What Elon Musk’s Promise to Help Flint Means to a Resident

The problem is, the city is facing much more than a crisis of clean water.
July 25, 2018
10 mins read

Elon Musk is an entrepreneur, a physicist, an investor, an engineer and the founder of SpaceX. Above all, Musk is rich and considers himself to be a philanthropist. On the surface that’s great, and I’m not going to talk down a man that tries to use his status and wealth to help others.

On July 11, Musk committed himself to solve a problem that hits very close to home for me along with many other residents of Michigan. Responding to a random follower’s tweet, Musk vowed to help amend the Flint Water Crisis.

In 2014, an emergency manager in Flint, Michigan, made the decision to switch water sources over to a local river. Residents immediately noticed problems with the color and taste, but their complaints went ignored. After 18 long months and 12 casualties, the state finally acknowledged there was a problem.

It turns out, issues with the water were caused by lead leaking into the system. The city had been inadvertently poisoning its residents for more than a year. The discovery kicked off a statewide effort to replace corroded pipes, supply residents with clean sources of water and fix the underlying infrastructure that was the root of the problem.

As a resident of Michigan, I live close enough to Flint to feel the effects of the tainted water. There have been filters covering my faucets for a while now and drinking from bottles is the new normal. There were even news reports that it may be too dangerous to bathe in tap water.

At one point, my doctor suggested getting my blood levels tested for lead. Things were bad in Flint, and it had spread to the surrounding areas. Thankfully, Flint’s water is now considered safe to drink in most areas, which is where issues with Musk’s offer begin to appear.

Musk’s plan for Flint revolves around providing filters to residents whose taps still have dangerous levels of lead. If this offer had come at the height of the crisis, it would have been a large step in the right direction. The problem is, this type of help is no longer needed. Testing shows that most water is now safe to drink, and the places where tests show higher levels have long had access to free filters. Flint’s problems run much deeper than the threat of lead in water. Musk is seeking a fix to a problem that is no longer simple. Flint is no longer facing only a water crisis.

For instance, many of the Flint residents no longer trust their elected representatives. The government that was supposed to keep its residents safe can no longer be trusted to do so. There are likely people in Flint who will never feel safe drinking from their taps again, and no one blames them for feeling that way. Complicating matters further is the fact that old pipes still exist to contaminate future water supply.

Flint’s government is trying to remove these pipes as best they can, but with all the infrastructure upheaval the project will no doubt bring, more contaminants can easily be shaken loose into the water system. It’s a never-ending cycle which will take years to fix.

Worse still, the pipes that are the focus of replacement efforts may not even be the most dangerous ones. Flint was once the home of big auto factories in Michigan. Companies once came to Flint for the workforce water subsidies, but they left once Flint auto workers unionized, leaving behind their water systems in the process. Since then, these giant pipes full of water have been undergoing corrosion. As that water became more and more polluted, it began to infect the main lines and the rest of the system

This is a known problem with no easy answer.  The only real, permanent fix is to rip the old pipes up and restructure the entire water system. Needless to say, this would be expensive, and Flint doesn’t have money to spare. Instead, the local government has relied on flushing fire hydrants and asking residents to run their taps in the hopes of getting the water moving again. If you can’t fix the issue causing the dirty water, the best you can hope for is to remove it from the system. Even with occasional flushing, the pipes are only going to fill up and sit stagnant once more. It’s like putting a band-aid on a deep wound.

The problems in Flint aren’t only on the governmental side though. Residential pipes, fixtures and appliances were also damaged by the lead and will need replacing. Unfortunately, when the auto industry left and took the money with them, Flint began to die. Most residents are in the lower income bracket and are doing just enough to stay on their feet.  Asking them to foot the bill for new appliances while wrestling with some of the highest water bills in the country is unrealistic. It’s just not something the residents can afford.

So while Musk’s offer of help is welcome, his plan is too little too late. Filters would have been welcome a year ago, but the problems Flint is facing now are much bigger.

None of this is to say that Musk’s gesture is unwelcome. In fact, him bringing light to the issue has already done a lot of good for the city. Flint was in the world’s view at the height of the water crisis.

But as other problems surfaced in the world, Flint began to slip from people’s minds. The situation was assumed to be under control.

If nothing else comes from Musk’s offer to help, he at least brought the Flint Crisis back into the public spotlight. I want to be very clear on this point though. The situation is not under control, not by a long shot.  Flint is still struggling and needs help. Filters aren’t going to help rebuild trust in a government that failed its people. Testing water to calm people’s minds isn’t going to help them replace their appliances.  Flint needs money and effort to replace a crumbling infrastructure that has already claimed a dozen victims.

Musk is in a unique position to be able to make changes that will have an actual impact on the city. I’m all for him chipping in to help solve the problem. But if he wants to help, then he needs to understand that the problems he will be fighting go much deeper than a few filters. Judging by his effort so far, I don’t think Musk knew what he was getting into. That makes it hard for me, as a victim of the Flint Water Crisis, to put my faith in a man who doesn’t have a full grasp of the situation. The question isn’t “Will Elon Musk help Flint,” it’s “Is he willing to go far enough to make an actual impact?”

Until I see actual evidence of his commitment, it’s hard not to take his word with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Caleb Edwards, Michigan State University

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Caleb Edwards

Michigan State University
Professional Writing

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