How Flint, Michigan, Saved Money and Poisoned Its Children: City Declares Water Emergency

December 17, 2015
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Guests

Curt Guyette

investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government.

Melissa Mays

activist and founder of Water You Fighting For?, a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization founded around the city’s water crisis. She and her three children have been diagnosed with lead and copper poisoning.

Image Credit: ACLU of Michigan

The mayor of Flint, Michigan, has declared a state of emergency to address lead poisoning in the city’s water supply. Last year, the city’s unelected emergency manager switched the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the long-polluted Flint River in an attempt to save money. A study released in September found the proportion of children under five in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood nearly doubled following the switch. Flint residents filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city and state of endangering their health by exposing them to dangerous lead levels in their tap water. Michigan has the most sweeping emergency management laws in the country, which allow the governor to appoint a single person to run financially troubled cities. We speak to investigative reporter Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan and Flint resident Melissa Mays. She and her three children have been diagnosed with lead and copper poisoning. She is the founder of Water You Fighting For?, a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization founded around the city’s water crisis.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Flint, Michigan, where the city’s mayor made a stunning declaration on Monday.

MAYOR KAREN WEAVER: I, Mayor Karen W. Weaver, declare a state of emergency in the city of Flint, effective December 14th, 2015.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The state of emergency was declared to address a man-made disaster: lead poisoning in the city’s water supply. Last year, the city’s unelected emergency manager switched the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the long-polluted Flint River in an attempt to save money. Michigan has the most sweeping emergency management laws in the country, which allow the governor to appoint a single person to run financially troubled cities. From 2013 to 2014, 52 percent of Michigan’s African-American residents lived under emergency management, compared to only 2 percent of white residents. These unelected emergency managers have the power to break union contracts, shut down fire departments, dissolve public school systems and, as in Flint, switch the source of the city’s drinking water.

AMY GOODMAN: A study released in September found the proportion of children under five in Flint, Michigan, with elevated lead levels in their blood nearly doubled following the switch. Flint residents filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city and state of endangering their health by exposing them to dangerous lead levels in their tap water. Despite switching back to the Detroit water supply in October after enormous outcry, newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver, the first woman mayor of Flint, said lead levels remain higher than the federal threshold in many homes. She said not enough has been done to address the crisis.

MAYOR KAREN WEAVER: And so far what we’ve had is band-aid fixes. We have the filter programs. We have talked about diets for lead exposure. And don’t get me wrong, we want these things to continue. We need all of that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier this year, the ACLU of Michigan released a mini-documentary about the water crisis in Flint called Hard to Swallow. This clip begins with Pastor Alfred Harris, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action.

REV. ALFRED HARRIS: On one side was the city of Flint’s finances, and on the other side was the health of the citizens of Flint.

FLINT RESIDENT: We’ve had three or four boil water advisories.

MELISSA MAYS: The rashes, the hair loss, the muscle stiffness, the soreness.

LEEANNE WALTERS: My family broke out in a rash that we were told looks like scabies, but it wasn’t scabies.

PROTESTERS: Stop poisoning our children! Stop poisoning our children!

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by two guests. Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan who helped expose the lead contamination. Also with us is Flint resident Melissa Mays. She and her three children have been diagnosed with lead and copper poisoning. She’s the founder of Water You Fighting For?, a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization founded around Flint’s water crisis.

Let’s begin with Curt. Tell us how you discovered what was taking place. How did Flint, which for years had gotten their water from Detroit—why was this switch made? And then, even when the switch was made, describe the water, what residents were finding and what eventually happened.

CURT GUYETTE: Well, as you said in your introduction, the switch was made because an unelected, state-appointed emergency manager had total control over the city, and in order to save money, the decision was made to switch from the Detroit system, which they had been on for 50 years, to the Flint River. And the Flint River is horribly corroded. And compounding that problem was the state’s decision—their inexplicable decision—not to add corrosion control phosphates, as Detroit does. So they went from a situation where the water was clean and safe to where it was dangerous and more in need of corrosion control than ever, and they inexplicably stopped using it. And that corrosive water, without the corrosion control phosphates in it, just began tearing up the pipes and destroying the biofilm that had been built up that kept the lead from leaching into the water, and it began leaching into the water.

