The people of Flint, Michigan were poisoned in their homes. It came from their kitchen faucets and shower heads: discolored, foul-tasting water loaded with lead and other contaminants. Residents say that the poison water burns their skin, causes hair loss, and makes them sick.
Children have it the worst: They’re the ones who are most sensitive to lead. Childhood lead exposure can cause a wide spectrum of problems, from the seemingly mild — nausea and fatigue — to the catastrophic: learning difficulties, mood problems, hearing loss, and even death.
In 2011, Flint was in big trouble. The former factory city was financially overwhelmed, and had fallen into the receivership of the state. Eager to cut costs as quickly as possible, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder approved a plan in 2014 for Flint to withdraw from the Detroit water system and pump its water from the nearby Flint River until a more affordable alternative was found.
The city assured them that there was nothing wrong — at least at first. Water from the polluted river was being processed in the city’s treatment plant. It looked unattractive and tasted bad, but it was deemed safe to drink.
The city soon changed its tune. There was an announcement that the water contained high levels of trihalomethane, a chemical linked to cancer. Residents were urged to boil their water. A college campus announced that they had discovered high levels of lead in their water supply, and a local medical center announced that they were seeing unusually high numbers of children suffering from exposure to the metal.
It was revealed that the corrosive waters of the river were leeching lead from Flint’s aged water system, and worst of all, there were indications that government officials knew there were problems with the plan from the very beginning and maybe even hid the problem from the EPA.
Since the story broke, public outcry and media scrutiny has helped to put some badly needed pressure on the powers that be. While Governor Snyder has so far resisted calls to resign, he has suspended some of the emergency management personnel involved in the debacle, and President Barack Obama has allocated $80 million to help repair Flint’s decaying water system. (Many celebrities have donated money to help resolve the crisis, too.)
Unfortunately, a problem like this won’t be solved overnight. The bottled water being supplied to residents is only a stop-gap measure, and even after the water system is repaired, the people of Flint will have to deal with the lifelong effects of lead poisoning.
The Flint water crisis is only the most recent in a long line of man-made environmental disasters caused or worsened by neglect, greed, or incompetence. From Love Canal to Rocky Flats, our elected officials and their corporate counterparts have shown a disheartening willingness to evade responsibility until they are forced to do so.
The people of Flint need not read about a disaster: they’re living one. However, those of us who want to better understand how these things happen and why fixing them can be so complicated might benefit from reading one of the following.
Book: Toms River by Dan Fagin
Location: Ciba-Geigy Chemical Superfund Site
For decades several large chemical corporations used Toms River, New Jersey, as their personal dumping ground, poisoning the air and water with toxic waste. Free of effective oversight, these companies dumped acid-laced water into the town’s namesake river and buried leaky drums full of dangerous chemicals in open pits. The dangerous truth would not stay buried for long.
In the end, it was the children of Toms River who would pay the price for their neglect. The small community became the epicenter for a deadly spike in childhood cancer. Frustratingly, even as the town’s youngest residents succumbed to illness, authorities dragged their feet in coming up with a plan to address the problem. By the time help came, it was too late for the dozens of Toms River families who saw their lives turned upside down by pollution-linked disease.
Toms River is a definitive account of the disaster, from its very beginning in the business boom that followed World War II to its poison-choked present. Along the way, readers meet some of the people most affected by the disaster, from its young victims and their medical caregivers, to the scientific detectives charged with discovering the origins of a cancer epidemic.
Location: The Libby Asbestos Superfund Site
In the late 19th century, Miners digging for gold in south-central Montana found vermiculite, a mineral used in brake pads, building insulation, and soil conditioning. Over the next one hundred years the Libby, Montana mine produced 80% of the world’s vermiculite, but it came with a price.
Unbeknownst to the people of Libby, the mine that so many depended on for their welfare was killing them. The mine was contaminated with naturally-occurring asbestos, and generations of workers and their families were exposed before W.R. Grace — the owners since 1963 — shut it down.
Alleging that the company had known about the danger for years, the federal government brought charges against W.R. Grace executives in 2005. Four years later, the company was acquitted of all charges. EPA cleanup activities continue to this day.
Andrea Peacock’s Wasting Libby is the story of the tragedy and a town’s quest for justice that was ultimately denied.
Book: Love Canal and the Birth of the Environmental Health Movement by Lois Gibbs
Location: The Love Canal Superfund Site
In the words of the Environmental Protection Agency, the neighborhood known as Love Canal was intended to be a “dream community.”
In the first decade of the twentieth century, businessman William T. Love bought a small tract of land just east of Niagra Falls with the intention of building a small community. Central to his vision was the construction of a small canal connecting the upper and lower Niagra Rivers, by which Love could generate hydroelectric power at a low cost. Love succeeded in building his canal, but the community it was supposed to power never got off the ground. In 1920, Love’s canal was a dumpsite for barrels of toxic waste.
A little over thirty years later, land owner Hooker Chemical Company buried the canal and sold the land to the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Residential development began once again, and a school and neighborhood dubbed “Love Canal” was built on top of the landfill.
In the mid-seventies, Love Canal residents were being plagued with abnormally high rates of miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer while municipal officials and corporate executives denied that there was anything wrong at all. Local Lois Gibbs rallied her neighbors and forced a federal investigation. What they discovered was terrifying: Decades of construction punctured improperly buried barrels, flooding the groundwater with a witch’s brew of benzene, dioxin, and other cancer-causing chemicals.
The federal government paid to relocate 800 residents and a multi-decade cleanup effort began. Hooker Chemical Company, then known as Occidental Petroleum, was found negligent and agreed to pay $129 million in restitution.
Gibbs’s book Love Canal and the Birth of the Environmental Health Movement is the story of how she and a handful of determined residents managed to force the hand of the government, and what the disaster at Love Canal bodes for the future.
Book: Full Body Burden by Kristen Iverson
Just sixteen miles northwest of Denver lies Rocky Flats, a former top secret facility built for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The decommissioned factory is surrounded by a nature reserve now, a seemingly tranquil setting that belies a grim past. For forty years, Rocky Flats released a steady stream of radioactive isotopes and hazardous chemicals into surrounding communities like Arvada, the childhood home of author Kristen Iversen.
People knew something was amiss. An under-reported fire at the plant suggested something sinister, but in a factory town like Arvada, it paid not to be too curious. There was more, though: childhood cancer, adults with swollen lymph nodes, and animals born deformed. There were protestors, too, some of them celebrities. What did they know that Iversen didn’t?
Full Body Burden is the story of an environmental disaster in the making, and of a family with secrets of their own. Both a memoir and a riveting piece of investigative journalism, Iverson’s book puts a human face on an infamous chapter in America’s atomic history.
Book: Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the United States government knowingly exposed the Navajo people to lethal amounts of radiation by employing them to work without protection in uranium mines. After the mines closed, the Navajo continued to live in the radioactive debris left behind, unaware of the danger it posed to them and future generations.
A decade later cancer rates were skyrocketing among the Navajo, as were birth defects among their infants, and the brutal indifference shown by the government was compounded as complaints lodged by the community and its allies went unheeded.
Author Judy Pasternak originally brought the tribe’s plight to the public in a series of articles written for the Los Angeles Times. In Yellow Dirt, Pasternak returns to share the tribe’s quest for justice and how it forced the government to accept responsibility for its actions.