It takes the Loren family – Tammy, Ken and their two sons – about four hours to shower. First, they have to empty bottles of water into pans, heat the water, then transfer it to the bathroom where a pump attached to a handheld sprinkler head can be pumped by the foot of the hopeful ablutioner until water begins to trickle out.
How lucky we are to live in the developed world, you might think. And that is true – as long as you don’t live in Flint, Michigan, as the Lorens do. The 8,000 or so people in the once prosperous car-manufacturing town have been without clean, safe water since 2014. That was when their state, under the leadership of the governor Rick Snyder, decided to switch the water supply from nearby Lake Huron to the local river in order to save money. Anthony Baxter’s documentary film Flint (BBC Scotland/BBC iPlayer), which has been five years in the making, tells the story of what happened next.
It is a good job someone was there to record it, because it is a tale that would challenge even the most credulous. Flint residents started voicing concerns when, after the switch, the water turned brown. Then people – especially children – got skin rashes, developed bald patches, became lethargic and fell ill. There is extraordinary footage of townspeople pleading passionately, holding jugs of brown water aloft. Environmental agencies told them that the water merely looked bad and was perfectly safe – even when the high levels of chlorine in the water began to corrode the car parts turned out by the local plant. Even when independent testing by Prof Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech university found that the water in Flint homes had up to 13,000 parts of lead per billion – picked up during its corrosive travels through the town’s lead pipes – when hazardous waste was defined as such at just 5,000. An eventual switch back to Lake Huron water did not help – the damaged pipes still poisoned whatever passed through.
The problem was clear, but it was well known already. What is conspicuous by its absence from the film is any hint of how it was allowed to happen. How was a state government allowed to set up a water plant so badly? Who knew what – and when? How many people had to sign off on – or rather fail to sign off on – how many procedures to enable this? All this is left for us to guess at. Of course, one can infer all the usual ills that unfettered capitalism is heir to, but a two-hour documentary needs to confront the how and the why, not leave them as vague questions to be answered by viewers.
Deeper issues start to emerge during the latter part of the film, but are not properly interrogated. Edwards went to work for the state, and Snyder, which stunned the community that had come to depend on him and his work. Into the void stepped Scott Smith, a “citizen scientist” and part of the actor Mark Ruffalo’s activist nonprofit Water Defense. Edwards was relentless in his criticism of Smith’s…