In Michigan, a real disaster can’t compete with the fear du jour

An American city of 99,000 people has been poisoned.

And the country has largely shrugged, distracted by pink Christmas trees, insult-throwing politicians and worries about Hoverboards, which don’t actually hover, catching on fire.

In Flint, Mich., a bad decision left the city with water too dangerous and noxious to drink for more than a year and a half.

The slow moving crisis is harder to understand than the outrage du jour, and while Republican presidential candidates exploit fear of terrorism and immigrants, the actual damage that we do to ourselves poses a more immediate risk.

The Flint River flows through downtown Flint, Michigan. Rebecca Cook | Reuters

The Flint River flows through downtown Flint, Michigan. Rebecca Cook | Reuters

In April 2014, Flint, struggling after years of population loss and growing unemployment, made the decision to switch its source for drinking water. Instead of buying water from Detroit, the city began taking its drinking water from the Flint River.

Residents soon began complaining about the quality. It looked bad. It tasted bad. It smelled bad.

In fact, it was bad, so bad that it was dangerous. As The Atlantic reported, the water contained high levels of bacteria. The city told residents to boil the water before drinking.

To try to address the issues, the city also increased the chlorine in the water to the point that it became dangerous to take a hot shower because of toxic fumes.

The water was so bad that General Motors said it was corroding engine parts.

All the while, the city and the state tried to reassure residents of Flint that their drinking water was safe.

But residents knew better. Their children were getting sick. They had unexplained rashes. People were losing their hair.

A Flint pediatrician began noticing dangerously high levels of lead in blood samples from children and tests performed by researchers at Virginia Tech confirmed that drinking water was the source.

The city and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services knew soon after the switch to the Flint River that the water was dangerous.

Recently released documents show the state had detected increasing levels of lead in the blood of Flint children two months before the pediatrician made the same discovery.

A Flint, Michigan, resident picks up bottled water from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Rebecca Cook | Reuters

A Flint, Michigan, resident picks up bottled water from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Rebecca Cook | Reuters

Instead of taking immediate action to keep residents safe, the city and the state instead insisted that the water in Flint was safe. They attacked the credibility of the doctor and the researchers.

What happened to the people of Flint was criminal. The decision to try to save money by changing water sources was made without the appropriate level of scrutiny and without regard to the consequences.

Now Flint residents — and particularly the children in the city — are paying the price.

Elevated levels of lead in the blood of children can lead to lifelong consequences, including learning disabilities, slowed growth and anemia.

A public health emergency has been declared and even though the city switched back to Detroit water in October, researchers question whether even now it’s safe to drink.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, the country was in a panic, evaluating its vulnerabilities and trying to quickly protect critical pieces of infrastructure. Access to reservoirs was restricted and new precautions were put into place even though the risk assessment suggested poisoning the water supply would be nearly impossible for terrorists.

Earlier this year after the terror attacks in Paris, Time magazine ran an article discussing possible targets in the U.S. and, quoting experts, largely dismissed the threat posed to our drinking water.

“Terrorists would essentially need enormous quantities of some sort of hazardous chemical, which would be incredibly difficult to obtain. And even if they did, terrorists would be placing that chemical into reservoirs that often hold millions of gallons of water that would likely adequately dilute that chemical and pose little hazard to the public,” experts quoted in the article said.

Turns out, when it comes to poisoning the water supply of a city, the biggest risk doesn’t come from terrorists. It comes from decision makers who put ideology ahead of public health, refuse to accept data that runs counter to their narrative and an ongoing unwillingness to invest in our country’s aging infrastructure.

My fear is that we could see the same type of public health emergency in Maine.

There are parts of our state that are struggling, much like Flint. Industry has left, the populations are getting smaller and the infrastructure is aging. The towns don’t have the resources to make necessary repairs.

And our state government is either incapable or unwilling to help, even when it comes to keeping water safe.

At the direction of Gov. Paul LePage, Maine turned down a federal grant to test drinking water for dangerous levels of arsenic.

He also vetoed a bill to increase arsenic testing, despite research from Dartmouth College that found as many as one in 10 residents in the state, particularly those living Downeast, could be exposed to high levels of the toxin.

What happened in Flint was a manmade disaster. And though the city might seem like a place far away, we should ask ourselves if something like that could happen here.

I’m not sure we would like the answer.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at