Watch our full 49-minute report featuring voices from the front lines of Michigan’s water wars. Lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, has forced residents to drink, cook with and even bathe in bottled water while still paying some of the highest water bills in the country. In this Democracy Now! special report, we go from Flint to Mecosta County, Michigan, where Nestlé, the world’s largest water bottling company, is pumping millions of gallons of water from aquifers that feed Lake Michigan.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today, we go to Flint, Michigan, for a Democracy Now! special: "Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City."
In April 2014, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water from the Detroit system, which they had been using for half a century, to the corrosive Flint River. Officials thought they could save something like $5 million.
Soon after, Flint residents were complaining about discolored and foul-smelling water, which was causing a host of health problems. First, the water was infested with bacteria. To treat the bacteria, the city poured in chlorine, which created a cancerous chemical byproduct called trihalomethanes, or TTHMs. A deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by a water-borne bacteria, then spread through Flint, killing 10 people and sickening dozens. At the same time, underground, the Flint River water was corroding Flint’s aging pipes, poisoning the drinking water with lead, which can cause permanent damage, especially in children.
Well, this past weekend, we went to Flint to learn the remarkable story of how Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other officials ignored and covered up residents’ complaints for a year and a half, and how Flint fought back—with protests, citizen journalism, a new elected mayor and a massive resident lead testing project. What took so long? Who is responsible? Today, "Thirsty for Democracy." We spent the weekend in Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! We’re in Flint, Michigan, at the Golden Gate Restaurant. It’s a cold, snowy Saturday morning. Inside, the Flint Democracy Defense League is having breakfast and a meeting. I want to go in and talk to Claire McClinton. She’s one of the lead organizers for democracy in Flint against the poisoning of the Flint water. She’s been challenging the emergency managers for years. Let’s go inside.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: In 2011, this governor, Governor Snyder, signed into law a law called the emergency manager law. It enabled the governor to send an emergency manager, under the guise of being fiscally responsible, to cities and school districts that they deemed financially in fiscal crisis. It just so happened most of these places were majority African-American cities. Privatizing services and selling off assets, that’s their main purpose. Well, here in Flint, they’ve privatized our garbage collection. They’ve sold off our parks.
AMY GOODMAN: Was Santa Claus sold off?
CLAIRE McCLINTON: Yes, that’s how—that’s how low we’ve gotten. They sold Santa Claus, the Santa Claus that was mounted on top of City Hall every year.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: There is a coordinated, aggressive effort to privatize our water system. And this is how we came to this poisoned water catastrophe.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
CLAIRE McCLINTON: We were being told that the Detroit water system, which we got our water from, was charging too much money, and "we’re going to build this new pipeline so you folks can have cheaper water. While we build the pipeline, why don’t we go to the river? You know, the one at General Motors dumped all that crap and stuff in, all the industrial toxins and stuff? We’ll go to that river in the interim." And this—these decisions were made by an emergency manager.
And that’s the untold story about the problem we have here. We don’t have just a water problem. We’ve got a democracy problem. We’ve got a dictatorship problem. We’ve got a problem of being stripped of our democracy as we’ve known it over the years. And for someone to come to our city, a proud city with a rich labor history.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re from an autoworker’s family. You have a long history here. Talk about how that influenced you.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: We had the first city of our size to elect an African-American mayor. We passed an open housing ordinance in the city of Flint, one of the first, very historic. We have such a rich history, the sitdown strike of 1937. We’re just not the type of people that’s used to being walked on.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Claire McClinton of the Democracy Defense League. While she was conducting her breakfast meeting, a woman came in extremely upset, named Kawanne Armstrong. She said she needed to get clean water to her infant grandson. Another woman, a member of the meeting, Audrey Muhammad, said she had just bought water, and she would give it to Kawanne. So they went out into the parking lot to take the water from Audrey’s trunk and put it into Kawanne’s.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you came into this restaurant this morning, and you met with this woman who—you just bumped into her. And can you tell me your name?
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: It’s Audrey Muhammad.
AMY GOODMAN: And you heard that she’s trying to get some clean water for her infant grandson.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: So why do you have this in your trunk?
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Well, I went to the store the other day and purchased the water for myself, and I just hadn’t taken it out the car. So she can have it. I’ll go get some more. That’s not a problem. That’s not a problem at all.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: And I appreciate it. I appreciate it.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: I really do.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: I appreciate it.
