I’m not a hardcore Calvinist by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard not to give credence to one of the main principles of that theological tradition: the notion of total depravity. Especially when one considers the scandal and public health nightmare that has unfolded in Flint, Michigan, in recent weeks.
Directed by Gerald Ambrose, an emergency financial manager appointed to cut costs in the financially strapped Rust Belt city, in 2014 Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. They had been going through Detroit’s water system to get the Lake Huron water, but the costs were deemed too high, so the switch was made.
Unfortunately, the Flint River has long been considered one of the most polluted waterways in Michigan, if not the entire country. Decades of dumping waste from Flint’s auto plants had filled the river with dangerous toxins, but city and state officials repeatedly declared that the water had been treated and was perfectly safe.
They were lying.
Lying may be a strong word, but that’s what it boils down to. When water samples tested positive for E. coli bacteria, the city added extra chlorine to the system, which led to elevated levels of hazardous chemical compounds known as TTHMs. They acknowledged the presence of the TTHMs, but assured the public they were within safe levels. Whether they were or not is uncertain.
The city and state claimed to have complied with federal regulations that require anti-corrosive additives to keep the hard river water from damaging the city’s old pipes, which would allow dangerous toxins such as lead and copper to leach into the water supply. When a federal EPA official asked if Flint had a corrosion control protocol in place, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) answered that they had. They had not.
When citizens and health officials expressed concerns about the water supply, the city used questionable methods to test lead levels in the water. They instructed residents to let the water run for a few minutes before collecting samples for testing, and they only retested samples from homes with lower levels of lead. Both tactics served to skew the results, allowing the city and state to continue to claim that the water was safe. Whether they knowingly manipulated the results is open to debate.
After a local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, did her own research and discovered that children’s blood lead levels had doubled or even tripled since the city started using water from the river, DEQ officials publicly upbraided her, calling her an irresponsible alarmist. To her great credit, she persisted, and finally succeeded in calling wider attention to the problem. To date, three officials have resigned, the mayor of Flint has been voted out of office, and a growing number of voices have called for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to step down. President Obama has declared a state of emergency. The National Guard has begun distributing filters and bottled water, and Snyder has called for millions of state dollars to fix what he has called a “catastrophe.”
The governor’s language is not strong enough. “Catastrophe” carries the connotation of being unforeseen, and the situation in Flint should have been foreseen as soon as they started considering using water from the river. It gives me the same sour taste in my mouth as when politicians call a mass shooting a “tragedy,” as though it were a tornado or tsunami—we’re at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves, and there’s nothing we could have done to avert it.
The word for what has happened in Flint is sin. Another word is evil. John Calvin would not have been surprised. He would have said, “I told you humans are totally depraved. You should have expected this.” The psalmist would not have been surprised, who once said of humanity, “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (Ps 14:3). Songwriter Neil Peart would not be surprised. He once wrote, “Folks are basically decent, conventional wisdom would say. / Well, we read about the exceptions in the papers every day.”
In order to save money, the people who had charge of the welfare of a city of 100,000 cut corners, putting residents, especially children, at risk, and then spent over a year denying there was a problem. Were they deliberately lying? I don’t know. Does it matter at this point? The damage has been done. Of lead poisoning, Dr. Hanna-Attisha says, “It is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child” (Goodnough et al. 2016). Worse, lead poisoning is irreversible. Children who have been exposed to elevated levels of lead will face lifelong consequences.
It would be hard to imagine this happening in San Jose, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Scarsdale, New York. Why should we consider it acceptable in a place like Flint? What does it say about our society that the people with money live in luxury, while poor people can’t even believe their public officials when they tell them the water is safe to drink?
In an old Looney Tunes cartoon, Bugs Bunny gets sent on a rocket to Mars. When he gets there, a voice over a loudspeaker tells him to “take this planet in the name of the earth.” Bugs protests, “Are you out of your cotton-tail-pickin’ mind? This joint makes Siberia look like Miami Beach. And anyway, how come you send a rabbit to do a man’s job, anyway?” The voice replies forcefully, “Because rabbits … are … expendable, that’s why!”
People are not expendable, regardless of where they live or how much money they have or what color their skin is. We need to stop treating them as though they were.
Goodnough, Abby, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith. (2016). “When the Water Turned Brown.” The New York Times, January 23, 2016. Online.