definition of state crime can be criticised because not always people agree to what is deviant, in this case, it is evident that majority of people has recognised actions and decisions of state officials as wrongful therefore taking action and uniting to seek justice.

Lastly, state crime as social injury refers to harm brought about by the state’s illegal or deviant practices (Chambliss et al 2013). Consequently due to state’s failure to carry out necessary corrosion control treatment over 100 000 inhabitants of Flint were exposed to lead and other contaminants in drinking water (Ruckart et al., 2019). Consumption of poisonous water resulted in rash, anemia, weight loss, and increase in miscarriages and resulted to the death of 12 people. Furthermore, from the whole population, children were effected the most. Experts in environmental pollution related to brain development stated that exposure to lead poisoning at young age can have long-term unfixable effects including damage to ‘children’s brains and nervous systems’ that can ‘lead to slow growth and development, and result in learning, behaviour, hearing, and speech problems’ (Ruckart et al., 2019). Therefore, this definition emphasises the horrible consequences that illegal and deviant actions of the state officials had on its people. In addition, even though the concept of social harm varies across the cultures, it helps to address the issues that are marginalised (Chambliss et al 2013).

Flint water crisis is a crime of state negligence and nonfeasance. According to Green and Ward (2004) most often state negligence is revealed in times of natural disasters. While in a majority of cases, the environmental crimes such as the pollution of water are caused by the illegal disposal of toxic waste that is initiated by the corporations and approved by corrupt officials, Flint water crisis is a direct result of the government’s irresponsibility and poor response (Ruggiero and South, 2013). Disaster management is a major function of government. However, if state has a power and responsibility to make a situation safe but decides to ignore unsafe conditions and as a result Fails to prevent a loss of human life and suffering of people, these harmful failures to act can be identified as state crimes of omission (Kauzlarich et.al. 2003). State failure to act is clearly visible in this case as both state officials and companies were ignorant to the possible danger of using Flint river water without treating it and after negligent in alerting residents about lead contamination in their water supply.

This case confirms Mullins and Rothe (2008) theory on the relationship between democracy and state crime which states that type of state tends to shape the type of state crime. These scholars argued that the seriousness of state crime varies depending on the type of state formation. According to Mulling and Rothe, crimes that result in massive human rights violations, are large in scope, direct and overt such as genocide, are most likely to be committed by non-democratic states. In contrast, state crime in democratic countries tends to be more covert and lower intensity such as crimes of globalisation. This can be explained through the fact that in non-democratic countries crimes committed by the state are mostly influenced by authoritarianism and or irrational beliefs, while in democratic capitalist countries like the USA state crimes are most often driven by global economy (Mullins and Rothe, 2009: 155). It has been argued that since modernisation, democracy and capitalism became inseparable. According to Dahl, capitalism and democracy are interlinked because free-market capitalism needs government intervention to ensure a working market economy and therefore state and capital have a common goal (Mullins and Rothe, 2009). However, the global economy has expanded the power and influence that corporations have in society. This new phase of capitalism, influence policy decisions that impact all countries around the world and their local communities.

Relationship between democracy and capitalism and state crime are clearly illustrated in the Flint water crisis, as the poisoning of Flint city is directly linked to the bankruptcy of Detroit state in 2013 (White, 2016). Once the highest per capita incomes city in America lost over half of its population due to the closure of number of Flint auto plants in the 1980s, which devastated city’s tax base and eventually lead to financial crisis and bankruptcy (White, 2016). In addition, with impunity, GM poisoned the water with its industrial waste which residents of Flint city have been drinking for years. Therefore, this disaster is a result of the bankrupts and the failure of the capitalist system, and therefore the state, that prioritises the enrichment of the corporate and financial aristocracy over the basic needs of society and allow companies such as GM to leave its birthplace in ruins (White, 2016). On the other hand, Mullins and Rothe theory can be criticised because even though today crimes committed by non-democratic countries seems to be larger in scope compared to the ones committed by democratic countries it is important to remember that almost every democratic state has a ‘bloody past’ (Mann, 2001) and capitalist America was built on genocide of Native Americans and slavery (Desmond, 2019).