AMY GOODMAN: What will you with this water?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: It’s for my grandson. It’s for my grandson, my first grandchild, and it’s a boy. It’s for my grandson. He was born February 6. That’s my concern, is my grandson. That’s my concern.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: And it’s a shame, this is 2016, and we’re living like this. And this man want us to pay for this.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Sorry it’s frozen below.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: It’s all right.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have to pay for water? I mean, this—
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: I’ve been buying water to drink forever, for the longest.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, paying for the water in your tap?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. I just paid a shut-off notice January 6, $196.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. They were going to shut your poisoned water off?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: I guess. They sent me a shut-off notice. I got the shut-off notice the day after Christmas, and it was for December 29. And I called down there, and they told me my water about to be shut off at any time. So, a friend of mine’s, while I was at work, she went down and paid my shut-off notice, $196.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about paying for this contaminated water?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: I’m not comfortable with it at all, and I don’t think it’s fair. The cold water especially, in my kitchen, when I turned it on, it had this foul, raw egg smell.
AMY GOODMAN: This is when they first connected to the Flint River?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: Right. I went down there to the city, and I talked to Howard, because even my postman was complaining about the smell.
AMY GOODMAN: And Howard is the head of water in Flint?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: At that time—Public Works. At that time, he was. And because he—my postman parked his truck right there in front of my house, and there’s a drain there. And we thought it was something in the sewage, OK? But it got worse, especially the hot days when Flint was like 85, 90 degrees. When you turned the faucet on, it was just—it was dark brown. Then, as the water ran, it goes golden brown. So when Claire called me and told me about the gen tech was coming in to test the water, and the professor was doing it free, I volunteered. And they came to my house the first week of August, because I got my results back, and I tested positive for lead.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: They’re still OK frozen, aren’t they?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: Sure. I’m going to use this for my grandbaby.
AUDREY MUHAMMAD: Yes, ma’am.
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: But, you know, a thing I want to ask Governor Snyder, because he had the—he’s been having the town hall meetings during early in the day, and I’m at work—
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you work?
KAWANNE ARMSTRONG: At TRW Automotive in Tyrone Township. And I got a message on my phone telling me to hold the line. But when they called, it was like 10:30 in the morning. I have to be at work at 6:00. If it was his grandchild, would he want this? I don’t have the money he has. I respect him because he’s the governor of Michigan. But if it was his grandchild, would he want it?
AMY GOODMAN: So we’ve just come from the Golden Gate Restaurant in Flint, actually Flint Township. And this is very interesting. Where the Democracy Defense League was meeting over breakfast, that particular restaurant gets water from Flint Township, which is not the corrosive Flint River. But right across Flushing Road—you got it, Flushing Road—that’s where they’re linked up to the Flint River.
Right here at St. Michael’s Church, scores of people have gathered. They’re going to be canvassing houses, seeing what people need. And they’re also formulating demands for the governor.
PRIEST: Help us to re-establish good drinking water here in Flint on a regular basis, a safe basis that we can learn to trust again.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk to Nayyirah Shariff. She’s with the Democracy Defense League and Flint Rising.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the big challenge is today?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, there’s many people who don’t know like what to use with their water, with the lead in their water. Then, also there’s the challenge of accurate information, so that’s the need of us going door to door, handing out accurate information, lifting up like everyone’s stories, because everyone has been impacted by this water crisis, and to make sure that they have their basic needs met, so fresh water, filters, like replacement filters. So we’re also delivering those, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your response to the governor recall, the attempts to recall the governor?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: There’s many people around the state who feel like his response to this crisis has been inadequate and really a violation of human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think should happen?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, the people who want to recall him, if a petition goes in front of me, I will sign it. But right now, my efforts is to make sure that people have accurate information and that we push for some of these long-term solutions that—regardless of who’s in office, that they’re going to have to address.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are those long-term solutions?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: For us to have like our pipes replaced, for Flint residents to be made whole, to have adequate healthcare and wraparound services for everyone who has been impacted by the water crisis—so, the children who have lead poisoning, what sort of lifetime services are going to be available for them—making sure that residents, not only like the pipes or the water mains are replaced, but residents’ homes and appliances are also replaced. And finally, like we’re still paying like a premium price for toxic water, so we need to remedy that.
LAURIE CARPENTER: I’m Laurie Carpenter. I’m with Crossing Water, with a small NGO based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. And we are activated based on these canvassers who go out, and if they find that there is need in the houses based on whether they need water or they need water filters, if they’re homebound, elderly, if they have other social service needs, we have a team of social workers that we’ve hooked up with, the National Association of Social Workers out of Michigan. And we have—they’re all volunteers. We’re all volunteers. We have plumbers, maintenance people. We have paramedics, firefighters. We go out in teams to the houses, and we provide the services that we’re activated for.
AMY GOODMAN: Maybe we could go inside, and you could introduce me to folks, and we’ll talk to them?
LAURIE CARPENTER: Sure, yeah.
MICHAEL HOOD: Water, no filters, nursing moms, pregnant moms, homebound folks, seniors, OK? And those are the priorities.
