Flint, Michigan, and the Politics of Safe Drinking Water in the United States

Flint, Michigan, and the Politics of Safe Drinking Water in the United States

By Sara Hughes, University of Michigan

Flint’s drinking water crisis has brought renewed⸺and needed⸺attention to the importance of safe drinking water in the United States. The Flint water crisis was the result of a confluence of factors operating at multiple scales in time and space. My aim is to draw out more explicitly the role of policy, and specifically rationalized policy, in incentivizing and allowing the mistakes and decisions that most proximately led to the Flint water crisis. I build on and extend existing analyses of the Flint water crisis, drawing on thirteen semi-structured interviews and publicly available reports, testimony, newspaper articles, and secondary data. My analysis brings to the fore the particular vulnerability to the marginalizing effects of rationalized policy and its implementation of poor and minority communities in the United States, and it reveals the stickiness and entrenchment of these rationalized policies. The response to the Flint water crisis, both in Michigan and nationally, has centered on renewed commitment to risk-based standards and rulemaking for safe drinking water protections, and maintains interventionist approaches to municipal financial distress. I discuss important alternatives that are emerging and indicate areas for future research on the politics of safe drinking water.


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