The delay in responses to Flint’s drinking water pollution involved implementation lapses by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan Department of Environmental Agency (MDEQ). MDEQ is the government agency responsible to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. As the primacy agency it was responsible to enforce Lead and Copper Rule which requires to maintain corrosion control treatment after the water source is switched in to minimise consumer’s expose to lead in drinking water (Epa.gov, 2018). However, MDEQ failed twice: first time, by not requiring Flint’s water system to conduct corrosion control treatment and second time, by not issuing notice of public safety violation. On top of that, the MDEQ asked Flint public water system staff to conduct more water quality tests which delayed corrosion control treatment and consequently, prolonged residents exposure to lead (Epa.gov, 2018). On the other hand, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible to assure that states comply with requirement under Safe Drinking Water Act (Epa.gov, 2018). However, even though EPA was aware of MDEQ failure to implement corrosion control it did not enforced federal laws that would have ensured safe drinking water for Flint’s residents on time (Sanburn, 2016). Therefore, both governmental agencies responsible to protect water quality at local and national level took a bystanders position during Flint water crisis and allowed lead to keep leaching from pipes into residents’ drinking water.

However, not only the government institutions but as well media failed to respond and inform people about the toxic water. According to Chavez et al., (2016) media has the watchdog function. It has a role to monitor government actions and make powerful accountable for the impacts they have on local community (Chavez et al., 2016). Local journalist are expected not to be exclusively objective and to give voice to citizens they serve. However, when residents start raising concerns regarding polluted water and its health risks ’the media elevated themselves to an independent watchdog role’ (Chavez et al., 2016). When reporting on the government aspect of the crisis journalist failed to include health risks and emergency response efforts and therefore ‘failed to live up to their responsibilities of accountability and transparency’ (Chavez et al., 2016).

Despite Flint water crisis being recognised as one the most harmful manmade environmental disasters in US history, four years later no one is punished for its horrible consequences. Eight state officials were awaiting trial, including emergency managers. However, in 2019 prosecutor dropped all criminal charges due to the fact that not all available evidence were pursued in court and therefore more in-depth investigation was needed (BBC News, 2019). Unfortunately, it is not clear whether Flint residents will ever receive justice for the harm caused as there is no information about new criminal trials being held against responsible government officials. This being the case, such outcome can be linked back to juridicial definition of state crime and its critique that state rarely criminalise its harmful actions.

Flint water crisis brought attention to the dangers of ageing America’s infrastructure. Study conducted in 1990 estimates that over 3 million utility service lines contain lead (Loftis, 2016). However, despite what happened in Flint instead of investing in water infrastructure to avoid similar issues many other states ‘are cutting infrastructure spending as a share of the economy (Mcnichol, 2019). Consequently, another water crisis is possible elsewhere in the US, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, as millions of Americans use water that runs through lead pipes installed five decades ago (Loftis, 2016). In addition, investment in water treatment systems and other forms of vital infrastructure is not only important to prevent from future crisis but it also lays a foundation for a strong economy (Mcnichol, 2019). Therefore, states like Michigan should stop using tax cuts strategy because it results in little or no economic growth. Rather it should takes money away from other institution such as schools to start caring about improving their exhausted infrastructure which is essential in creating good jobs and recovering from economic recession (Mcnichol, 2019).

To conclude, it is a clear case of a state crime as the government disregarded the needs of people and put them in great danger in order to pursue economical and personal interests. While there are few private corporations involved in the story, such as General Motors who for years polluted the river, the full responsibility of crisis lies within government failure to treat the Flint River water with the anti-corrosive agent and delayed to reconnect back to Detroit’s water as soon as residents start reporting on the odor of the water. Therefore, Flint water crisis should be recognised as crime of state negligence and nonfeasance. However, despite clear evidence of illegal activities of powerful, four years later residents are still fighting for clean water and justice for the harms done that some might suffer off for the rest of their life. To conclude on a positive note, residents of Flint created The Flint Lead-Free initiative that seeks Flint to become lead-free city by 2022 (Ruckart et.al., 2019). This initiative is good not only for the Flint city and its residents, but also for the rest of Americans who drink water which runs through lead pipes as it might encourage them so seek for water infrastructure changes in their cities too.

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