Book on Flint water crisis to be featured at luncheon

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

The confluence of events was ironic, to say the least. In the same week in April that the state of Michigan announced it was cutting off delivery of bottled water to residents of Flint, state officials approved Nestle’s request to pump even more water from its well in northern Michigan, to sell as bottled water.

“Poisoned City” author Anna Clark

According to Gov. Rick Snyder, Flint no longer needed the cases of purified water after tests revealed that the lead in its tap water was within federal guidelines for safe drinking water.

Detroit journalist and author Anna Clark was watching closely. Her book on the Flint water crisis: “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” came out in July.

“It just seems tone deaf to cancel water shipments to Flint with no notice, then approve this permit that was deeply unpopular with people across the state,” Clark said. “You’re effectively telling people in Flint, we’re no longer going to supply bottled water to you for X and Y reasons. If you’re so concerned, you can go buy it from Nestle.”

Clark will talk about the Flint crisis and the origins of the national water and lead crisis as one of the five featured authors at the 93rd Annual Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon Oct. 15 at the Burton Manor in Livonia. The others include Anne Ford, daughter of Henry Ford II (“The Stigmatized Child”), Lisa Unger (“Under My Skin”), Mark Liebovich (“Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times”) and Detroit physician Dr. Rana Awdish (“In Shock”).

"The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy" by Anna Clark.

Clark grew up in St. Joseph, on the shores of Lake Michigan, but as a writer has been keenly focused on social justice and urban issues. A University of Michigan graduate and resident of Detroit, she worked on “The Poisoned City” for 2 1/2years.

The Flint water crisis was sparked when the city’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley — backed symbolically by Mayor Dayne Walling and a city council vote — decided to join a proposed new regional water system, the Karegnondi Water Authority. The idea was to make the impoverished city more self-reliant by detaching from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and lowering its citizens’ water bills. The problem was, the Karegnondi wouldn’t be ready for several years. In the interim, it was decided the city would tap the Flint River, as it had up until the 1960s, and upgrade its old water treatment plant to treat the water.

Almost everything that could go wrong, did. For one thing, river water is more complicated to treat than lake water, but the old water treatment plant was rushed into service before it was ready.

Most unfortunately, the treatment of the Flint River water at the reopened plant didn’t include corrosion control. Plant staff, Clark writes, had been told by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that it wasn’t necessary — in violation of federal law.

Soon after the changeover, residents started reporting that the water looked, tasted and smelled bad, and some developed rashes. Resident Lee-Anne Walters had a son with a compromised immune system who stopped gaining weight and seemed to have cognitive issues.

It was only after Flint’s utilities administrator collected a sample of water from Walter’s house and had it tested that it showed lead content that was well beyond federally allowed limits.

These are among the heroes in Clark’s narrative. The villains are there as well — or were they just confused bureaucrats?

Clark’s reporting shows that even when there was clear evidence that there was a problem with Flint’s water, some state officials either denied it, or tried to bury it. Why, is the lingering question.

“It’s a mystery to me, because I can’t imagine acting like that,” Clark said. “This is just me speculating, but having spent the last few years thinking about this, I think there’s this sense of innocence of bureaucracy, that ‘It’s not my fault or responsibility if it’s everybody’s fault or responsibility.’ ”

She also believes that Flint being a poor, predominantly African-American community meant there was less urgency about acting on the tips.

“There’s this sense that this particular community is not worthy of full intention and priority, that ‘even though there are a lot of problems coming up, we’ll just run out the clock here with the river water until the switch (to Lake Huron water) happens ... we’ll just kind of coast. Maybe it isn’t that great a water, but it’s good enough for them, for now.’ ”

Clark goes into painstaking detail about the history of lead, showing how lead pipes were considered dangerous for transporting water going back to the early 20th century, when the pipes were being placed under sidewalks and streets as infrastructure. She also details the history of clean municipal water in the United States. It is a cautionary tale, that so much can go wrong.

“If there’s one thing the book reveals, drinking water isn’t a game,” Clark said. “If it collapses, it is going to hurt people forever. Without clean water we die, we literally die. And we need it every day.”

Susan Whitall is an author and journalist, and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at

About the luncheon

93rd Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon

Oct. 15

Burton Manor Banquet and Conference Center

27777 Schoolcraft, Livonia

(734) 427-9110

11 a.m.: Book sale room opens

Noon: Lunch

1 p.m.: Authors speak, and will sign books purchased at the event after the luncheon.

For information, go to

The authors

Lisa Unger: “Under My Skin.” Unger’s 16th mystery novel features a fashionably unreliable narrator, but reviewers have praised Unger’s masterful use of suspense and ability to draw realistic characters in this book about a seemingly random crime as elevating her books above a crowded field.

Mark Liebovich: “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.” Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times, has pulled back the veil on the National Football League in a book that reviewers have called “juicy and mean in the way all books about the NFL ought to be,” (Deadspin), and “gossipy, insightful and wickedly entertaining,” (the New York Times).

Anne Ford: “The Stigmatized Child: Helping Parents Overcome the Stigma Attached to Learning Disabilities, AHDH and Lack of Social Skills.” Ford, the daughter of Henry Ford II, has used her experiences as the mother of a child with learning disabilities and as a nationally recognized advocate for such children to write this book with co-author John-Richard Thompson, offering solutions for parents.

Dr. Rana Awdish: “In Shock.” Dr. Awdish, who is the Medical Director of Care Experience for the Henry Ford Health System, wrote this 2017 book about her own near-death medical emergency, which led her to realize that medical professionals need to move past a detached objectivity, to more of an empathetic approach with patients.