Debate Forum 2/2/16

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Pure Michigan

Who’s to blame for Flint’s water crisis?

by Sarah Sidlow

Flint, Michigan: long known for its cars, high crime rates and two—count ‘em, two—states of financial emergency in one decade, is in the soup again.

This time, there’s something in the water. Hint: it’s lead.

The city is currently in a state of emergency at municipal and state levels due to high levels of lead in the tap water.

Here’s the story: years ago, Flint, in the midst of a financial crisis, turned the city’s budget over to the state of Michigan. Soon thereafter, in April 2014, the decision was made to temporarily switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, in order to save money until a new supply line to Lake Huron was completed.

Turns out, you get what you pay for.

Many folks already knew the Flint River was no good. Locals called it the “General Motors’ Sewer.”

After the switch, Flint residents—more than 100,000 of whom were now getting their water from this new source—complained about their water looking and smelling pretty funky. Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive. State and city officials said, no worries—the treatment meets federal standards. (This is after a local General Motors plant was allowed to switch back to Detroit’s water because the river was corroding machine parts.)

Now, just about a year and a half later, citizens and their children are coming face to face with the lifelong realities of lead poisoning. The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October, but the damage was already done to the lead pipes. The state is now handing out filters and bottled water with the National Guard.

And everyone has a finger to point. Here are the contenders:

Darnell Earley—the person who decided to use the river as a water source. Earley was one of a succession of emergency managers in Flint, who was appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder under a law that allows the governor to install managers whose power trumps that of elected officials.

Rick Snyder—He’s the Republican governor of Michigan. Some, like filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore say, arrest the Gov’na! It’s been said Snyder’s office knew of the concerns regarding the funk-water for a while, both from other agencies, and the Flint citizenry. Also, he’s the one who appointed Earley.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality—that is, the agency in charge of making sure water is safe in the state. They allegedly chose not to require the Flint water plant to use optimized corrosion control (that thing that would have stopped the lead from leaching into the water), and also may have played a little hush-hush in their “research” when the allegations started flying. Like taking minimal samples of the water and from the wrong places, and throwing out data that would have painted a different narrative, and possibly triggered help sooner.

Environmental Racism—Flint is 57 percent black, 37 percent white, 4 percent Latino and 4 percent mixed-race. This leads a lot of people to ask, would the story be the same if this had happened in a predominantly white community?

The EPA—The federal Environmental Protection Agency, who’s public position throughout the ordeal was that Flint’s water was within a safe drinking range, even as they allegedly privately pressured state officials to check it out.

The situation in Flint could affect the city for years. Lead poisoning is known to lower IQ and lead to developmental problems, cause miscarriages and low birth weight for babies, decreases in impulse control and increases in the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and potentially violent behavior. Newer research suggests that exposure can also affect DNA, carrying damage on to the children and grandchildren of those exposed.

Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

Corroding pipes, corroding morals

by Tim Walker

Our country—this shining example to the world, our great nation that has endured on this Earth for 240 years—has an ugly secret, one it chooses to too often ignore: Racism. It is a part of our culture. Jim Crow. Lynching. Tuskegee. A seething distrust, a racial divide that permeates and hinders these 50 United States of America.

Michigan is one of those 50 states, and there must be something in the water in that state up north—something other than the lead that’s been widely reported on, that is. Institutional racism. Environmental racism. Genocide. Strong words, ugly words. Unfounded partisan accusations made during a presidential election year, some are saying. And yet …

We’ve all heard the news reports about the city of Flint, Michigan, and the water crisis there, the background details of which continue to unfold as I write this. Back in 2014, with the economically struggling city in the midst of another fiscal emergency, Flint changed its municipal water source to the Flint River rather than the Detroit water system. The switch was overseen by state emergency manager Darnell Earley who, like other emergency managers around the state, was appointed by the governor and had the ability to override local policies in the name of fiscal responsibility. Switching the water source to the Flint River was described by state officials as a necessary cost-cutting measure.

Almost immediately, the citizens of Flint began complaining about the quality of the water coming from their taps. The water that these citizens were drinking, cooking with and bathing their children in was unsafe, they said. It was causing people to develop rashes. Other people’s hair began to fall out. The water looked cloudy and unsafe to drink. The population of the city of Flint, mind you, is 57 percent black, 37 percent white, 4 percent Latino and 4 percent mixed race; more than 41 percent of its residents live below the poverty level.

The citizens of Flint were told that there was nothing wrong with the water, multiple times, by both state and federal agencies; the same publicly-funded state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting citizens. Independent parties tested the water and found it unsafe, with amounts of lead that far exceeded the EPA’s threshold for action. In October of 2014, the General Motors Corporation—which still maintains a number of manufacturing and assembly plants in Flint—announced that it would no longer use Flint River water in its plants, as the workers had noticed the water was corroding the engine parts. (Yes, the water, which was so toxic that it corroded engine parts, was still safe to drink, according to the state of Michigan. Let that sink in for a minute.)

