Flint’s Ongoing Water Story: Competing Interests in the Fifth Ward


In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan began sourcing its water from the Flint River, a decision that would result in life changing impacts for many of the city’s residents. Ensuing reports of declining water quality revealed that it was heavily contaminated with lead and other toxins(CNN Library 2019). Since then, the city and the state have been working to replace all lead and galvanized pipelines. Despite the urgency of this undertaking, work has been drastically slowed in the Fifth Ward, a location that incidentally has the highest percentage of lead pipes and the highest levels of poverty in the city (Figure 1) (Ahmad 2019a; Maher 2016). 

Figure 1: Heat map showing the concentration of safe copper lines and unsafe lead or galvanized lines in the city. Ward 5 shows the highest concentration of dangerous lines(Ahmad 2019a)

This delay in action is not unfounded. In January 2008, construction of basements in Ward 5 uncovered human remains and artifacts revealing a Native American burial ground. In 2017, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Department of Environment took measures to ensure that, thereafter, all service line excavations would involve an on-site archaeologist(Ahmad 2019a). This agreement to enforce professional oversight was signed by the state, the city, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan(Figure 2) who controls the remains of several indigenous groups including the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa(Fonger 2019; Indian Country 2009).

Figure 2: Members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe surveying the site of a burial ground in 2008(Fonger 2019).

Despite efforts to preserve this archaeological site, city contractors were found disregarding the conditions of the agreement this past summer. Twenty-nine separate addresses were excavated without an archaeologist before a state inspector was able to halt operations. By this time, it is likely that crews came across numerous artifacts and human remains. In June, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy issued a letter to the Flint Public Works director in regards to this malpractice, and the project was again dramatically slowed(Fonger 2019).

By further delaying the pipe replacement of the Fifth Ward, the dire situations of the residents were only exasperated. In September, only 105 out of 550 homes that were believed to have unsafe lines were dug(Ahmad 2019b). This ward is in desperate need of clean water(Figure 3), and it is evident that the process of getting clean water is being compromised by the presence of earlier inhabitants. That said, it would be wholly unethical to barrel through the remains of the native people that considered the land of the Fifth Ward their home first. These people and their living descendants are nothing less than allies. In 2016, it was, in fact, indigenous tribes who were among the first to hold water ceremonies as a form of support for the city(Peeples 2016). 

Figure 3: Contaminated water has had a disproportionate effect on Flint’s poorest community in Ward 5(Maher 2016)

With contractors and many residents in favor of the fastest solution and indigenous groups and supporting organizations in favor of the respectful solution, there are clearly competing interests at play. The history of one people cannot be prioritized over that of another. This, however, seems to be the theme of many political water stories. From New York City to Flint, issues pertaining to water rights and water infrastructure always call into consideration the histories of those forgotten. Thus, no matter where or when, there will forever remain an ongoing story of water and conflict. 


Ahmad, Zahra

2019  Flint water-line replacement on hold in area where high chance of finding lead lines. MLive, January 29, 2019. https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2018/11/post_529.html, accessed November 9, 2019.

Ahmad, Zahra

2019  Flint misses ‘self-imposed’ deadline for replacing lead service lines. MLive, September 4, 2019. https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2019/09/flint-misses-self-imposed-deadline-for-replacing-lead-service-lines.html, accessed November 9, 2019.

CNN Library

2019  Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts. CNN, July 2, 2019.

https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html, accessed November 9, 2019. 

Fonger, Ron 

2019  State wants to know if Flint dug up human remains in Native American burial area. MLive, June 21, 2019. https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2019/06/state-wants-to-know-if-flint-dug-up-human-remains-in-native-american-burial-area.html, accessed November 9, 2019.

Indian Country News 

2009  Excavation begins on Native American burial site in Flint, Michigan. Indian Country News, August, 2019. https://www.indiancountrynews.com/index.php/archaeologyremains-sections-menu-116/7274-excavation-begins-on-native-american-burial-site-in-flint-michigan, accessed November 9, 2019.

Maher, Kris

2016  Flint’s Poorest Area Is at Center of Crisis. The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/flints-poorest-area-is-at-center-of-crisis-1456704705, accessed November 9, 2019.

Peeples, Kila 

2016  Native Americans held a water ceremony in Flint. 25News, April 16,2016. https://nbc25news.com/news/local/native-americans-held-a-water-ceremony-in-flint, accessed November 9, 2019. 