LAURIE CARPENTER: Just to add one thing real quick: So, if somebody asks for water, we always give everybody water. If they need water, if they ask for water, we don’t ask any questions, we don’t ask for any ID, we don’t ask for any names. It’s yes.
MICHAEL HOOD: You may run into folks’ households that you bring water in, and you see they’ve got a whole wall of water already. They’re hoarding water. So, some folks are really put off by that. And I’ve got kind of a different take on that. If I had a family, and I couldn’t get water to them, I sure as hell would be hoarding every bottle of water that came to me. I’d be going to every fire station and filling up, because you don’t know when the next bottle of water is coming to you.
LEO WILHELM: My name is Leo Wilhelm, and we’re with IATSE Local 38 from Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing here today in Flint?
LEO WILHELM: We’re here to volunteer, help pass out water or canvas, whatever the AFL-CIO needs us to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how you got word and how you were organized to come here?
LEO WILHELM: It was really—it kind of welled up from our last union meeting, actually. These guys were talking about it, milling about it after the meeting and just wanted to do something.
MELISSA MAYS: I’m Melissa Mays from Water You Fighting For? And it’s a play on words, so it’s "Water," W-A-T-E-R, "You Fighting For?"
AMY GOODMAN: Melissa, do you live in Flint?
MELISSA MAYS: I do live in Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: How have you been affected by the poisoned water?
MELISSA MAYS: Well, all three of my sons are anemic now. They have bone pain every single day. They miss a lot of school because they’re constantly sick. Their immune systems are compromised. Myself, I have seizures. I have diverticulosis now. I have to go in February 25th for a consultation on a liver biopsy. Almost every system of our bodies have been damaged. And I know that we’re not the only one. I’m getting calls from people that are so sick, and they don’t know what to do.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are your boys?
MELISSA MAYS: Eleven, 12 and 17. And they’re wonderful kids, that they put forth all this effort to get straight A’s, to get good grades. My oldest, it’s little things that he seems to forget, like pluses and minuses, different words he can’t—there’s a brain fog that’s settled on everybody.
AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Weaver has called for $55 million to replace the lead pipes. Is that happening?
MELISSA MAYS: It’s still—we’re still waiting. The governor said, "You can have $25 million of that." Fifty-five million is just a start, to get the lead service lines out, because the plumbers are also talking about how the copper lines need to go, as well as galvanized. Any kind of metal has been so corroded, and these byproducts are all neurotoxins. So you’ve got copper, lead, aluminum, tin, chromium—things that our bodies can’t handle. And these pipes need to go. And so, the $55 million is a start, to get to the most needed people—the pregnant, the elderly, the small children. And he, out of $55 million, said $25 million.
AMY GOODMAN: What should happen with Governor Snyder?
MELISSA MAYS: I feel that he’s in the way. He has been standing in the way of us getting the funding that we need to get these pipes replaced, to get crews in here to get going and get it started. So he needs to be removed from office. He just doesn’t show any real concern. He has not put any effort into actually making up for the failures of his agencies. So he just needs to go.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re in from New York, you know, from where 9/11 took place, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and in Washington, the Pentagon. The government said, after that, the biggest fear was an international terrorist would poison the water supply of a major city. Well, an international terrorist didn’t do this, but a major city’s water supply was poisoned—your city, Flint—the government, the Michigan government, the governor, Rick Snyder, involved with this. What are your thoughts?
MELISSA MAYS: Well, it’s bad enough—the Geneva Convention says, in an act of war, you cannot poison a city’s water supply. We’re not in war, but guess what. It kind of seems like it, because a whole city’s water supply was poisoned by our state government. And it allowed to continue. I mean, they knew in October of 2014, when General Motors said, "We cannot use this water anymore, because it’s corroding our parts," the water is bad. The city lost $400,000 in revenue. So that had to be signed off on by the emergency manager and the governor. They knew the water was bad then. And if it was not OK for car parts, how is it OK for citizens?
AMY GOODMAN: And the Democratic primary presidential debate is happening here on March 6th. Do you know where it’s happening? Are you going to be there? Hillary Clinton was here recently. We hear Bernie Sanders is coming in before the debate. What demands do you have of them?
MELISSA MAYS: I want to know what they’re going to do about this. I want to know that if they become president, if they’re elected, what are they going to do to stop this, because it’s not just happening in Flint. This is happening in other cities. And the environmental injustice needs to stop. They need to stop putting it off. They need to stop ignoring the problem and hoping that it will go away. So I want to hear strong statements and commitments by the presidential candidates that they’re not going to allow this to happen anywhere else.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you mind if we follow you as you go out into the community to give out water?
MELISSA MAYS: No, no, I welcome it. I want people to see what’s actually happening to us and what we have to do to help each other.
We’re volunteering to check to see if you have water, if you have a filter.
FLINT RESIDENT: Yes, I have all of that. Thank you.
