Less than a week ago, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was in a Thailand cave with a mini-submarine his team made that didn’t quite work out for the daring rescue of 12 boys and a soccer coach trapped inside. Now, he says he wants to help resolve Flint, Michigan’s water contamination crisis. Expectedly, this latest move drew scorn from critics—what, exactly, does Musk know about water quality issues, or what Flint has faced? But luckily for him, a book about Flint’s years-long crisis has just been released, and it should be used as a blueprint to get him up to speed on where the city stands today.
Admittedly, I groaned aloud as soon as Musk decided he should respond to followers on Twitter asking him to find a way to help the situation in Flint. I covered the water crisis for a year for The Guardian—I know “fixes” don’t come as easily as promises. And for one thing, he opened by saying he’s committed to fixing the water in any house with contamination above levels set by the Food and Drug Administration. (The EPA regulates tap water.)
But Flint’s story is one that’s immensely complicated. The condensed narrative is this: in 2014, controlled by a state-appointed emergency manager that oversaw all the city’s day-to-day operations, Flint switched its water supply to a local river, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. Immediately, residents noticed serious issues with the color and taste of their water, but it took state officials another 18 months to actually acknowledge that, yes, the city’s tap water supply had been severely contaminated with lead. In that timespan, 12 people died from Legionnaires’ disease, with the switch to the river being seen as the likely culprit.
Fast forward to today, where the trust residents have in government has been shattered, complicating efforts to remediate the crisis. Lead pipes across the city are being replaced, but residents—armed with independent tests of their own—still fear their water isn’t safe to drink.
In short, there’s still a number of issues on the ground, and so Musk’s vow has been welcomed, albeit cautiously, by Flint officials. They’ll take all the help they can get, so long as he’s willing to listen.
“If Mr. Musk is seriously interested in helping Flint, the mayor would be open to speaking with him about our specific needs,” a city official said Wednesday.
Clark, a freelance writer based in Detroit, examines how the wide array of factors that led to the city’s decline culminated in the water crisis. I’ve known her for some time from working in Detroit. She’s a superb writer, with a long, demonstrated record of authoritative reporting for innumerable publications.
I caught up with Clark on Thursday to talk about the book, and considered some possible ways Musk could actually help the city.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Jalopnik: What did you think when you saw this billionaire tech entrepreneur say, in 2018, four and a half years after this crisis started, that he’s going to personally fund fixing the contaminated water of Flint residents.
Anna Clark: I was surprised. I thought maybe I was seeing old tweets sort of pop back up. But, I mean, the honest truth is I was a little bit amused by it because the kind of figure that Elon Musk has.
I will say that I do think all individuals have social responsibility. I think we should care about Flint, I think we should care about drinking water. People who have great resources and power I think have a particular responsibility, and if he’s interested in engaging with this stuff that’s great.
We need all the people we can get to pay attention to this and care about this stuff. I would hope that he, and anybody else who wants to help Flint would take the time to talk with folks in the community to catch up on what’s been happening to understand what’s really going on before prescribing solutions. Because we don’t want to, of course, erase the really important work that a lot of folks have been doing for four-plus years.
J: What has it been like on the ground in Flint over the last year, and what sort of sentiments have you noticed in the community at this point?
A: There is absolutely a lot of fatigue in the community and unease about who to trust, and this kind of came up again, especially in the last few months with the state saying the drinking water quality’s good enough that we can cancel the water distribution we’ve been doing, pointing specifically to a couple of founds of lead tests.
There’s a lot of people in the community, informed partly by other groups that have come into town, who are not concerned only about lead. There’s a series of bacterial issues that happened in the community, including the legionnaire’s disease outbreak, which is the issue that actually killed people. That’s one reason why people still feel uncomfortable with the state’s claim that the water is perfectly fine, and also, the very same agencies that were saying it’s fine in the first place are saying it’s fine now.
Even if we assume the best, that’s completely fine, you can’t blame people for being suspicious. You can’t flip the switch back to public trust that easily.
It’s still a very fraught and open and dynamic situation. This is part of what people mean when they say the water crisis isn’t over.
J: How do you answer when someone asks if Flint’s water is now safe to drink?
