A big part of my history of Flint River pollution, just published today, is about this 1999 accident where 22 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the river, killing fish and making the river unsafe for contact for about a year and a half. It revealed all sorts of structural problems in the way sewage was being treated in the region, and happened right in the middle of a mayor’s race and an attempt to renegotiate the city’s water contract with Detroit.
Over two days, 22 million gallons of raw human, industrial, residential, and commercial waste poured into the river. On the second night, downstream in Mt. Morris Township, Karen Winchester saw hundreds of dead fish floating down the river past her property — catfish, carp, and bluegill, 3 to 20 inches long, all belly-up. For 14 months, health officials prohibited swimming, fishing, or direct contact with the river…
Over the next year, bacteria levels continued to rise, fall, and rise again, suggesting ongoing pollution. In June 2000, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring municipal and county authorities to report any sewage spill to the Department of Environmental Quality. It uncovered dozens more spills: as part of an amnesty program, nine communities in the Flint area reported 90 illegal sewage overflows over the preceding five years. Heavy rains, power outages, and accidents at plants or along sewage lines repeatedly dumped waste into the river. Flint itself declined to disclose any spills it hadn’t already reported. Communities began doing house-to-house checks looking for illegal hookups dumping into the sewer system or the river. Many were never found.
Despite the new law, the city continued to discharge untreated and partially treated sewage into the river during heavy rains, snowmelts, and power outages, including an 8-million-gallon spill in March 2006 and a 18.1-million-gallon spill in September 2008. The city’s takeover by state-appointed emergency managers did nothing to change the basic limitations of the river and the city and region’s ability to treat its own waste. It happened over and over again.
After each spill, many of Flint’s leaders repeated a version of the caveat James Helmstetter, the county’s director of environmental health, tacked onto his warning to residents after the 1999 spill.
“As far as we know, no [community] uses the Flint River for a drinking water source,” he said.
But! Here’s one little historical irony (or rhyme?) that got cut from the final story.
A contractor for a telecom company — probably SBC Ameritech but I couldn’t even find legal papers to say exactly who it was — was digging a trench to lay fiberoptic cable near an apartment complex on the bank of the river. They notify this third-party agency whose job it is to get permission from the city to say it’s OK to dig. The water department in turn is supposed to mark the line. This agency contacts Flint’s water department, and gets no response. They in turn tell the contractor, yup! No problems! Go ahead and dig!
The contractor digging the trench punches a giant hole in a main sewage pipe running between the city and the treatment center. Just all the filth in the universe is leaping out of this pipe. You can’t shut it off. The only thing you can do is divert some of it to other sewer lines, including into Flint Township, and dump the rest of it directly into the river. So that’s what they did. It then took the city more than two days to patch the broken pipe. With raw sewage dumping into the river the entire time.
Why didn’t the water department respond to the request to mark the line, and why were they so slow to patch the pipe? Well! First of all, they were totally understaffed and underfunded. But what staff they did have, almost all of them, were diverted to work with GM on getting a brand-new engine plant ready at the complex on Van Slyke Road, making sure they had the proper hookups for water to use on their equipment and to treat their waste to go into Flint’s sewers.
Flash forward fifteen years later. The city switches from Detroit water to water from the Flint River. GM starts noticing that the new water is corroding its parts. It starts getting its water from Flint Township — the same system that handled part of the overage when the pipe was broken. But not at every plant — just this one engine plant.
This was one of the early signs that there were serious problems with the city’s water, and was also emblematic of how they were dealt with — piecemeal, under the radar (although it was known), satisfying important interests, neglectful towards the vast majority of people who were more deeply affected.
And damned if this GM plant that switched its water source isn’t the same GM plant Flint’s water department was helping get up and running fifteen years before when they should have been marking that sewage line.
And oh — that engine plant switched its incoming water to Flint Township. But it continued to dump its waste into Flint’s city sewage lines.
You can’t make this stuff up.