Behind the poisoning of Flint’s children

‘Arrest Gov. Snyder!’

flint_0121The lead poisoning of children in Flint, Mich., now a national scandal, was entirely preventable.

Lead is poison. People exposed to lead have known this for centuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead exposure can affect nearly every bodily system and no safe blood level in children has been identified. The brain is the organ most vulnerable to lead, particularly in children, whose brains and bodies are not fully developed. The effects of lead on children — most frequently learning, developmental and behavioral disabilities — are well known.

Prevention of lead poisoning, however, is straightforward: Avoid ingesting, inhaling or making skin contact with lead.

For decades, Flint received its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, whose water quality is among the country’s best. In 2014, however, the Flint City Council voted to join a new water authority. With its infrastructure not yet built, the decision to unhook from Detroit and get Flint’s water from the highly polluted Flint River was made by Ed Kurtz, the unelected Emergency Manager of this majority African-American city. Kurtz’s unelected successor, Darnell Earley, carried out the switch. After Flint emerged from emergency management, Snyder had the nerve to appoint Earley EM over Detroit Public Schools.

The pollutants in the Flint River — a result of decades of unchecked chemical dumping by General Motors and other companies — have made the river water highly corrosive. This allowed lead to leach from the aging pipes in Flint’s system. This leaching could have been prevented by adding anti-corrosive chemicals to the water at a cost of roughly $100 per day. Now, the corrosion of the lead pipes has destroyed the entire infrastructure. Even though the city has reconnected to the Detroit system, the water is still not safe because of the corroded pipes.

Too late for Flint’s children

This switchback to Detroit came too late for Flint’s children. Complaints to authorities about the brownish color and the foul taste and smell of the water, noticed immediately after the switch to the Flint River, were repeatedly ignored. Reports of skin rashes, hair loss and digestive disorders were dismissed.

Bob Bowcock — an associate of environmental activist Erin Brockovich — after studying the situation for no charge, recommended the obvious: reconnect to Detroit until the new project is finished. Instead, the emergency manager paid the notorious Veolia Corp. $40,000 to conduct a study which recommended reducing other unsafe pollutants with chemicals and using filters. Veolia did not address the lead pipe corrosion issue. Now that it will cost well over $1 billion to replace the corroded pipes, will Veolia emerge with an offer to rebuild the infrastructure in exchange for being allowed to privatize the water department?

LeeAnne Walters, whose son Gavin has lead poisoning, had the water department test her water when her family developed skin rashes after bathing or using the kids’ pool. While no level is considered safe by the federal government, a lead level of 15 parts per billion or higher is deemed cause for concern. The first test measured 100 ppb. A second test a week later showed 400 ppb!

Officials in the state Department of Environmental Quality, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, and even the governor himself, repeatedly assured Flint residents the water was safe to drink and bathe with.

Meanwhile GM, after expressing fears that the corrosive water would damage equipment, was allowed to disconnect from Flint city and connect to Flint Township’s water supply, which does not draw from the Flint River.

The people expose the truth

It took an independent effort by community activists, aided by University of Virginia professor and water safety specialist Marc Edwards, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Michigan ACLU investigative journalist Curt Guyette, to expose both the toxic lead levels in the water and the lead poisoning already impacting the children.

Edwards used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the now scandalous email sent by the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, to Snyder back in July. In it, Muchmore admits “these folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.”

Snyder has apologized and state DEQ head Dan Wyant and spokesperson Brad Wurfel have resigned. After a federal investigation of this horrible crime was announced, Snyder declared a state of emergency.

Efforts to get bottled water and water filters to residents were slow to get under way. Solidarity donations from Detroit water rights activists and the United Auto Workers helped temporarily.

Even when the water is deemed to be safe, many families will still be without service. These households had their water shut off when they fell behind in their bills. Despite being undrinkable, Flint’s water is the most expensive in Michigan and among the most expensive in the country. Residents of the mostly white suburbs of Genesee County pay much less.

Arrest Gov. Snyder!

There are many links in the chain of blame, but the prime suspect is Gov. ­Snyder.

“I feel like he should be arrested,” said Flint activist Nayyirah Sharif of the Democracy Defense League. “He can take his apology and flush it down the toilet.” More than 60,000 people have signed an online petition by filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore for Snyder’s arrest.

Over 200 Flint residents and Detroit supporters rallied outside Flint City Hall Jan. 8 for an “Arrest Snyder Road Show” demonstration. The action featured a giant papier mache head of Snyder, with the person wearing the puppet head clad in a prison jumpsuit.

The protest was called by the Flint group “Water You Fighting For,” “We the People of Detroit,” the Detroit People’s Water Board and the Detroit Light Brigade, who carried lighted signs that spelled out “Arrest Snyder 4 Flint Water.” “Water You Fighting For” founder Melissa Mays, who has suffered along with her children, spoke, along with Sharif and Detroit water activists.

Behind the crisis

Public Act 436, passed in 2012, allows the governor to appoint an emergency manager over a city or school district in financial distress. The EM has broad dictatorial powers. Elected city officials have no standing beyond what the EM grants them. This appointed overseer can unilaterally overturn union contracts, sell off city assets, declare bankruptcy and generally make his or her own rules with one exception: Bondholders must be paid. This bankers-first, dictator law was a slightly modified version of Public Act 4, which the voters rejected at the polls.

All but one of the Michigan cities that have had an EM imposed are majority African-American. All of the cities that have been under emergency management have a high poverty rate. Flint’s is 40 percent. (Democracy Now)

Flint, the birthplace of GM, was not always poor. The town grew in the 19th century as a center for carriage building and in the 20th century shifted to automobile manufacturing. People from all over the country and the world flocked to GM’s plants. GM had 10 plants in Flint in 1937, the year of the sit-down strikes, employing most of the population.

The city’s tax base never recovered from the wave of GM plant closings in the 1980s, made famous in Michael Moore’s documentary, “Roger and Me.” Two decades later, Flint, like Detroit, was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis caused by racist predatory lending. Debt service to the banks has been a strain on the city budget.

These are the economic facts behind the toxic cost cutting decisions. This is capitalist austerity at its worst. Snyder has committed a horrific crime and should go to jail. So should the GM bosses and the bankers for their role in the mass poisoning of a population.