by Dorian Bon
January 27, 2016
AFTER MORE than a year and a half of bitter protests, the people of Flint, Michigan, are finally getting some attention from America’s rulers and media for a water contamination crisis that has put thousands of children at risk of lifelong brain and developmental illnesses as a result of severe lead poisoning.
The crisis began in April 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager–given the authority to unilaterally slash budgets and reorganize finances in eight Michigan cities–decided to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, heavily polluted by the city’s industry.
The stated motive for the switch was to save some $19 million over eight years, according to Michigan Live. Whatever steps that federal, state and local governments take now to deal with this manmade catastrophe will cost many hundreds or thousands of times that amount.
But media scrutiny and a developing federal investigation are uncovering other possible motives for this crime–all of them just as sleazy and corrupt.
Reporter Steve Neavling of the Motor City Muckraker has suggested that the state’s goal wasn’t so much to cut costs, but to deprive the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) of customers, force it into bankruptcy, and then privatize it. That, of course, is a top priority for Tea Partying fanatic Gov. Rick Snyder and the other reactionaries in control of the Michigan state government.
Another source reports, based on a recently released e-mail, that the DWSD offered a deal for Flint that would have been 20 percent cheaper than switching to the polluted supply.
Either way, the criminal decision was made with the aim of inflicting the Republicans’ fanatical austerity agenda–through cost-cutting and/or privatization–on an already devastated city. Water from the river quickly caused corrosion and damage to the city’s pipes, releasing lead into the water that flowed into the city’s homes, businesses and public buildings.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected last November, estimates that far from saving money, the damage already done will require $1.5 billion in repairs to the city’s water infrastructure–and that doesn’t begin to help with the human toll.
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FLINT COULD be ruled by the unaccountable fiat of a Republican-appointed administrator because of Snyder’s authoritarian Emergency Management law. By early 2013, the democratically elected representatives of nearly 10 percent of the state’s population had been overturned by Snyder.
Flint, like six of the remaining seven Michigan cities subjected to Snyder’s financial managers, is a majority Black city. Fully half of the state’s African American population is living under an unaccountable bureaucrat selected by a Tea Party fanatic.
Within days of the water supply switch, the segment of Flint’s population most susceptible to lead poisoning–its children–began to display the typical symptoms: rashes, vomiting, fatigue and constipation, among others, alarming parents who sought answers from city and state officials.
As a chronology of events from the New York Times reveals, residents of Flint were met with dismissiveness and outright contempt by the state and regional bureaucracy, from Snyder’s designated emergency managers, to representatives of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Residents organized marches, sit-ins and speak-outs to demand answers, while city and state agencies either ignored them or tried to downplay the crisis. In fall 2015, Hurley Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards confirmed what many in Flint already suspected: Lead levels in the city’s water had shot upward since the supply was rerouted in April 2014–and the Flint River’s corrosive and polluted water was responsible.
A team of researchers led by Edwards that sampled the water in 271 Flint homes last summer found some had lead levels high enough to meet the EPA’s definition of “toxic waste.”
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THROUGHOUT THIS period, the people of Flint relied on one another and on help from largely working-class people in neighboring areas to meet the needs of everyday life in a city where poison quite literally comes out of the taps.
But until official recognition of the scale and severity of the contamination came this month, only a few independent voices informed the people of Flint that the city was facing a mass lead-poisoning epidemic that would result in irreparable damage to children’s health.
Lead poisoning and pipe corrosion also increase the risks of contracting Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia. There is speculation that the contaminated water may be the cause of Flint’s 87 recorded Legionnaire’s cases, which have claimed 10 lives since the 2014 water supply changes.
Don Kooy, the president of Flint’s McLaren Regional Medical Center, revealed recently that the hospital had traced the Legionnaires’ outbreak to its water supply more than a year ago–and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pathologist reportedly recommended a state investigation in April.
Understandably, many who have called Flint their home for years want to leave town. But the city’s poverty rate is over 40 percent, and median household income hovers around $27,000. With these limitations, few people can afford to get up and leave. As one woman named Joy attested in an interview with the website Upvoted.com, “I would leave everything, literally everything, but my children and the clothes on my back in a half a second if I had the money to go.”
