The Background on the Flint Water Crisis

Why a $626 million settlement may never be enough

You may have heard there is finally a monetary settlement for injuries caused by the Flint water debacle brought about by Michigan Republicans who, in 2014, took over the city government and decided it would be cheaper to run corrosive Flint River water through already corroded lead pipes rather than the purer water Flint had been buying from Detroit for decades.

With that one reckless decision, the lives of Flint residents, most of them poor and black, changed forever. The effects of that lead-poisoned water will stay with many of them for the rest of their lives. It’s taken seven years and a change in administrations, but somewhere near $626 million will be heading to Flint to help pay the city and its residents for damage done.

It’s not enough. It’ll never be enough. But if it does anything, it’ll remind us that the city of Flint suffered immeasurably at the hands of a bunch of arrogant, bone-headed Republican authoritarians who, by the way, never spent a moment in jail or spent a penny of their own money to rectify the damage they caused. (It could happen yet but I’m not holding my breath. Charges have been filed against Snyder and his HHS director. They could sustain fines and spend up to a year in jail, but, remember—they’re Republicans.)

I’ve pulled two pieces I wrote in 2016, as the battle roared on, to give you an idea of how it happened and where it was going. The events were ugly, frustrating, and disheartening. People were getting sick, some were dying, and the children—the children were in real danger of lead-induced brain damage.

And all we could do was howl.

(The link to the second piece is at the end. Also, a shout-out to the pediatrician who first discovered the problem and worked tirelessly to save the children. I should have acknowledged her efforts from the start. I’m sorry I’ve waited so long.)


There's a Poison In Michigan And It's Not Just In The Water

January 12, 2016: You've probably heard that the water supply in Flint, Michigan is loaded with lead and has been poisoning the city's children, along with everyone else.  So far, there are 200 confirmed cases of lead poisoning among children under six, with some 9000 more believed to be at risk.  That's just the kids.

The water crisis began way back in April of 2014, when Flint's governor-appointed emergency manager (The sole dictator of municipal affairs after removing all duly elected officials from their bounden duties.) fired their water supplier, the city of Detroit, for charging too much.  He then decreed, despite numerous warnings from experts, that the water in the Flint River was good enough, and ordered the water department to begin running it through the old, lead-lined pipes.

It turned out that those old pipes were okay when Detroit water flowed through them but once the more corrosive Flint River water began running, it ate into the lead and leached it into the water supply going to the city's poorest neighborhoods.  (Something the folks at Flint's General Motors plant warned them would happen, since they had long ago discovered how hard that water was on their equipment and stopped using it.)

The water was murky and smelled bad but the water department assured the residents it was okay to bathe in, and, more importantly, to drink.  So the residents bathed in it and cooked with it and drank it, wanting to believe their government officials wouldn't be allowing them to use that nasty water if it wasn't safe.

But it wasn't safe.  It isn't safe. Not by a long shot. So after almost two years of going back and forth about this awful water and the dangers it held, Governor Rick Snyder was real sorry for how it turned out, and said so publicly.  "I apologize for the state's part in this," he said.  And says.  And no doubt will go on saying.  Because, words, you know, mean something.

To his credit, he shut down the Emergency Manager operation in Flint (that same emergency manager he put in place even after Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum against emergency managers) and he fired a few people in high offices.  So now--now something would be done!  Well, okay, not now as in NOW.  It's more like "Now that national attention is on us, we're going to be thinking seriously about doing something about this!"

You would think, after all the hoo-haw, the governor would at last have put in that all-important call to the Feds--to FEMA--asking for an issuance of a Federal state of emergency.  You would think.

Well, he's getting to it.  It's not time yet, he says.  First he had to put out a state state of emergency, the necessary precursor to getting the Feds involved, not to mention an almost magical procrastination tool for someone who wants desperately to go on believing there's no way, no how he'll EVER need the services of those folks in Washington.

To Snyder's mind, just issuing the SOM is going above and beyond the call of gubernatorial duty.  He held a press conference the other day to brag about this big step he took, seeming not to recognize, until members of the press started asking him about it, that the next step, calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which, for some, might have been the first step), would be a good thing, too.  His solution, instead, was to ask churches and charities to dig in and deliver truckloads of little water bottles.  (Please!  Don't make me go to FEMA! They’re the FEDS! Give!  Give!)

Update:  Gov. Snyder, in order to stall the Feds, is bringing in the National Guard.  They'll be delivering cases of little water bottles, filters, and testing kits.  State troopers will be delivering water door-to-door where needed.  No mention of the water buffaloes, the big military tank trucks carrying potable water, even though Rachel Maddow suggested it the other night.  Too bad they don't watch her.  It's hard to rinse shampooed hair with little water bottles, not to mention cleansing tushies.)

You might wonder how all of this could happen, given the government resources available to the Snyder administration, just in our state alone. You, my friends, are not alone.  But let me remind you that Michigan has been under a supreme, GOP-enforced dictatorship since New Year's Day, 2011.  There is a long, dirty laundry list of the slow takeover of an entire state, much of it outlined in this June, 2015 Mother Jones article.  Rachel Maddow has been resolute in her reporting of Michigan's plight since the early days of the takeover, when Chris Savage at Eclectablog, Michigan's foremost progressive blog, brought it to her attention.  It's not as if this is anything different from business as usual.  Except now people are being physically injured instead of just losing jobs or homes or going broke or hungry.

This is not a takeover in the truest sense, since two elections had to take place in order to get Snyder and his GOP-majority cohorts where they are today.  That means there were enough people willing to allow this to happen without regard to the rest of us--or even to themselves.  These "leaders" were elected mainly on the strength of their anti-Fed, pro-state's-rights promises.  Their campaigns were built on hatred, fear and mistrust of anyone in Washington or beyond.  Now they're in a fix:  How do they ask for federal assistance without looking like they actually (Oh, ew, gross!) need it?

So here might be a good place to remind voters that when a candidate for a publicly held taxpayer-paid office says he or she is "anti-government" what they really mean is they're anti-any-other-government-except-their-very-own.

Let Michigan be a lesson for you.

(One more thing in the "Adding Insult to Injury, Michigan Style" department:  Those people who were fooled into believing their poisoned water was safe?  They're still getting water bills.  No.  I'm not kidding.


Addendum: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was (and is) the hero in all of this. She’s now an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, but at the time of the water crisis she was a pediatrician who saw firsthand the effects the lead in the water had on the children she was seeing. She sounded the alarm, only to be shot down as ‘hysterical’, among other accusations from the Snyder administration.

Her story is here.

Here is the second of my stories, The Flint Water Crisis: It’s All Obama’s Fault. If you find value in these stories, please share them. The water crisis was man-made and wholly avoidable. The people responsible need to be held accountable. The last thing the people of Flint want is for this story to be buried. Every chance we can get to keep it alive, please let’s do it.

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 For more on the water poisoning in Flint, see The Atlantic's What Did the Governor Know About Flint's Water and When Did He Know It?

For Michigan progressive resources, see my Michigan Under Siege page.

(Also posted at Crooks and Liars)

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