Additional Reading 

Native American Tribes & the Indian History in Flint, Michigan: https://www.americanindiancoc.org/native-american-tribes-the-indian-history-in-flint-michigan/

Flint’s Children Suffer in Class After Years of Drinking the Lead-Poisoned Water: 


Flint Michigan History and Early North American Indians: https://www.imagesofmichigan.com/flint-michigan-history-and-early-north-american-indians


Lessons from Pompeii: An Incomplete Record of the Past

In June of this year, Bolshaya Udina, a formerly extinct volcano in Eastern Russia was declared active due to increased seismic activity. Ensuing predictions of a Vesuvius size eruption sparked memories of Pompeii’s infamous demise in 79 A.D., an event that both archeologists and volcanologists are still working to fully dissect(Osborne 2019a). With the looming possibility of another large scale catastrophe, many are turning to those same researchers to uncover what Pompeii’s past can disclose about Bolshaya Udina’s future(Scandone et al. 2019). 

Bolshaya Udina, the now active volcano with potential to cause Pompeii-like conditions(Gramling 2019).

Unfortunately enough, tensions between volcanologists and archeologists studying the site are hindering fruitful collaboration. Since the early eighteenth century, archeologists have been documenting the stratigraphic record of Pompeii, using the law of superimposition, stating that the lowest layers of a site form first, to understand the workings and development of Roman life in the city. Excavations yielding frescoes, mosaic tiles, fountains, and courtyards have revitalized the city, solidifying it as a dynamic archeological wonder that the world has remained fascinated with for centuries(Garcia-Navarro 2019). Still, a crucial element of the city’s history remains overlooked by the field: its demise.

The most recent 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius(Osborne 2019b).

In the pursuit of artifacts and features trapped within the ash sealed stratigraphy of the land, archeologists have been accused of destroying the evidence of volcanology. Volcanology uses volcanic deposits to explain how people died, and so, removal of these deposits in the excavation process is, essentially, ignoring elements of the stratigraphic record. Despite pleas from volcanologists to preserve the volcanic evidence, archeologists continue to cut through sites, regularly removing deposit layers(Osbourne 2019b). 

The value of forgoing excavation or allowing volcanologists to oversee stratigraphic record keeping has been proven useful before. In the 1980s, studies of deposits in newly excavated sites, revealed that the people of Pompeii died from pyroclastic flow, a combination of volcanic gas clouds and magma. Before this volcanological study, however, it was assumed that pumice rain was responsible for killing Pompeii’s population. Thus, this breakthrough prompted a change in strategy for preparing for future eruptions(Osbourne 2019b). Today, the hope is to again use the two fields to understand how pyroclastic flows would sweep around existing buildings, so that current and future populations, like those near Bolshaya Udina, living in similar conditions can adapt accordingly(Solly 2019).

Though there is a trend of geologic history being destroyed for the sake of recording cultural history, progress is being made. Many volcanologists remain barred from entering archaeological sites in Pompeii, but agreements were recently made between researchers allowing volcanologists from the University of Naples Federico II to study stratigraphy alongside archeologists. With the goal of collaboration between the disciplines, volcanologists are being given access to study damage to victims of Vesuvius based on different eruptive stages by recording stratigraphy, taking samples, and mapping damage(Osborne 2019b).

With no projection of when Bolshaya Udina will erupt, we are simply left to wonder if an incomplete record of the past will fix itself in time to offer a useful vision for the future. 


Garcia-Navarro, Lulu 

2019  Volcano Experts and Archeologists are Clashing over Access to Study Pompeii. NPR, July 28, 2019. 

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/28/745989999/volcano-experts-and-archaeologists-are-clashing-over-access-to-study-pompeii, accessed  September 21, 2019.


Gramling, Caroline

2019  Is a long-dormant Russian volcano waking up? It’s complicated. ScienceNews, June 17, 2019. 

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/dormant-russia-volcano-bolshaya-udina-waking-complicated, accessed September 21, 2019. 


Osborne, Hannah

2019  Extinct Russian Volcano Has Woken Up and Could Unleash ‘Pompeii-Size’ Eruption, Scientists Warn. Newsweek, June 6, 2019.

https://www.newsweek.com/russia-extinct-volcano-woken-pompeii-eruption-1442479, accessed  September 21, 2019.


Osborne, Hannah

2019  Pompeii Archaeologists Committing Vandalism to Volcanology by Destroying History Of Vesuvius Eruption, Scientists Claim. Newsweek, July 17, 2019.

https://www.newsweek.com/popmpeii-archaeologists-vandalism-vesuvius-eruption-1449676, accessed September 21, 2019.


Scandone, Roberto & Lisetta Giacomelli, Mauro Rosi, Christopher Kilburn 

2019  Preserve Mount Vesuvius history in Pompeii’s. Nature, July 9, 2019.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02097-3, accessed September 21, 2019.


Solly, Meilan

2019  Why Archaeologists and Volcanologists Are Clashing Over Excavations at Pompeii. Smithsonian, July 24, 2019.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-archaeologists-and-volcanologists-are-clashing-over-excavations-pompeii-180972716/, accessed  September 21, 2019.


Additional Reading 

Digging Deeper into Pompeii’s Past 


Extinct volcano has woken up and scientists say it could erupt ‘at any moment’



Did Vesuvius Vaporize its Victims?