Is it fixed yet? Can you trust the water now? That’s the question everyone has for Flint, almost eight years into a water crisis that has left behind continuing uncertainty and apprehension about the toxicity of the city’s water supply. Flint is a postindustrial city in the American Midwest with a remarkable history of union and civil rights movements that is now notorious for struggles centered on environmental justice. In 2014, while Flint’s municipal operational budgets were submerged in debts, surrounding counties saw an opportunity to generate revenue through the construction of a new water pipeline. Although the construction costs would translate to millions of dollars of debt held in municipal bonds, Flint’s unelected emergency managers overrode all objections and colluded in a speculative logic of future financial benefit, with catastrophic consequences for Flint. In order to transition to the new pipeline, the emergency managers approved a switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a decision that resulted in lead contamination and other health hazards Flint residents continue to reckon with today. 

Behind the notoriety of the crisis, which captivated national media outlets during the 2016 election season, lies a ponderous and painful pursuit of repair. Lawsuits have proliferated, but the inherently conservative structures of legal claim-making and negotiation come with their discontents. Recently, a consolidation of several class-action lawsuits resulted in a settlement proposal of $600 million, which Flint residents have found problematic for a number of reasons.1 Less well known is a 2020 lawsuit against three banks that claimed the underwriters of the bonds for the disastrous pipeline project hold some responsibility for exposing Flint’s residents to harm.2 The plaintiffs’ argument has had little legal traction so far—as one attorney put it, no one in the courts is prepared to take this unusual category of defendant seriously and “invent a new type of liability” anytime soon.3 This legal indecision has naturalized relief over justice, dispersing and individualizing the risks of infrastructural failures such that Flint residents themselves have had to become the ad hoc architects of a safe and reliable system of water provision. 

Today many Flint residents continue to drink bottled water, much of it donated by corporation Nestlé to “points of distribution” that have spread across the city, known locally as “PODs.” Humanitarian paradigms of relief like this, which rely on volunteered labors of care, exploit social bonds of community while leaving the deep antisociality of infrastructure bond markets intact. As early as four o’clock in the morning, in the hot humidity of summer or harsh chill of winter, cars start lining up to wait at the edges of the church parking lots that temporarily turn into PODs once a week. Residents will be able to pick up anywhere between twelve to forty-eight liters of bottled water at a time. This water has been extracted from aquifers in rural Michigan; a truck driver drives over one hundred miles to the PODs from the Nestlé warehouse to drop off the pallets of water bottle cases, tightly wrapped in plastic. At PODs, the social costs of water commodification are easy to see and feel. Lifting cases of water day in and day out, sometimes even without a car to move water from POD to home, is physically as well as emotionally heavy work. But the commodification of water in Flint has intersected with the less visible but no less significant process of the transformation of water and its infrastructures into assets.4

The infrastructure bond market depends on the asset form as a technology of trust—one, however, that concentrates power and choices over environmental and social questions into narrow and coercive channels of reciprocity. The right of bond writers to be protected from liability and trust one another as financial agents is currently less disputable than the right of an entire city’s population to access water and trust it is safe to drink. Destin Jenkins calls this prevailing arrangement the “paradox of debt,” where the maintenance of essential infrastructure becomes tethered to financial technologies and conventions that depend on racism to ideologically prop up an exclusive system of trust and control.5 The current water crisis in Benton Harbor, Michigan, grimly recapitulates that, as in Flint, the asset-ization of water disproportionately exposes Black communities to risk and invalidates elected Black leadership.6 When the value of infrastructure is fixed firmly in the asset form, there is less room to spell out fully the collective values around which cities might wish to organize infrastructure—values like racial justice, public health, and ecological sustainability.7 The trust that enables infrastructure bonds calls for a counter-strategy of distrust that questions the hidden premises of environmental management and re-orients questions of trust more explicitly around environmental justice. Flint’s unique history has positioned the city’s communities to integrate tactics from labor and anti-racist organizing to comprehensively challenge the financial “common sense” that underwrites the development of environmental crises and infrastructural capacities.

  1. Bob Brown, Leon El-Alamin, Latisha Jones, Claire McClinton, Mona Munroe-Younis, Juani Olivares, Benjamin J. Pauli, Dan Scheid, Nayyirah Shariff, Laura Sullivan, and Monica M. Villarreal, “A Long Way from Justice: Reflections from Flint on the $600 Million Settlement Proposal,” Environmental Justice 13, no. 6 (2020): 222–224 ↩︎
  2. Kayla Ruble, “Flint Residents Sue Investment Banks, Accuse Them of Helping Create Water Crisis,” Detroit News, October 7, 2020, ↩︎
  3. Steve Carmody, “Judge Hears Banks’ Request to Dismiss Flint Water Crisis-Related Lawsuit,” Michigan Radio, August 3, 2021, ↩︎
  4. Emerging work on the “asset economy” argues that asset ownership is displacing commodity-driven forms of inequality. See Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020). ↩︎
  5. Destin Jenkins, The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021) ↩︎
  6. On Benton Harbor, see Louise Seamster, “When Democracy Disappears: Emergency Management in Benton Harbor,” DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race 15, no. 2 (December 2018): 295–322, ↩︎
  7. For an account of how urban policy has shifted to privilege private over public financial techniques to meet operational needs, see Robert Lake, “The Financialization of Urban Policy in the Age of Obama,” Journal of Urban Affairs 37, no. 1 (2015): 75–78, ↩︎