Flint crisis drags on

The struggle for justice continues in Flint.

The crisis of lead contamination, caused by a failure to add anti-corrosive chemicals to water drawn from the Flint River, did not end when Flint returned to its previous source, Detroit Water and Sewerage.

While Detroit water comes properly treated, Flint’s estimated 15,000 aging lead service lines are still leaching lead into the water. One reason is that the pipes were damaged during 18 months of exposure to untreated river water. Another is that residents are still limiting their use of the toxic water, which prevents phosphates from coating the lead pipes.

The filters provided for some residents are ineffective in homes where the water has more than 150 parts per billion of lead. Many residents are without filters at all. Thus, untold numbers of people, including children, still do not have safe drinking water.

Moreover, lead is not the only contaminant in the water. Showering and bathing still cause skin rashes, hair loss and breathing trouble, with disinfectant byproducts a possible factor.

The people of Flint are weary of endless trips to procure bottled water, which is getting harder to come by as the state cuts back. The amount of waste is staggering, yet the fire stations, which have served as both water distribution and recycling centers, have stopped accepting empty bottles.

The struggle has turned ordinary residents into celebrities, the latest being Amaryana “Mari” Copeny, whose appeal brought President Barack Obama to Flint. “Little Miss Flint” is recognized in public and often complimented. Yet 8-year-old Mari has been the subject of racist attacks over misspelled words and how she speaks.

By holding a meeting in Flint the president did more than Gov. Rick Snyder, who lives just 45 minutes away in Ann Arbor but has yet to meet with residents. Obama lost all credibility with Flint residents, however, when he drank city water to support the government’s position that the water was safe to drink. Snyder infuriated residents when he pulled the same publicity stunt and then left the country, avoiding Flint water for 10 days.

The president made a point of telling Flint that help is on the way, but the federal government is only sending an $80 million revolving loan fund — for all of Michigan.

The latest outrage is the announcement that Flint water bills, already among the highest in the country, are expected to double over the next five years. The point of disconnecting from Detroit was supposedly to save money.

Residents sue for pipe replacement

On May 13, attorneys presented initial arguments in a lawsuit charging state and city officials with violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Melissa Mays, founder of “Water You Fighting For,” filed the suit along with Flint-based Pastors for Social Action, the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief in the form of a court order to replace all of Flint’s lead service lines.

State attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the state is complying with a remedial order from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NRDC attorney Dimple Chaudhary pointed out that the state is trying to get out from under that very order. “Pipes continue to leach lead. Lead is not minimized. There is continued harm to residents of Flint,” Chaudhary told the judge.

More than 100 people attended the Detroit hearing. Activists in solidarity with Flint packed the chambers, with latecomers straining to hear the proceedings outside the doorway. The plaintiffs are waiting on federal Judge David Lawson to decide if the case, one of many lawsuits by Flint residents seeking justice, will go forward.

What is needed?

Lead has been known to be toxic for ages, but was used in paint, gasoline, piping and other products with no regard to worker or community safety. Lead at any level is poisonous, especially to young children, who suffer developmentally. Water is only one route of entry into the body. Untold numbers of children — particularly children of color — were harmed by contact with lead-based paint until its use was banned.

Many communities across the country have aging lead pipes that need to be replaced. High levels of lead in water have been reported in large cities, small towns and on Native reservations. On March 17, USA Today reported that “hundreds of schools across the nation” have water lead levels in “excessive amounts.” Earlier, the same paper reported that 2,000 water systems across the country had elevated lead content. Lead above cautionary levels has been found in school drinking fountains in Detroit and even in the well-off suburb of Grosse Pointe in Michigan.

Fixing the problem would be a massive undertaking. It would cost billions upon billions of dollars and require a massive endeavor of human labor. But what is more important?

Many of the cities where excessive lead has been reported in the water also have high rates of poverty and unemployment. Flint, the poorest city in Michigan, has an official poverty rate of more than 40 percent. Detroit’s rate is only a percentage point behind Flint’s. Why not put residents to work fixing pipes?

It is time for a massive public works program similar to the Works Project Administration of the 1930s. The state and federal governments, the banks and corporations like General Motors who created the environmental and economic havoc, should be made to pay for what the plaintiffs are suing for: Fix the pipes now!

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