Grassroots activism, the dedication of a few researchers and journalistic exposes were the only things that finally forced the state to pay attention to the crisis. On January 5 of this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that it was opening up an investigation into Flint’s water crisis, and Snyder himself declared a state of emergency.
Nine days later, protesters marched through the Michigan state Capitol building in Lansing to make clear to the nation that they wanted nothing less than Snyder’s resignation and an immediate, comprehensive relief effort to purify Flint’s water. “They’re poisoning the people…If we don’t speak up and speak out, we will never have change,” said Bernadel Jefferson, over chants of “Hey, hey! Ho ho! Governor Snyder’s got to go!”
This pressure pushed the poisoning of Flint into the national spotlight. On January 16, Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint’s Genesee County, freeing up an immediate $5 million in relief funds and promising another $80 million for reconstruction. “I would be beside myself” if I were a Flint parent, the president said.
At a gathering of mayors at the White House, Obama called Flint’s water crisis “inexcusable.” The Democratic Party’s establishment candidate for the presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, also weighed in during the most recent Democratic presidential debate, stating, “If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.”
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TERRIFIED OF losing his post, Snyder gave a hopelessly awkward and unconvincing apology in his annual State of the State address on January 19, in which he spoke about “restoring trust” and addressing “failures of bureaucracy.” “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level,” Snyder said. “We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city.”
Meanwhile, however, Snyder’s office, which is exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, initially dragged its heels on requests to release e-mails from 2014 and 2015 related to the crisis. When it finally did release the messages in heavily redacted form, they showed that aides in Snyder’s office tried to pass the buck, declaring in one instance that the “real responsibility rests with the county, city and [the Karegnondi Water Authority].” That e-mail was in response to Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who reported the elevated levels of lead in the children of Flint.
Amid this flurry of media attention, Flint Mayor Weaver announced the restoration of partial fiscal control for the Flint city government and the end of Snyder’s “emergency management” authority.
Increased water and filtration supplies have finally begun to be transported to residents, with the National Guard delivering aid packages door to door in front of television cameras. This is certainly a welcome change, but it will do little for the estimated 1,000 undocumented migrants living in Flint who can’t present the required identification to register for relief supplies.
To this day, neither state nor federal officials have presented Flint with a comprehensive plan to take on the $1.5 billion in emergency repairs needed after the poisoning of the city’s water in the name of austerity.
The first of what Michiganders hope will be many resignations in response to the crisis took place on January 22, when Susan Hedman, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, stepped down. Snyder, on the other hand, continues to deflect calls for his resignation–and even arrest–labeling them distractions and complaining that political opponents are trying to turn “tragedy into politics.”
But Flint’s water crisis is indeed “political”–in ways that neither a Republican reactionary like Rick Snyder, nor Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are likely to acknowledge.
This week, for example, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that weeks after he initially refused to investigate allegations of wrongdoing related to the water crisis, he is now appointing former prosecutor Todd Flood as a special counsel to investigate whether any state laws were broken.
But as it turns out, Flood was a campaign donor to both Schuette and Rick Synder in 2010 and 2014. That’s hardly the ethics-based ‘conflict wall’ between him and his investigation team, and the team defending the governor and state departments against Flint water-related lawsuits” that Schuette promised the public.
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THE POISONING of Flint is not the consequence of a momentary “failure of government” or lapse in bureaucratic procedure. It is the result of decades of a ruling class offensive in Flint and around America, designed to destroy unions, as well as to cut back and privatize public infrastructures for the bosses’ profits, so that future rounds of capital accumulation can proceed free of the meddling influence of workers demanding either good jobs or welfare and stability.
Michigan has a long and powerful history of workers’ struggles. In Flint, workers won demands for union recognition and a contract by occupying General Motors factories, a victory that precipitated a massive wave of sit-down strikes across the country in 1937 that helped found the modern U.S. labor movement.
In 1968 in Detroit, Black workers fought back against racism and bureaucratic control by both the auto companies and the United Auto Workers union when they launched the Revolutionary Union Movement, which at its peak reached cities stretching from Birmingham, Alabama, to Baltimore, Maryland, to Fremont, California.
In the following years, Corporate America chose to respond to workers demanding their rights in the most inhumane way possible–by shutting down a lot of the auto industry that Michigan’s workers had built over the decades, and relocating it in search of cheaper labor in the Southern U.S. and Mexico. That left a vacuum of unemployment, downward wage pressure and instability in Michigan.