MELISSA MAYS: OK. Are there any—she’s going to ask you this. We’re just checking on everybody.
These are real quick. My name is Melissa Mays, and we’re volunteering, checking on how everything’s going with the water situation, and so we just have a few questions just to ask. We’re trying to make sure that nobody gets left out or forgotten.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Are you Floyd, by chance?
TROY PERKINS: No, no, I’m not Floyd.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: OK, what’s your name?
TROY PERKINS: Floyd passed. My name is Troy.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: OK. Hi, Troy. I’m Lynna. I’m a volunteer.
MELISSA MAYS: I’m Melissa Mays. I live here.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Do you have a water filter?
TROY PERKINS: Yes, I do.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: And how long have you had that?
TROY PERKINS: I’ve had my filter probably about—maybe about four weeks.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Four weeks, OK. And do you have replacement cartridges for it?
TROY PERKINS: Yes, I had to get all that.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: And how often are you replacing them?
TROY PERKINS: Well, since I don’t be here, because of the situation—
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Yeah.
TROY PERKINS: —I’m always—you know, I go on the outskirts to do what I’ve got to do, because—
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Oh, OK.
TROY PERKINS: Then they just had a break over there on will do what I’ve got to do because — they just had a break on Stewart Street. And I’m so close to it, so I decided not to be trying to get in it—
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Good. That’s smart.
TROY PERKINS: —because—but as far as getting in it, I’ve been in it for two years, without knowing it.
MELISSA MAYS: Me, too.
TROY PERKINS: So I’m not going around to say what I have to say about it. Whatever’s in me is already in me.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Yeah.
TROY PERKINS: And I just accepted it and just pray that whatever is in me, they come up with something to help me get it out of me. So, yes, I’m affected by it, if that’s what you’re trying to get to.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Yeah, well, absolutely.
TROY PERKINS: Is it a discomfort? Yes, it is.
LYNNA KAUCHECK: Yeah.
TROY PERKINS: It’s all this, going through what I’ve been sacrificing for families and friends getting them water. That’s why—by the van being open, I was blessed to be able to be a blessing for others.
MELISSA MAYS: I think I want to hug you, because we’re all in this together, and it’s just terrible.
TROY PERKINS: Yeah, so—so, yeah, so based on all that, everything is discomfort, from everything. You cannot—you’ve got babies. You’ve got—there ain’t enough water at one time to get in the tub to give them what they need. There’s people that are affected that don’t know they’re affected. As you could see, totally.
MELISSA MAYS: The skin’s fallen off.
TROY PERKINS: I have totally dryness from the water, taking baths in it. I believe I’m affected by it.
MELISSA MAYS: Bone pain, muscle pain, exhaustion?
TROY PERKINS: Yeah, I don’t have—I don’t have the energy that I normally have and all that, so—and I know I’m affected by it.
MELISSA MAYS: So now we’ve just got to deal with the after-effects.
TROY PERKINS: Yeah.
MELISSA MAYS: And they’re also not helping with that, either.
TROY PERKINS: Yeah, so—
MELISSA MAYS: So...
TROY PERKINS: So, to say my say in everything, it should have never happened.
MELISSA MAYS: Agreed.
TROY PERKINS: And happening because—over saving a little dollars. And then you—was a place where plenty of money was made. This is not a poor place. You made it poor.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in Flint, Michigan. It’s sunset at the Flint Water Plant. I’m standing in front of the Flint water tower. Just down the road is the GM engine plant. It was October of 2014 that GM recognized that the Flint water was corroding its engines. They got permission from the unelected emergency manager of Flint to disconnect from the Flint River and go back to the Detroit water. It would be another year before the people of Flint were finally allowed to disconnect from the corrosive Flint River as their water supply and hook up again with the Detroit water.
We’re going to go talk to a GM worker who works at the plant and worked there at the time that GM recognized—and the state acknowledged—that they could no longer use Flint water because it was destroying the engines.
RONALD JAMISON: My name is Ronald Jamison, known as Coach Hollywood.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long have you worked at the Flint engine plant?
RONALD JAMISON: For 39 years, going on 40 this year.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were working there when Flint hooked up with the Flint River and was disconnected from the Detroit water supply.
RONALD JAMISON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened at the plant?
RONALD JAMISON: Well, from what I hear, it basically was saying that it was causing corrosion. And what that was causing, they were saying something to the fact that what they were putting in the water. And they were saying we got this stuff called rust inhibitor, that keeps engines from rusting while they’re waiting to have oil put on them. And they went, I guess, tested it and found out, I guess, we were putting too much chlorine in the water. And so they told Flint that we’re not—you’re causing us to lose engines, because we have to tear them down and get the rust out before we put them—send them back.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, the emergency manager gave you a waiver and said you can disconnect from the Flint River and go back to the Detroit water system?
