Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has finally acknowledged that a decision by emergency managers who he appointed to impose austerity measures on cash strapped cities resulted in the poisoning of the water supply of Flint, Michigan.
Gov. Snyder apologized to the residents of Flint, but his apology seems to be too little too late.
After Snyder’s emergency managers decided to switch the city’s source of water from Detroit to the Flint River, lead seeped into the water supply exposing many including Flint’s children to the threat of lead poisoning.
According to the World Health Organization, lead is highly toxic especially to children. Children with elevated levels of lead in their blood can “suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.”
In September, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, reported that in the last two years, the percentage of Flint’s children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has doubled. For children living in the poorer sections of the city, the percentage has tripled.
How did this public health disaster happen?
The events that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water supply began in 2011 with the passage of Public Act 4, which expanded the authority of emergency managers appointed by the governor to impose austerity measures on cities and other local government bodies under extreme financial stress. Gov. Snyder was a strong supporter of Public Act 4.
Flint like a number of cities in Michigan was under extreme financial stress because of the decline of the auto industry and cutbacks in state funding–$55 million over ten years.
Like almost all of the cities and other local governing bodies that had emergency managers appointed by Gov. Snyder, Flint is a majority African American community. Fifty-two percent of Flint’s residents are African American.
Gov. Snyder in 2011 appointed the first Flint emergency manager. He appointed three other Flint emergency managers one after another over the next four years.
Flint’s elected officials had no control over the decisions made by emergency managers, who fired workers, broke their collective bargaining contracts, cut retiree pensions and health care benefits, and reduced city services, so that Flint could continue to make timely debt payments to banks and other bondholders.
In 2013, the then emergency manager Ed Kratz, decided to save $5 million by switching the city’s source of water from the city of Detroit to the Flint River.
In 2014, another emergency manager Darnell Early declined an offer to reinstate Flint’s water supply contract with Detroit because doing so would cost too much.
Water from the Flint River began flowing into the city’s antiquated water pipes in April 2014.
By May, residents were complaining about the city’s water quality.
They wouldn’t know until later that the high concentration of salt in the Flint River was corroding the city’s old, lead-line water pipes leaching lead into the water.
E coli bacteria was also found in the water.
In June 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency started inquiring about Flint’s water problems, but the state ignored resident’s complaints..
There was concern by some staff in the Michigan Environment Quality Department, but a spokesman for the department in July 2015 made a public statement that Flint’s water was safe and told residents to relax.
In August a team of researchers from Virginia Tech tested Flint’s water and found that it contained 900 times the recommended maximum amount of lead. One of the researchers likened Flint’s water to a contaminated waste dump.
In September, Dr. Hanna-Attisha announced her findings about the high incidence of lead in children’s blood. Instead of acting on this information, state officials tried to discredit her research.
A spokesperson for Gov. Snyder said that Hanna-Attisha’s data was unreliable because it was “spliced and diced.”
Gov. Snyder ended the emergency manager’s term in April 2015, and in October the city switched back to using Detroit as its source of water, but it was too late to undo the damage.
In December, Flint’s new mayor declared a state of emergency saying that lead in the city’s water had done irreparable harm.
People are drinking bottled water to avoid drinking the contaminated water.
Outrage about the emergency managers’ original decision and the attempt by state leaders to cover up the fallout from the decision has continued to grow.
The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is circulating a petition calling for the arrest of Gov. Snyder for poisoning Flint’s water.
The racist implications of the original decision and the subsequent cover up can’t be ignored. “We are left to wonder: Would this happen in a majority-white city?” write Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn in The Root.