Running Michigan like a business: Flint’s children damaged for life

WASHINGTON – The latest hearing of the House Oversight committee on the Flint water crisis was straight from Through the Looking Glass. The Republican majority attempted to paint a picture that’s the reverse of what actually happened.

Flint’s water became poisoned with lead when, to save a little money, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder insisted the source be switched from Lake Huron to the highly polluted Flint River.

Flint residents began to get sick almost immediately. They suffered painful rashes and disabling internal ailments of all kinds. Worst of all, hundreds of children showed symptoms of lead poisoning: lower cognitive functioning, irrational behavior and a wide variety of illnesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried over and over again to get Snyder to take measures that would neutralize the lead leaching into the water from the pipes that carried it from the river.

Snyder did nothing.

Nevertheless, at the Oversight Committee hearing the Republicans literally screamed at EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and beamed at Gov. Snyder.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, acknowledged it was a lucky thing to have a hearing at all. “Most [Republican] committee chairs would not have held a hearing,” he said, because Snyder is one of their own. He ran for governor promising to “run Michigan like a business.”

Actually, Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, R., Utah, agreed to investigate the Flint crisis only after a nationwide outcry. He held two rounds of hearings and wanted to wrap up without even asking Snyder to testify. However, he yielded to a nationwide campaign and asked Snyder to come to Capitol Hill.

Even then, Chaffetz did everything he could to shield Snyder from any heat. He billed the hearing as Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint.

Governor “doesn’t remember” warnings

Throughout the hearing, in face of hostile, loud and ludicrous questioning, EPA Administrator McCarthy kept her cool. She explained several times that as part of the states’ rights doctrine it has adopted, Congress has limited the powers of the EPA.

“Under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” McCarthy said, “Congress gives states the primary responsibility to enforce drinking water rules.” The EPA is only to serve as a backstop and is allowed to act only after a thorough review and a finding that a flaw in a state’s behavior is widespread.

“Looking back on Flint,” McCarthy continued, “from day one, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information. Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious.”

Even so, the EPA repeatedly offered Michigan officials help to counter the pipe corrosion poisoning the water. The officials ignored the offers.

That didn’t stop Republican members of the Oversight Committee from using the hearing to accuse McCarthy of inaction.

After sitting through the proceedings for several hours, Rep. William Clay, D. Mo., said, “I truly admire my Republican colleagues. They are able to keep a straight face in saying that the Obama EPA should have overstepped its authority and overruled the state of Michigan while for years they have been slamming the EPA for overreaching.

“Members of this committee have voted at every turn to scale back the Clean Water Act.

“In fact,” Clay continued, “Republicans are calling for abolishing the EPA.”

During the hearing, Snyder repeatedly said he had been unaware that Flint’s water was unsafe.

Rep. Cummings, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D., N.Y., and other Democratic members of the panel read to Snyder e-mails sent to him from a wide range of people telling him about the crisis early on. For example, Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote that “[Flint] residents are concerned, and rightly so, about lead levels in water. Residents feel blown off by us.”

Cummings and Maloney also read written statements from Snyder’s staff members recounting discussions about the water.

Snyder said he remembered neither the e-mails nor the discussions.

Running Michigan ‘like a business”

Several years ago, Snyder convinced the legislature to give him authority to appoint an “emergency manager” to any jurisdiction in Michigan. The manager has martial law-like powers and cannot be challenged by locally elected officials.

Snyder said he needed this power to fulfill his campaign pledge to “run Michigan like a business.”

It was a business that caused Flint’s downward spiral in the first place.

Flint had been a thriving community until General Motors abandoned the city to make higher profits by producing cars elsewhere.

Flint went bankrupt. Snyder appointed an emergency manager and that manager proposed switching the water source to save money, even though Michigan had a budget surplus of some $600 million.

Despite warnings about the danger, Snyder insisted the water be switched. The result was a disaster.

At the hearing, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D., Mich, asked Snyder “Do you still believe in running a state like a business?”

Snyder admitted he had made mistakes. “I have to live with the results for the rest of my life,” he said.

Rep. Cummings told him, “[Because of you] the children of Flint have to live with the damage done for the rest of their lives; they will be damaged until the day they die. Their destiny is messed up. They will never be what God intended them to be when they were born.”

Photo: AP


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.