RONALD JAMISON: Well, what they did, they made an agreement, from what I hear, that they could leave, but once we got our water back right, that they would come back.
AMY GOODMAN: And you never got your water right.
RONALD JAMISON: No.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you feel? I mean, you were a worker in the plant, but you’re also a Flint resident. And that very water that was causing rust in the engine, you were drinking here in Flint.
RONALD JAMISON: Matter of fact, they took all the water fountains out of the plant. We have all water coolers throughout the plant.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think about this?
RONALD JAMISON: To be serious, I made a joke to one of the supervisors that I was going to sue them, because they knew something had to be wrong and they never said nothing. All they said was "We’re not going to use it."
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ronald Jamison. His friends call him Hollywood. He has worked at the Flint engine plant for 39 years. So the emergency manager decides that to preserve the engines, the GM plant can switch back to the Detroit water system. But the people of Flint could not.
What is Michigan’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436, which was pushed through after a similar law, P.A. 4, was defeated in a two-to-one statewide referendum? We went to City Hall to find out.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: Eric Mays, First Ward city councilman for the city of Flint. I represent the First Ward, which is the farthest north end of the city of Flint, about 11,000 residents. I would say it’s about 96 percent or so black. And, you know, we’ve got all the issues—high crime, abandoned houses.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how the emergency manager worked and how the decision was made to switch to the Flint River.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: If you look at Public Act 436 and even Public Act 4, whenever a city was in so-called, quote-unquote, or, quote, "emergency financial distress or financial trouble," unquote, whoever defined that and however the city got there with a general fund budget deficit, the governor would appoint a review team, and the review team might recommend an emergency manager come in. In my opinion, some of that was created because the governor took revenue sharing away from cities and helped create financial distress—about $55 million at some point from the city of Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. You’re saying they take the money from Flint, and they send it elsewhere in Michigan.
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: In this case, our money was taken from Flint, Detroit and other municipalities, and the governor then boasted in some cases a surplus for the state. And so, that’s why we say in some cases the governor helped create the deficit and then would send in a emergency manager.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain what happened. How was the decision made?
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: In about April of 2014, I got a notification that it was some activity going on over at the water plant. And when I got there, the emergency manager was there, Darnell Earley. The mayor was there. Councilpeople were there—I was one of them. I’ve seen other officials there. The police chief was there. And when I caught on to what was going on, it was a countdown—10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one—and then the button was pushed, and one light went on red, and you had green. And, you know, it’s recorded and documented.
And so, then, after that, there was a gathering in the plant, because this button, it’s pushed outside in the back somewhere, and then we walked from there, and then they did a toast, and, you know, to show we’re drinking now river water. And because of the stigma of the river, I wouldn’t really—I held it up, but I didn’t feel comfortable guzzling it down with them. And they was going, "Hey, you didn’t drink." And I was like, "Oh, you know." So, you know, that’s kind of what went down. So I was leery from the beginning. But I had no idea. I knew nothing about some of the bacteria. I knew nothing about TTHMs, trihalomethanes. I knew nothing about lead, and I knew nothing about possible Legionnaires.
AMY GOODMAN: So you introduced a bill on March of 2015 to say return to Detroit’s water. What happened to it?
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: I put a motion on the floor, and that motion passed, seven or eight to one, to return to the Detroit water. And I think then-President Josh Freeman was the only no vote. And so, the emergency manager—I think it was then-emergency manager Ambrose—I think he talked publicly like that was not something that was smart or shouldn’t have been done. He used some distinct words.
AMY GOODMAN: He used the word it’s "incomprehensible" that your City Council voted seven to one to go back to Detroit’s water. I have the quote of the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, who said, "Flint water today is safe by all [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] standards and the City is working daily to improve its quality. ... It is incomprehensible to me that 7 members of the Flint City Council would want to send more than $12 million a year to the system serving southeast Michigan, even if Flint rate payers could afford it. [Lake Huron water] from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint."
COUNCILMEMBER ERIC MAYS: Well, he was wrong. In my opinion, he was wrong. And it was not meeting all the EPA standards. We found out Curt Guyette with the ACLU did some good research. And, you know, he discovered to me that the city of Flint was submitting samples of water where they had been pre-flushing, which you shouldn’t pre-flush when you’re testing for certain things. The water should set at least for six hours, and then you test. We found out they were testing maybe certain places that didn’t have lead pipes. And so, there was some, what we call, skewed testing samples.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Flint City Councilman Eric Mays. He sponsored the legislation to switch Flint back to Detroit water half a year before the governor finally allowed the city to switch back. We wanted to follow-up on what Councilman Mays was saying about the lead tests, so we want to speak with Curt Guyette of the ACLU. He’s actually an investigative reporter who has just won Michigan Journalist of the Year. We asked him about the work he do with professor Marc Edwards, a nationally recognized lead contamination expert at Virginia Tech.
