Rev. Allen Overton and Melissa Mays, co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the ongoing replacement of Flint’s lead pipes, describe lessons learned—and a community that’s determined to better its future.
Guest blog by Melissa Mays and Rev. Allen Overton
Five years ago today, officials in our hometown of Flint, Michigan, made the momentous decision to switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a step by the state and city to save money. As a result of this decision, the entire city of Flint, majority African American and numbering more than 100,000 residents—including 9,000 children—was exposed to lead through its drinking water. Lead is dangerous in any amount consumed, and children are especially vulnerable to its effects.
Since April 25, 2014, the story of Flint has been one of secrets kept, promises broken, and the public trust severely breached. Almost immediately after the switch was made, residents began to notice a difference in the taste and smell of their water. Their concerns were met with bland assurances, condescension, and outright mockery. A report 18 months later by a Flint pediatrician found the incidence of elevated blood-lead levels in children citywide had nearly doubled since 2014—and nearly tripled in certain neighborhoods. A citizen-led lawsuit in early 2016 further helped force officials to own up to the truth: Highly corrosive water from the Flint River had damaged the city’s aging pipes, causing lead to leach out from them into people’s tap water.
Unfortunately, five years in, Flint’s water crisis isn’t over.
As co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit that ultimately led to the ongoing removal of Flint’s lead service lines, we’ve learned some hard lessons. First and foremost, we’ve learned that local officials and the citizens they represent don’t always agree on the definition of the word emergency. When your house is on fire, you notify the fire department and it sends firefighters to the scene; when someone in your home collapses, you call 911 and paramedics arrive swiftly. But when you know that what’s coming out of your tap is toxic, no one races to your door.
This realization has gone hand-in-hand with a second: that the concerns of citizens are taken far less seriously, and addressed far more slowly, when those citizens happen to be low-wage earners or people of color. It’s a shared value, even in these divided times, that no community in this country should ever be deprived of something as essential to human life as water. But Flint revealed that the right to safe and affordable drinking water is aspirational, not a reality, for millions of Americans. Few doubt that the official response would have been markedly different had lead-contaminated water been discovered in a wealthy, largely white city.
A third lesson learned might be the most important of all: When you’re fighting back against a system defined by the convergence of entrenched bureaucracy, institutionalized racism, and political expediency, your only option is to unite and fight together.
Media attention certainly helped our cause. But in the end, news headlines can’t do a thing to guarantee you and your community access to safe water. In Flint, people took action. We organized door-to-door, had our water tested, and carried our fight to the courts. Once our struggle for justice took on a legal dimension, the momentum shifted dramatically. Stonewalling and sidestepping by officials are now offenses subject to court intervention. An enforceable timetable for identifying and replacing aging lead lines is in now in place. Thanks to the doggedness of Flint’s residents, the safety of America’s water supply has become a topic of national discussion.
Anniversaries can be celebratory or somber affairs. For the residents of Flint, the arrival of April 25 is a cause for sadness, as we reflect on a human tragedy that could have and should have been avoided. But underneath that sadness is a sense of triumph. Today is also the anniversary of a community discovering its true power—and determining its own future.