Nearly now a decade after the fact, and especially after another public health crisis far exceeding it in scope and consequence, the 2016 water crisis of Flint, Michigan has faded a bit from memory for many. Not for those who lived through it, though: thousands there were poisoned with lead, their punishment for drinking and bathing in the city’s polluted tap water. Worse, Flint’s citizens were lied to, regularly, by state and city officials claiming the water was safe. In the new documentary Lead and Copper, director William Hart, who was there on the ground covering the crisis for Yahoo! News, retells this story with a fresh eye and commitment to detail.
Though the facts of the story are well enough known from the original news coverage of the event and books like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s What the Eyes Don’t See, Hart’s film makes no assumptions about viewers’ familiarity with the events and begins with the story of Janay Young, a lifetime Flint resident who, like many, had unsuspectingly bathed her child in the city’s polluted tap water for months. Lee Anne Walters, another of the film’s key subjects, led a citizens’ movement that tested the tap water and found that one in six homes had lead levels in water that exceeded the EPA’s safety threshold.
With the help of researchers like Dr. Hanna Attisha, who was conducting a study of her own in collaboration with an engineer friend, Elin Batanzo, and the assistance of Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer from Virginia Tech University, Walters eventually confronted Flint and Michigan state officials about their findings: the lack of the lack of corrosion inhibitors in Flint’s water sources was allowing the leaching of lead into the their drinking water. (It was later found that between somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead, which can lead to severe cognitive and physical defects.)
None of these people were themselves state officials. Rather, they were concerned citizens and scientists determined to uncover an inconvenient truth. And that truth—that they, their families, and their children were being poisoned by their own water supply—was one city and state officials vehemently denied. Then-Governor Rick Snyder had appointed several “Emergency Managers” across the state whose powers inexplicably superseded those of all local elected officials, rendering city councils and mayors completely ineffective. In Flint, the Emergency Manager, working in tandem with several state officials, stonewalled and sabotaged the citizens’ efforts to effect change.
In fact, one might argue, as Lead and Copper does, city and state officials invested far more effort in covering up the water crisis than they did rectifying it. Ultimately in Flint, the truth won out: Walters’, Hanna-Attisha’s, Edwards’ and others’ persistence compelled the local, state, and federal governments to take action and ensure that residents of Flint have access to clean water. But the chain of events that led to the crisis in the first place, compounded by a coverup that further jeopardizes citizens’ lives and well-being, constitutes one of the United States’ worst public health crises. Only for the dedicated pursuit of the truth and the commitment to environmental and social justice of Flint’s citizens and their researcher-colleagues did the truth—and real action—ever win out.
Lead and Copper methodically lays out this timeline like a line of dominos, each event triggering the next, as it recounts the events in Flint. Though they have been thoroughly reported elsewhere, the facts here are presented first-hand from the experience of those engaged in the crisis from the start: Young, Walters, Edwards, and others, with interviews both new and old providing perspective. News footage from city, state, and even congressional hearings (bless Rep. Elijah Cummings, may he rest in peace for his work) captures the national importance of the crisis and the stonewalling and sandbagging efforts of Snyder and other Michigan officials.
Ultimately, the crisis cost four government officials their jobs, and Snyder and eight other officials were charged with 34 felony counts and seven misdemeanors for their role in the crisis. No convictions were achieved—the cases were resolved through plea deals and agreements—but the families impacted are scheduled to be paid $641 million in the resulting settlement. Today, Flint’s water may be clean, but its citizens remain warily distrustful, wounded by past lies. In many ways, Flint was already, even well before the water crisis, a neglected city, one famously featured in Michael Moore’s first feature documentary Roger & Me for the consequence of its having been left by General Motors for Mexico. Its citizens did not need to be betrayed once again, but its racially diverse and socio-economically disadvantaged citizenry was one the state’s leaders felt they could ignore without consequence.
Hart makes this case especially well, outlining the long practice of redlining Flint’s neighborhoods and abandoning its poor in public policy. This institutionalized and environmental racism is one Lead and Copper traces from Flint to similar crises in Newark, Washington DC, and elsewhere, a warning and a call to action to hold governments accountable in the wake of gross negligence. One wonders if, in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, if ever again we can count on our government, our fellow citizens, and our private enterprises to act in the public good, to protect our health and our environment.
In Flint, eventually, the truth won out. One can only hope that it does so again, and with no great cost to our young, our frail, our disenfranchised, our unprotected. Lead and Copper not only retells the story of Flint’s water crisis with an uncanny, unerring accuracy; it also makes the case for the need for all of us to remain as vigilant as Flint’s citizens as we make our way towards our uncertain and unpredictable futures.