CURT GUYETTE: I was sitting around one night, thinking, "How can we get to the truth? How can we get this beyond what was that point a 'he said, she said' kind of thing?" And I thought, "Oh, well, geez. Maybe we could do our own test," because I had some money in my grant to pay for experts to do research for us. And so, I called up Marc and said, "How much does it cost for each test?" He said, "Oh, 70 bucks." "How much does it cost—or, how many do you need, how many homes do you need to sample, to get a scientifically valid sample?" He said, "50, at minimum. Hundred would be better."
So we started talking with the citizens, seeing if they thought we could pull it off. They were very confident that we could pull it off. Marc was confident that they could do it on their end. And so, there was like this unique collaboration, really, between the scientists at Virginia Tech, me as a journalist becoming involved in it, and then the citizens themselves, who were really, again, in the forefront of getting all these test kits distributed throughout the city. You know, we ended up collecting four times as many as the city and state had collected in the previous six months, in like a three-week period.
AMY GOODMAN: And then there was Dr. Mona.
CURT GUYETTE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what she did over at Hurley Medical Center, the pediatrician.
CURT GUYETTE: So, in August of 2015, the citizens, working with Marc Edwards and this whole team at Virginia Tech, who were working around the clock—you know, on this side, we’re working like crazy to get the kits distributed and collected and making sure we’re keeping track of everything, which was complicated. But, you know, they were doing it with the index cards and everything. And then, as soon as the sample kits started being returned, 12 at a time, we’d box them up and send them back to Virginia Tech. And they’re working around the clock to get them analyzed, because as soon as they start seeing the results, they’re going, "Oh, no, this is bad. This is bad." You know, by the time they got the first 24 bottles, they knew. There were so many with elevated levels that they knew that this was a crisis.
And so they created a website, the FlintWaterStudy.org website, which is incredible. And they started posting results. And then people with elevated levels of lead in their water, they started calling them up and saying, "Stop drinking your water. It’s dangerous."
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, saw the results that Virginia Tech had produced, saw what high lead levels there really were in the water, and, as a result of that, after, I think, talking to a friend, came up with their own idea. She came up with the idea of looking at records that were already on hand that—for the lead blood levels in children under five in Flint and in Genesee County as a whole. And what she found in analyzing thousands of samples was that after the switch was made to the river, the percentage of children in Flint with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled.
AMY GOODMAN: Michigan [Journalist] of the Year, Curt Guyette. Well, as Flint residents are forced to drink, cook with and even bathe in bottled water, while still paying some of the highest water bills in the country for their poisoned water, we turn to a little-known story about the bottled water industry in Michigan.
In 2001 and '02, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued permits to Nestlé, now the largest water bottling company in the world, to pump up to 400 gallons of water per minute from aquifers that feed Lake Michigan. This sparked a decade-long legal battle between Nestlé and the residents in Mecosta County, where Nestlé's water wells are located. One of the most surprising things about this story is that, in Mecosta County, Nestlé is not really required to pay anything to extract the water, besides a small permitting fee to the state and the cost of a lease to a private landowner. In fact, the company received $13 million in tax breaks from the state of Michigan to locate the plant there.
The spokesperson for Nestlé in Michigan is Deborah Muchmore. She’s the wife of Dennis Muchmore—that’s Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, who—he just retired and registered to be a lobbyist. Well, we reached out to Nestlé for comment on this story. We didn’t speak with Deborah Muchmore, but we did speak with Jane Lazgin of Nestlé Waters, who said, quote, "We are deeply invested in the Muskegon River watershed and its sustainability. Our water use is always permitted and compliant with the permitting authorities," unquote.
But residents in Mecosta County have another story to tell. So let’s take a look at Nestlé and the battle over the Great Lakes, which are 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in Flint, Michigan, where yesterday, on Saturday, we spent the day following residents who were checking on their neighbors—Do they have water? Is their filter working? Do they have children in the house? Have they been tested for lead?—just being good neighbors, also making sure that they had bottled water. One of the astounding things we learned is that residents are still paying for their lead-poisoned water.
When we first pulled into Flint, Michigan, the other night, we came behind, well, right here, the municipal building in Flint. There, the National Guard was giving out water. Today, a sign: "Flint water distribution center." They gave us a case of Ice Mountain 100 percent natural spring water. It’s made by Nestlé.
Now, one of the things that a number of people were talking about is that Nestlé, which has a plant a couple hours north of here, a bottling plant, is sucking water out of Lake Michigan—for free. So, today we’re going to head north to Mecosta County, to the Nestlé bottling plant, to speak with a group of women who live in the area, who have been engaging in a legal battle against Nestlé for years. Let’s go.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! We’re here in Stanwood, Michigan. It’s about three hours north of Detroit. And it’s here that Nestlé has its Ice Mountain bottled water plant. We’re joined right now by Peggy Case. She is the current president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Can you talk about this plant, Peggy?
