Water contamination big issue in Michigan governor’s race
Amarria Jackson, 16, of Flint, looks away so she won't see blood as a health official in February 2016 takes her blood for a lead test at Carriage Town Ministries in Flint, Mich. Jake May, The Flint (Mich.) Journal via AP

DETROIT (PAI)—Almost four years after lead-contaminated and dangerous drinking water first started flowing into residents’ pipes and into their homes in Flint, Mich., the state and attorneys for Flint’s schoolchildren have settled a class-action suit about it, agreeing to universal screening of Flint students for lead poisoning, including in-depth blood testing. The federal class action suit against the state asserted violations of federal and state special education laws.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which sponsored a Flint teachers’ tour nationwide to tell others about the toll it took on their kids, endorsed the settlement, estimated to cost at least $97 million. Meanwhile, water quality, not just in Flint but statewide, has become a top issue in the Michigan’s wide-open governor’s race.

Just days before the April 10 settlement, the state announced lead levels in Flint’s water had dropped enough and stayed low enough for the last two years for Michigan to stop sending bottled water to the majority-minority city’s 102,000 residents. And that decision by term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed the emergency financial manager who ordered the switch in water sources that caused the poisoning, angers many in Flint.

It also irks Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who first blew the whistle on the lead in Flint’s water. “This is wrong. Until all lead pipes are replaced, state should make available bottled water and filters to Flint residents,” she tweeted.

The crisis began in April 2014, when Flint residents found odd smells and discoloration in their tap water, whose origin had recently been shifted from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Without proper anti-corrosion chemicals, that caused Flint’s old pipes to leach lead into the water. The state-appointed financial manager ordered the source switch and the chemical ban to save money.

Residents complained, but state officials didn’t listen. Outspoken physicians and public health specialists found and publicized abnormally high lead levels in the water. Lead levels in children’s blood cause serious brain damage and disability. The kids were very scared, with one elementary schooler tearfully asking a teacher: “Am I going to die?”

A later independent report concluded “environmental racism” was a key reason for the officials’ attitudes and the water crisis. Snyder state water officials are white. So is the GOP state legislative majority that approved the financial manager’s law allowing state takeovers of “financially failing” cities and other governments. Takeovers hit mostly non-white bodies.

“Flint families have endured a rolling nightmare because of politicians and administrators who would prefer to strip underprivileged communities of resources than to invest in them,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers. “Tens of thousands of kids have suffered permanent harm because of their illegal actions. Today, the children of Flint have won a measure of justice through an unprecedented settlement that mandates the services and support that both the law and basic decency demand.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten added: “The children of Flint, who have suffered an entirely man-made crisis, today have won some relief in the courts to help alleviate the health issues they face. At the core of this case is the legal standard that children with disabilities — such as those with lead poisoning — must receive the same education and support guaranteed to others. If they don’t, a just remedy must be found and enforced.

“Flint kids will now get the services they need to help them recover and thrive. But our fight is far from over. We owe these children recompense for the health problems they may suffer for decades to come — entirely predictable and foreseeable injuries that arose after the governor and the emergency manager decided to expose them to contaminated water and lead pipes. We must never let politicians create emergency control that strips away local democratic checks and balances and allows them to put ideology over the health and safety of children and communities, which enables foreseeable disasters like poisoned water.”

Teacher, writer and environmental racism activist Jessyca Mathews, a Flint native, has a different view, in an interview with the National Education Association’s website magazine.

“Gov. Snyder and the whole team have done nothing to rebuild the trust destroyed during the water crisis. People simply don’t believe the water is safe to drink and this closure” of the distribution of fresh water “and the way it was announced just furthers that feeling.

“You have to remember that we noticed an immediate change in the clarity and quality of their water in 2014 as soon as the supply was changed over, but it took over a year for action to be taken. We took our case to the governor’s appointed emergency manager for Flint, to Gov. Snyder directly and a lot of people in between, and we were ignored and told everything was fine. During that time, we were poisoned by toxic water.

“This is happening in Flint, but there are communities across the country where students are affected by toxic levels of lead. You need to educate yourself and look for the signs of lead poisoning,” Mathews warned other teachers.

“It is hard to put into words the feeling of powerlessness and frustration my students feel at having their voices ignored for over a year under those circumstances. Without the intervention of the team at Virginia Tech who went public with their independent testing about the toxic levels of lead, I don’t know where we’d be.

“We talk about environmental racism – and that is what Flint was about. It all comes down to race and money. Across the country poor and minority communities are more often impacted by toxic environments. Flint used to be a booming town, but when GM closed its plant and the life changed almost overnight. The real truth is that this water crisis happened in Flint, but it could happen anywhere.”

Flint’s water woes and Snyder’s response, or lack of it, have become issues in the race to succeed him. State Attorney General William Schuette is the sole Republican who opposes stopping the free distribution of fresh water in Flint. He says that bottled water should continue until all of Flint’s lead-lined water pipes are replaced.

Schuette, a former congressman who is otherwise known for his conservative views – including his anti-public education stands – is also campaigning on the fact he’s indicted 30 members of his own governor’s administration for crimes in the Flint case.

The other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls in the swing state, including the other front-runner, Lieut. Gov. Brian Calley, would let Flint fend for itself, water-wise.

Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Gretchen Whitmer, Shri Thanedar, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Bill Cobbs also want to keep shipping bottled water to Flint residents. Both teachers unions, Teamsters Joint Council 43 and the United Auto Workers have already endorsed Whitmer. All four unions are heavy hitters in Michigan Democratic politics.

El-Sayed, a physician and public health specialist from the Detroit suburbs, is running on an avowed pro-public health and environment platform, with response to the Flint water catastrophe as a centerpiece. He’s the only hopeful who cites the state’s “environmental racism” conclusion. The Michigan Nurses Association endorsed him.

Gov. Snyder recently proposed replacing all lead-lined water pipes in areas with lead levels above 10 parts per billion (ppb) within 20 years. El-Sayed told a state environmental journal the 20-year timeline is fair, but it should cover all areas with lead above 5 ppb.

“We need to go a step further,” he said of Snyder’s proposal. “The science says really there is no level of lead that is safe for human consumption or any other circumstances…It’s about money. If this is not a state and national priority in the aftermath of the state water crisis, I don’t know what is.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.