And how I found out about this is that it’s—this is a citizen-driven thing. It was the activists, people like Melissa, that kept pushing, pushing, pushing, refused to believe the claims by the city and state that the water was safe. There’s an unsung hero in all this, an EPA employee named Miguel Del Toral, who took a personal interest in Flint, went there, began to investigate, found out what was going on, found out what was going on with the corrosion and the lead leaching into the water. He gave a copy of that memo to one of the residents that he had been working with, LeeAnne Walters. And because of that, a documentary that we had produced, taking the concerns seriously, LeeAnne trusted us to investigate, and gave the memo to us, and we published it. And that set off a chain reaction of events that led us to where we are now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Melissa Mays, can you talk about when you first learned that there was a problem with your water supply?

MELISSA MAYS: Well, a few months after the switch, we had already noticed rashes on my kids’ arms, their backs, my face. And they were different, because you couldn’t put any kind of lotion or cream on it without it burning. It felt like straight-out chemical burns. And every once in a while, our water would turn bright blue or yellow, and we had no idea why. They kept telling us that the water was fine. We had three boil advisories, which were not well published. We didn’t find out until the third one that we had been drinking and cooking with E. coli-laden water. So, a lot of residents had started coming to the City Council meetings and talking about how their water was brown and orange, because there were some days it would smell like a sewer, some days it would smell like an old pond, and some days your tap water smelled like a swimming pool.

So we knew that there were problems; we just didn’t realize how bad, until we received notice in January—nine months after the switch—that for the previous nine months our water was also full of a carcinogenic byproduct called total trihalomethanes. And that’s with the over-chlorination interacting with the organic compounds in our water. When we saw—when we got that notice, we had just had enough, so we started protesting. We wanted answers. We called for meetings. We called for actual research being done. And they wouldn’t give us or couldn’t give us any answers. So people were getting sick across the city. And we all had similar symptoms, with hair loss and the rashes and the muscle pain, the cramps. And this is before we even knew anything about the lead. And it was already just a downward spiral from there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in September, scientists from Virginia Tech—that’s Virginia Tech in Virginia—held a news conference to share their findings from the tests that they ran on water samples from Flint. Afterward, two city officials faced questions from the ACLU and Flint residents. In this clip from the ACLU mini-documentary, Hard to Swallow, Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public utilities, tries to explain why Flint switched to the Flint River for its water.

HOWARD CROFT: Talking about Detroit, that had over a billion dollars of infrastructure costs coming that we could see, and we were kicked off their system. [inaudible]

CURT GUYETTE: Let me just address that. I have a letter from Darnell Earley saying the city of Flint has decided not to return to—not to continue using Detroit water.

HOWARD CROFT: There were—

CURT GUYETTE: Correct? Is that correct?

HOWARD CROFT: I think evaluations have gone on all the way up to the state level on what the best course of action would be for the city of Flint, and that was the determination.

CURT GUYETTE: All the way to the Governor’s Office?

HOWARD CROFT: All the way to the Governor’s Office.

AMY GOODMAN: Curt Guyette, can you talk about the significance of this?

CURT GUYETTE: Yes. For a long time, a variety of officials kept claiming falsely that they didn’t have any choice, that Detroit kicked them off of the Detroit system, and because of that, they were forced to use the Flint River. And that was simply not true. It was an economic decision on the part of the emergency manager, appointed by Governor Snyder, to leave the Detroit system. But they didn’t want to take responsibility for that; by lying and saying they didn’t have any choice, there was no culpability on their part. But the truth is that they are culpable, because it was a conscious decision, a decision made purely to save money, for no other reason. And so, the significance of that is that we put an end to that lie. They can no longer say that they didn’t have a choice. It was a choice, and they are responsible for this disaster. That’s the significance of that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in September, during the heat of the mayor’s race in Flint, then challenger, now mayor, Karen Weaver, a clinical psychologist, spoke about the effects of lead poisoning especially on children.