PEGGY CASE: This is where the bottled water is being trucked out from Nestlé. It’s taking the water from our aquifers, and it’s shipping it all over the world, so...
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about 200 gallons per minute is being sucked out of the aquifer that feeds Lake Michigan?
PEGGY CASE: Yes. So, the water from this plant is coming from several wells, one in Mecosta and two in Everett. And they are now pumping 218 gallons per minute. They wanted to do 400.
AMY GOODMAN: But you stopped them, from a decade-long lawsuit.
PEGGY CASE: That’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: How much do they pay for the 200 gallons of water per minute that they’re sucking out of the aquifer that feeds Lake Michigan?
PEGGY CASE: As far as I know, they’re paying nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go talk to Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
AMY GOODMAN: Hello.
PEGGY CASE: Hello. Come in.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you?
PEGGY CASE: I’m good.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re?
PEGGY CASE: I’m Peggy Case.
AMY GOODMAN: Peggy, hi. Very nice to see you. Hi.
TERRY SWIER: Hi. I’m Terry Swier.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, hi, Terry.
TERRY SWIER: Nice to meet you.
GLENNA MANEKE: Hi. I’m Glenna.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, hi, Glenna. How are you?
TERRY SWIER: My name is Terry Swier, and I live in Mecosta County, which is probably about three hours from Flint, two-and-a-half, three hours from Flint, Michigan. I was the original president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation that took Nestlé to court.
PEGGY CASE: I’m Peggy Case. I live near Traverse City, Michigan. I am about two hours away from Mecosta County, north of here. I became president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation when Terry retired.
GLENNA MANEKE: Hi. I’m Glenna Maneke, and I’m on the board of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, currently the treasurer.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2000, when Nestlé came in to the area, to Mecosta County, explain what they were coming in to do.
TERRY SWIER: In 2000, we found that Nestlé was—had come to Mecosta County and was meeting with elected officials. And what Nestlé was asking for was a place that they would be able to take water, a bottling plant, and selling the water, which they basically—what Nestlé did was basically sold the water to us, and it was already our water.
AMY GOODMAN: Peggy Case, can you explain what was the water, the body of water they were drawing from?
PEGGY CASE: So the water that Nestlé is bottling here and elsewhere in our state is coming from the Great Lakes Basin. It is feeding here into Dead Stream and Cold Creek, then into the Little Muskegon River, that aquifer, and then eventually, ultimately, into Lake Michigan. So, it’s Great Lakes Basin water. It’s part of the commons. It belongs to all of us. And part of the reason that people in Mecosta were pretty upset about it is that the extraction of that water was being—it was being taken out of the watershed. It was being—the streams were being pumped down, to the point where the Dead Stream looked like a mudhole at one point, and bottled and shipped all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it possible that Nestlé, which is making an enormous profit on this water, doesn’t actually have to pay for the water it’s drawing?
PEGGY CASE: They’re drawing the water from a well on private land, for one thing. It would be no different if they came to my house, where I have a well, and asked to use my well to put water in a truck and cart it away. And if I said yes, they have the right to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: But this massive public resource, water—we’re not talking about feeding a family of four or five; we’re talking about 400 gallons per minute, around the day, around the month, around the year.
PEGGY CASE: Right. It’s criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: Why wouldn’t there be laws that say when you take this public resource, you have to pay for it, since people are paying for that water, including you, if you buy, for example, Ice Mountain?
PEGGY CASE: Well, I don’t know why it’s legal to do that. They get a permit from the state that allows them to do that. I personally don’t believe that we should be doing that with our water. We should not be privatizing the water. It amounts to privatizing the water.
AMY GOODMAN: Terry, take us through this decade-long lawsuit against Nestlé.
TERRY SWIER: We began in the circuit court. We had seen what Nestlé was proposing to do, and decided that we needed to take Nestlé to court. That was the only way that Nestlé would ever realize that, yes, we did want our water, we wanted to protect our water, and the water was ours, not theirs. This lasted for—like I said before, this lasted for eight years. And in that time, with lawyer fees and, you know, all the fees that come with going to court, we spent over $1 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenna Maneke, you’re the treasurer of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. How did you raise this money? It costs like a million dollars to take on Nestlé?
GLENNA MANEKE: We scrambled for every penny we could get. We did 50/50 raffles among us, or anybody else we could get into it. We did yard sales. We wrote grants. We had bake sales.
PEGGY CASE: Pasties.
GLENNA MANEKE: Help me out here.