This drastic step to disempower labor laid the foundations for subsequent bouts of austerity. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. government bailed out not only Wall Street, but two of the three big auto giants, GM and Chrysler. But the crisis gave state authorities and their Washington counterparts the opportunity to balance the budget on the backs of workers.
From 2011 on, Snyder pushed a sweeping and misnamed “right-to-work” campaign intended to scapegoat unions for the economic crisis and further weaken their power. Next, he passed emergency management legislation allowing state-appointed administrators to assume total control over the budgets of cities, most of them majority Black, that had already borne the brunt of the state’s cost-cutting assault.
Outside of Flint, the humanitarian crisis hit other cities like Detroit, Pontiac and Allen Park at least as hard. One striking example of the shared fate of Michigan cities under the thumb of the budget-cutting maniacs: Darnell Early, Snyder’s appointed emergency manager for Flint at the time of the water supply switch, later took charge of Detroit Public Schools and imposed further austerity in a school system that is literally crumbling, its buildings infested with rats, and grossly understaffed.
During Obama’s recent visit to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, teachers at more than 90 percent of Detroit’s public schools staged a mass “sick-out” to protest the hazardous conditions they and their students face every day, and expressing their solidarity with those fighting for clean water in Flint.
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THE PEOPLE of Flint and Detroit are absolutely right to lay blame for this crisis on Rick Snyder. The attempts of Republicans like Jeb Bush to portray Governor Snyder as a responsible helmsman struggling to discipline Michigan’s corrupt and broken government are patently absurd.
Snyder’s austerity program is the immediate cause of the crisis in Flint. He should be removed from office, arrested and tried for criminal negligence, if not murder.
As Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, told Salon.com:
I see what’s happening in Flint as the classic case and a poster child for environmental racism. This is a man-made disaster. It did not have to happen. And it basically tells us that the state of Michigan believes that the residents of Flint don’t deserve equal protection. They don’t deserve the same rights that would be enforced if they were not largely poor and majority African American.
And it isn’t only the Republican Party, but the Democrats, too, who are to blame for the poisoning of Flint. President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s expressions of sympathy and outrage over this calamity ring hollow considering their own support for the pro-austerity ruling-class agenda that led to Flint’s disaster.
If we are going to be concerned about the poisoning of Flint’s water supply, then we must also indict the Obama administration for championing the ongoing hydraulic fracturing boom that is contaminating the country’s groundwater in countless communities.
Nor should we overlook Obama’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic agreement, which would erect new legal protections for capital and make it much harder for victims of environmental damage to bring the business interests responsible to justice.
As for Hillary Clinton, the former Walmart board member and one-time stalwart proponent of mass incarceration legislation and welfare-slashing measures–though she today claims to oppose them–is in no position to speak on matters of racism.
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POLITICIANS AND the establishment media don’t talk about lead poisoning or the broader question of environmental racism unless they have to. As of 2013, one in 38 U.S. children were affected by lead poisoning–twice as many as previously thought. That’s half a million U.S. children with toxic lead levels in their bloodstreams, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In the most extreme case, that of Houston County, Alabama, 58.3 percent of children have tested positive for lead poisoning. On the whole, Black children are twice as likely to suffer lead exposure than white children.
To resolves a crisis on this scale would require a sweeping mobilization of resources to replace toxic building materials and water treatment systems with new and safe structures. But neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will prioritize public health over corporate profits.
To accomplish that will take a resurgence of the kind of collective action that made Flint and Detroit the epicenter of U.S. workers’ struggles.
But the truth is that it was grassroots action that forced Snyder and Obama to respond to the poisoning of Flint’s children in the first place. As Madeline Stano, a staff attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Oakland, Calif., told Salon.com:
Often it comes down to a question of who holds the power, whose voice counts and whose voice is the loudest. One of the beautiful parts of this [Flint] story is that the residents’ voice was the loudest, through their collective action and persistence, creativity and ingenuity. It was the moms of Flint who paid for and got funding to do outside testing. They made this a story, despite all of the efforts of the state government to hide it under the rug.
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Tell Gov. Snyder: Protect Flint’s Families from Toxic Water! (Action Alert)
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