A: You think it would be a simple answer, like, is it safe or is it not. I think I do feel confident in saying it’s safer than it was some years ago.
But it’s completely appropriate for people to not rely on direct tap water until the infrastructure’s finished, not just because some of the old pipes are still there, but also just the huge infrastructural shakeup that happens when you do such a huge, massive pipe replacement.
The disruption can shake out contaminants, including lead, into the drinking water. So it’s not just a wishy-washy reason, a psychological reason why people might want to wait until that’s complete before trusting their taps, but also, I think, a scientific and public health reason.
One thing that’s happened because of Flint, for those in communities who’ve just been watching this with some horror, is recognizing the limits of our drinking water laws. On one hand, it’s almost a miracle that we’ve created the kind of public water systems that we have, and that they’ve gotten to a point that we can take access to water for granted. But it is something that needs our attention, our maintenance, and our investment if it’s going to stay safe.
It’s a pretty dynamic situation, not just in Flint but in cities all over the country, and if it can be a wake up call to the importance of investing in this stuff, realizing that we all have a stake in this, that it’s crucial for the common good, then great. I do think , if people like Elon Musk want to champion this cause and be a catalyst, and help support infrastrucure repairs, then great. But i don’t know if that’s his plan, or really what his plan is.
J: What are your thoughts on the hollowing out of Flint’s manufacturing base, and how that factored into what happened with the water crisis?
A: One of the cases that I try to make in the book is that the water crisis didn’t begin with the April 2014 switch; there were decisions made over the previous decades that set the city up to fail in so many ways.
When you have a community that has less than half the population that it used to have—like Detroit—but the infrastructure doesn’t shrink along with that population, then of course you’er going to have expensive water rates. Which that was the water crisis before the water crisis. Flint has expensive if not the most expensive water rates in the nation. And the infrastructure wasn’t just designed to serve twice as many people, but also that industrial sector.
When General Motors was moving plants out to the suburbs, it was often getting subsidized water hookups, which is kind of haunting in a lot of ways because the city is effectively subsidizing its own disinvestment. This matters for a few reason, certainly because the math doesn’t work out—so, of course, you inevitably end up with this infrastructure system that’s aging and breaking a lot. They were losing 40 percent of their water just through leaks.
Then also the vacancies both in houses and industrial plants actively made the water worse, because when you have these corroded lines and they’re passing through the huge Buick City plant, for example, and they’re large lines, the water’s going to sit stagnant longer, and therefore it has more time to get concentrated with stuff falling off from the pipes. This is why, later on, the city was trying to solve the problem by flushing fire hydrants or getting residents to turn their taps on for five minutes a night, because they were just trying to get the water running through the system again.
That’s before we even get to the piece why, even though folks in the community were within weeks not just talking about how something was weird with the water, but also going through every means available from public comments to lobbying to making formal complaints, everything they can think of to register it, why they weren’t heard, which I think is also related to the decades of disinvestment.
J: If Elon Musk is serious about this, what sort of things could he actually do to help?
A: I feel like, well, number one, before me making a recommendation, I think he needs to be talking with both public officials and citizens and local institutions that have long term commitments to the city about what they think.
Given that, I think some of the things that would be great would be, for example, the lead lines are being replaced in Flint, but internal home plumbing fixtures that have been damaged by the corrosive water—people had things like water heaters replaced—what if people could be compensated for that?
People have lost property values. I don’t know how this would logistically work, but is there some way to make people more whole there?
Water is still expensive and inaccessibly so for a lot of people there. Is there some way to subsidize water bills? One of the big things that has happened in Flint with expensive water was, you were beginning to be charged water deposits in addition to security deposits before you could rent a place. The whole thing was just a mess. So that could help.
And just nationally, dealing with water infrastructure issues... bringing visibility to it that it’s never really had. [Musk could be] a real champion nationwide to get people excited about investing in this usually invisible infrastructure that, in one way or another, ties us all together, that does right by our national resources and all the people in our communities, I think that would be tremendous.
We just need to build political will to transform how we think about infrastructure and the very foundations of our cities. If he wants to make that his cause, maybe he could be a real influence for good.