The story devolves from there, into a series of blunders, mistakes and outright fabrications on the part of the state which all spell out the same message—that the people in Flint are poor, and black, and that their government really didn’t give a damn what was in their drinking water. On January 2, 2015, Flint issued an advisory that although the water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, it was still safe to drink. Five days later, the state began installing water coolers in public buildings, saying it wanted to give state employees the choice whether to drink tap water or bottled water. Jerry Ambrose, a new emergency manager, was brought in by Governor Rick Snyder’s office. More tests followed, and the evidence continued to mount that the water in Flint was unsafe to consume, and that the people in Flint were being poisoned by the very people who were supposed to ensure their safety.

This country is no stranger to environmental and institutional racism. Landfills are rarely located in affluent, well-to-do areas of a city. Factories that spout smoke, dust, or foul-smelling chemicals aren’t often seen on the “good side of town.” Drive down the streets of any city in this country, Dayton or otherwise, and it isn’t difficult to tell when you’re on “the wrong side of the tracks.” Even our language is filled with words and phrases which hint at the racial divide we all live with, and suffer from.

But for Rick Snyder, the duly elected Governor of Michigan, and his staff and agencies to be responsible for the poisoning of the children in an entire city—it simply boggles the mind. The lawsuits, and the financial and political fallout from Flint’s water debacle, will last far into the future.

But when the last lawsuit is settled, and when the politicians have made their last excuse, two things will still exist in Flint—the damaged health of the innocent children in that city, and the environmental racism that created the damned situation in the first place.

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their 2 children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts.

Water, Water, Everywhere

David H. Landon

There are certainly lessons to take away from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The greatest mystery is how this could have happened to Flint, a city located in a state surrounded by the largest fresh water lakes in North America.

As everyone from the bureaucrats to elected officials at all levels of government are wildly pointing fingers at one another in an attempt to lay the blame for this colossal government screw up at the feet of someone else, let us first remember there’s a crisis to be managed. While it seems fairly certain when the story fully unfolds there will be plenty of blame to go around, allegations of environmental racism are irresponsible and not based on the facts at hand.

The immediate problem is how to provide safe drinking water for the residents of this community of 100,000. High lead levels in the city water supply will create potentially very serious health problems for Flint residents for years to come. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced earlier in January that the State of Michigan would provide financial help and recently the Obama Administration has also indicated that there will be financial assistance from the federal government. More relief will be needed over the next three years, which is the estimated time for the completion of a new 40-mile pipeline from Flint to the very useable water from Lake Huron. Here in Montgomery County several communities, including Trotwood, Clayton and Huber Heights, have collected and delivered thousands of cases of bottled water to Flint.

Even before there was a water crisis, Flint was a financial basket case. It has struggled through the past decades as its tax base has disappeared along with General Motors. Unable to control spending to match the reduced city revenues, Flint’s Democratic-controlled city government drove the city into bankruptcy. As a result, the city was placed into a receivership by the State of Michigan. A financial manager, a Democrat, was appointed by the governor, a Republican, with the power to supersede the local government on financial matters as Flint was nursed back to financial health.

It was during this period of financial receivership under the appointed financial manager that the decision was made to leave the water system, which was being provided by the city of Detroit, for a cheaper water source coming directly from Lake Huron. When they informed their good neighbor Detroit that they would be leaving Detroit’s water district when the project pipeline to Lake Huron was finished, Detroit responded by immediately dismissing Flint as a water client. That’s right, Detroit, a city long under complete Democratic control, cut them off leaving this city of 100,000 residents looking for a new water source, simply because they were upset Flint was planning to join a new regional water authority and go elsewhere for its water.

As a result, Flint had to find a temporary water source while the pipeline to Lake Huron was being built. The solution was to use the Flint River. This probably would have worked if only they had added the necessary chemicals to prevent the leaching of the lead from the pipes. Some bureaucrat in the City of Flint Department of Water Treatment should have known that simply purifying the water without also protecting the pipes was to invite disaster. For some reason, that bureaucrat and the agency he or she worked for dropped the ball with devastating consequences.

When Flint’s water treatment experts failed to properly treat the water, it then fell to the Michigan EPA to follow best practices and through their due diligence stop the process before the damage became too severe. They also appear to have dropped the ball. Next, we would have hoped the federal EPA would have caught the colossal blunder, and said, “Stop! Where are the anti-leaching chemicals in your water treatment regimen?” But the Obama EPA is more concerned with labeling every puddle of water in a farmers’ field as a waterway and an extension of the Clean Water Act.  The EPA dropped the ball as well.

So, who’s to blame? The Flint City Council, which voted 7-1 to change their water supplier to save money? Darnell Early, a Democrat, the financial manager appointed to oversee Flint during its receivership and holding the reigns when the blunder occurred? The Republican Governor Rick Snyder who appointed Early and whose Department of Environmental Quality was slow to react? (The head of this department resigned Dec. 31.) The Federal EPA, which was also slow to react? How about the nameless Flint water department bureaucrat who was too untrained to know what chemicals were needed? All of these individuals and agencies bear some responsibility.

However, the real culprit and the only group whose intentional act brought about this crisis was the city of Detroit, which upon learning about the decision by Flint to change water suppliers cut them off from Detroit water, immediately forcing Flint to quickly find an alternative water source. Thanks Detroit … the children of Flint will be thanking you for generations.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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