PEGGY CASE: Pasties.
GLENNA MANEKE: Pasties were part of the bake sale.
AMY GOODMAN: What are pasties?
GLENNA MANEKE: Pasties are a meat-and-vegetable concoction that’s kind of localized to Michigan.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were able to raise how much through all of this?
GLENNA MANEKE: We are out of debt now.
PEGGY CASE: We raised a million dollars with no corporate money, no government money. At one point, Nestlé even offered us some kind of a grant, and Terry said, "Are you kidding? No way!"
AMY GOODMAN: Terry Swier, can you talk about Nestlé actually personally going after you?
TERRY SWIER: My son and I both had had some problems. There was a SLAPP suit against my son.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about a SLAPP suit, strategic lawsuit against public participation? That’s SLAPP?
TERRY SWIER: That is where—to put it very, very simply, it is where the company, Nestlé, they wrote the letter to Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation’s lawyer saying that my son, Chris, was not speaking nicely about Nestlé—you know, surprise, surprise—and that they were going to do a SLAPP suit.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they send private investigators to your home?
TERRY SWIER: We had these private investigators show up. And then we also had the FBI coming to our homes.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenna Maneke, did you have any family members, or you, yourself, were you approached by the FBI?
GLENNA MANEKE: Well, this is hearsay from my family members, but there had been a small—what? Explosion or bomb? Or what was it?
TERRY SWIER: Oh, yeah.
GLENNA MANEKE: Set off at the wellhead. And they had decided that it was my uncle who had done it. And so the FBI came to his house to arrest him. And they found him in his wheelchair with neither one of his prostheses on. It was the highlight of his life.
AMY GOODMAN: So when we came in to Flint a few night ago, we went behind the municipal building, and the National Guard was distributing water to people who drove up, and they gave us a case of Ice Mountain water. Ice Mountain is made by Nestlé, actually right down the road from here in Mecosta County. So, you have a situation where the people of Flint, their water supply is poisoned, and they are now being donated, or they have to buy, bottled water. A lot of that is Nestlé water. Nestlé is a corporation—overall, I think it posted $14 billion in profit in 2014. Can you talk about this connection?
PEGGY CASE: I want to know why we don’t have FEMA coming, bringing in the tanker trucks that they, I’m sure, have available. Why aren’t they taking the groundwater that Nestlé is taking, and providing it to the people in larger containers?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting, because we did see big FEMA pallets of water, as well.
PEGGY CASE: The National Guard is distributing small bottles of water. They are certainly capable of finding some trucks to bring in groundwater from endless aquifers here that Nestlé is getting for free. And the people of Flint should get it for free, too.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s quite amazing. You have people paying—having to pay for their poisoned water in Flint.
PEGGY CASE: A hundred and forty dollars a month, roughly.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the highest rates in Michigan—
PEGGY CASE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —and in the country.
PEGGY CASE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have, in—but now, because, under enormous pressure, the state government says they’re not going to engage in cutoffs of water, but here you have Detroit, which actually has clean water—so the people in Flint, they will continue to get their poisoned water, but the people in Detroit, who have clean water, they’re having their water cut off.
PEGGY CASE: Right. It’s—I call it criminal behavior. It’s also—in my mind, it’s environmental racism.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by "environmental racism"?
PEGGY CASE: These are cities that are predominantly African-American cities. These are the ones that have been taken over by emergency managers.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s hard not to notice that the leadership of these organizations, whether in Detroit or dealing with the poisoned water in Flint, to here, that you are women. What is it about you gals?
PEGGY CASE: I have two sons, and I have two grandchildren. And I—that’s who I work for. I mean, I do. I work for my children and my grandchildren. I’m very—we’re also very concerned about climate change. We’re concerned about what kind of planet we’re leaving for our children. I think women tend to maybe be a little closer to that feeling or that kind of passion. For me, it’s a moral imperative. I have to leave something better than what I found, and we’re having, as a species, a hard time doing that these days. So, I have—you know, I’ve been an activist all my life, pretty much.
AMY GOODMAN: Terry, as Peggy said she was an activist all her life, you were shaking your head. You weren’t?
TERRY SWIER: I have never been involved in anything like what we’re doing right now, and never thought I could do it, never thought I would have to do it. But I agree with Peggy. You can see the lake that I live on. And one day, I just stood there, and I looked. I have five grandchildren, two sons, two daughter-in-laws. And it’s like I cannot let this happen. I’m a third generation who lives here. And this means so much to me, that I could not just walk away from it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Terry Swier, Peggy Case and Glenna Maneke of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation at Terry’s home in Mecosta County, Michigan. That does it for our special, "Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City." If you want to get a copy, go to democracynow.org. And special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener, Sam Alcoff and Denis Moynihan, and to Kate Levy and to Notown, the movie.