KAREN WEAVER: As a result of what we know lead can do and the damage that we know it causes, and we know that it’s irreversible, and we know that for children five and younger, and nursing and pregnant mothers, the damage that it causes—the cognitive deficits, the cognitive delays, the learning disabilities, the behavioral problems—we need to address that now. Because we know those are irreversible damages, that cost not only a generation of youngsters that we’re going to lose because of these deficits and delays and behavioral issues, and how it contributes to the criminal justice system, we’re going to lose them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Melissa Mays, can you talk about how your children and you have been impacted by this?

MELISSA MAYS: Well, my sons, all three of them, are very bright. They had a great future going. Their school—their grades in school were fantastic. My oldest is actually taking high school and college classes at the same time, so he scored so well, he was able to do that, so he would have an associate’s degree by the time he graduated high school. Well, now he’s struggling. He needs a tutor. And he has a C average, which is unheard of for him. And he’s really getting down on himself, because he’s missing small things, pluses and minuses in algebra, little small things, because of brain fog.

My middle child, they—Christian has been able to bump up a grade, since he was in kindergarten. And now he’s also struggling, forgetting things. And he can’t sleep at night because his bones hurt. He fell off his bike, and his wrist basically shattered. And for his bones to be that weak just blew everyone’s mind.

And my youngest, he’s dealing with anemia. We can’t get his white blood cell count over four, meaning he gets sick anytime anybody sneezes. And he’s just—they’re all great kids, and now—they were on this path to doing really great things and working hard at their—at school work and working hard at, you know, Lego engineering and everything they’ve been doing, and now they can’t focus, they’re in pain, they’re sick all the time. So they’ve been derailed because of this—

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa—

MELISSA MAYS: —because of the lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of what Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha did, director of the Pediatric Residency Program, Hurley Medical Center? She noticed the kids and everyone were getting so sick, does this study, and the state and the top authorities go after her. And she’s in a city-run hospital. But she stands her ground, and ultimately they have to back off and admit that everything you’re saying, that she was saying with her study, was true about lead poisoning and all the other chemicals that were hurting the children and the population of Flint.

MELISSA MAYS: Yeah, she’s fantastic. She stood her ground. They accused her of slicing and dicing data. The data was already there. It’s just the state and the county did not bother to even look into it. They were in such denial that there was a problem at all, and she got her hands on it and said, "Oh, no, we have a problem. We have to stop this now." And this is just the young kids. And the fact that we know that no level of lead exposure is safe for anyone of any age, she’s fearing right now for generations of children, because my kids, my sons, can actually pass their lead poisoning down to their own kids. So, this is generation after generation of damaged children. And then we’ve got seniors that are struggling harder than ever. I’m 37 years old, and I’ve never had this many physical problems. So, for her to stand up amidst what the state was staying, what the MDEQ was saying, it’s fantastic. It’s just wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what’s happening now? Can you talk about the lawsuits? Can you talk about how you’re protecting yourself? Your group is called Water You Fighting For?, as in "What are you fighting for?"

MELISSA MAYS: Yeah, that’s my husband’s clever name. But yes, we have two lawsuits. We have two federal lawsuits that we’ve started. One is a class-action lawsuit, because people are damaged, not just physically, but people like us, we’ve gone through three water heaters. The caustic water has destroyed that. The pipes inside of our home are ruined. Our service line is ruined. So we have property damage, and then the emotional damage of the fact that you can’t use your water without fearing of what’s going to happen to you. You can’t hand your kids a glass of water and say, "Here, it’s safe, sweetheart. Drink it." The kids are afraid of the water. My sons skip showers because they don’t want to get sick. I mean, it’s just so damaging. Something so life-giving as water, that everyone needs, and we can’t use it safely for anything. So, that’s a huge thing. So we’re trying to talk to people to get help and get a medical monitoring fund going, because this is a lifelong problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does—

MELISSA MAYS: Everyone is going to be dealing with this.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this week, the city of Flint being under state of emergency, mean, Curt Guyette? We have 15 seconds.

CURT GUYETTE: Well, one thing I think it means is that it’s a sign that democracy has returned to Flint. This state of emergency would have never been declared eight or nine months ago, when the city was still under the control of an emergency manager. So, in that regard, it’s very positive, and it shows the power of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan, and we’ll link to your reports; Melissa Mays of Water You Fighting For?


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