Flint Crisis Demands Reflection on Campus, Community Relationship

Editorial Board

With his approval rating plummeting and amid public calls for his resignation, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder addressed lawmakers on Wednesday to propose a $54.9 billion budget for the state, the majority of which would go to reversing the lead contamination in Flint’s water and repairing Detroit’s public schools.

Varying levels of blame have been assigned to former Mayor Dayne Walling, former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the Flint City Council and scientists at the University of Michigan– Flint. Despite the federal state of emergency declared by President Obama, state-issued Brita filters do not seem to be working. The NSF-certified filters claim to treat water with up to 150 parts per billion of lead, yet the water trickling from Flint resident Nakeyja Cade’s faucet is still 185 ppb after three filters.

Marc Edwards is a professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech who, along with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, helped collect data on lead poisoning that exposed the Flint crisis.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, he explained how the structure of research in academia was also to blame.

“In Flint, the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem,” Edwards said. “They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? … You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word.” Simply put, scientists were disincentivized from performing research that could potentially damage the reputations of their major funders.

Furthermore, the University of Michigan–Flint had neither the expertise nor the equipment to investigate the contaminant levels, said Dr. Martin Kaufman, an environmental hydrologist at the University’s Department of Earth and Resource Science. The most useful piece of information Flint officials shared with the University was an outdated 1984 map of watermains. Some pipes were labeled only with width, others with only the material used. One-third were unlabeled. Additionally, the map was published two years before a national ban on lead in pipes and plumbing fixtures. Corrosive lead could be lurking just about anywhere in the city.

In light of the water emergency in Flint, Oberlin College should examine its relationship with the city of Oberlin. We share a similar town-gown divide: impoverished community, prestigious college, outdated infrastructure. But in comparison, Oberlin has been an extremely safe place to live. The 2014 Oberlin Water Quality Report shows that of 20 random samples taken from Oberlin taps, none were found to have lead levels above the EPA limit of 15 ppb. Several faculty members in the College’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry have “occasionally made measurements of lead in tap water … in the Science Center and have found levels far below the EPA limit,” according to Professor Matthew Elrod. The “Lead and Copper in Drinking Water” factsheet distributed by Jerry Hade, division leader of the Oberlin Public Works Water Division, describes the pipes that are installed as “[consisting] of lead-jointed pipes and lead service lines, as well as copper and brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) services and fittings that can introduce [lead] and [copper] contamination under corrosive conditions.”

Since the Flint water crisis broke, Hade and his employees began monitoring the water weekly, and the index always returns as zero (non-corrosive). Since 2004, the Water Division has been replacing older pipelines in the city at the cost of $300,000–350,000 each year. Hade attributes the transparency of Oberlin’s water conditions to their relationship with the Environmental Dashboard run by Associate Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen. Hade provides the College’s Dashboard with real-time data on power usage and data on reservoir levels.

While, comparatively, Oberlin is miles ahead of Flint in terms of water management, low corruption in city government and ignorance of faculty and students, Hade urges concerned students to contribute to the Caring Fund, which assists low-income families in paying their utility bills. Additionally, the College can and should do more to assist the city with infrastructure problems. A key failure in the Flint situation was obliviousness on the part of students and researchers, a product of the town-gown divide. Oberlin faculty and students must acquaint themselves with the problems of the residents around them: Food shortages, expensive utility bills, unemployment, lack of healthcare and home foreclosure are all realities for low-income people in the Rust Belt.

Not every educational experience has to occur in a classroom for it to be valuable and authentic. Professors could engage community members and groups in class discussions about local politics, environmental impacts, sociological research or economic case studies as well as require students to participate in community events.

Flint was an unusually extreme example of the insensitivity of academics to the surrounding community. Let’s not lead Oberlin down the same path.