During the last round of questions at Sunday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton brought attention to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And thank God she did.
Though the story has captured headlines in recent weeks, what’s happening in Flint has been nearly two years in the making. On the surface, lead in water is plenty to be concerned about. Lead poisoning has been tied to a range of health problems, including behavioral and reproductive disorders, kidney disease and anemia. According to the World Health Organization, “lead is a metal with no known biological benefit to humans.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that lead poisoning cannot be remedied by heating or boiling water.
But the crisis in Flint, a city of 100,000 whose economy collapsed in the 1980s and never recovered, is about far more than poisoned water. Flint is a majority black city with a median income that is $12,000 lower than the national average.
As Clinton pointed out, had the water crisis — which began in early 2014 — occurred in an affluent suburb, we likely would have heard about it long ago. And officials would have acted much faster.
Flint has had one financial crisis after another since the 1980s. It’s been mired in endless lawsuits and was in such disarray that the state of Michigan appointed emergency managers to run the city on multiple occasions. Since 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has appointed four different emergency managers, with the most recent one’s term ending April 30, 2015.
As a cost-cutting measure in April 2014, the city began temporarily drawing water from the Flint River instead of from Detroit. By the summer of 2014, tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria in the water. In response, officials issued boiling advisories. In January 2015, parents complained of rashes on their children’s skin and other health problems that they believed were tied to a bad water supply. The city subsequently began a series of bottled water giveaways. In March, the city pledged over $2 million to clean up the water and said subsequent tests revealed the water had met state and national safety requirements. But the crisis was from over.
In September, a Flint-area doctor named Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found elevated levels of lead in children and urged the city to stop using water from the Flint River. Around the same time, Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor, reported that a quarter of homes in Flint had lead counts above federally-recommended levels. Furthermore, Edwards was “shocked with both the contamination that his team discovered and the fact that people at the city seemed to know about it, but refused to do anything.”
At the end of September, some 17 months after the first suspicions of lead poisoning, Snyder acknowledged for the first time that lead was a problem.
In October, the legislature approved an aid package for Flint of $9.4 million, which helped the city switch back to using Detroit’s water.
The scandal was just beginning. An investigation published in November by the Flint Journal/MLive revealed that the city had “filed false reports about testing for lead in water.”
A task force reported in December that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) response to the water crisis in Flint “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved. We find both the tone and substance of many MDEQ public statements to be completely unacceptable.”
As 2015 ended, Snyder apologized for the water crisis and several Michigan environmental quality officials resigned.
On Jan. 5, 2016, Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint and on Jan. 12, he called up the Michigan National Guard to distribute water and filters throughout the community. Two days later, Snyder asked President Obama to declare Flint a disaster area. President Obama granted the request and dispatched FEMA and DHS crews to Flint.
A slew of investigations and inquiries are under way. Clinton issued two statements, condemning Gov. Snyder for failing to require Flint to deal with the problem. She also sent two of her top aides to meet with Mayor Karen Weaver to see what needed to be done to monitor the affected children and educate residents.
Some, including Bernie Sanders, have called for Snyder to resign for his failure to act while the seventh-largest city in the state he governs had poison in its water supply. A story published in the Detroit News last week depicted the behind-the-scenes struggles the EPA had in getting MDEQ to act, which dated back to June 2015. Snyder’s Chief of Staff wrote about the lead problem in Flint in an email on July 2015, according to a Jan. 7, story in the Detroit Free Press. Yet Snyder did not declare a state of emergency until six months later.
The Republicans like to extol the virtues of limited government. Limited government limits the ability to assure safe drinking water — which is every citizen’s right, regardless of income or skin color. The poor inevitably suffer when Republicans look to “limit government” by cutting social and environmental services. What non-profit or volunteer group picks up the slack when environmental services are cut?
There are large numbers of children in an American city who are likely to suffer irreversible medical damage because their water supply was poisonous. When their parents complained, they were met with doubt and obfuscation. That’s inexcusable.
Clinton and the Democrats have made it known they will fight for environmental safeguards for the children of Flint and everywhere else. Meanwhile, the Republicans babble on about “regulations” and “freedom.”
There is no freedom when lead is in your drinking water.