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"Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City": Special Report on Flint's Water Crisis

StoryFebruary 17, 2016
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Today, we go to Flint, Michigan, for a Democracy Now! special on the ongoing Flint water crisis. In 2014, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of the city’s drinking water from the Detroit system, which they’d been using for half a century, to the corrosive Flint River. Soon, residents were complaining about discolored and foul-smelling water, which was plagued by a host of problems. First, the water was infested with bacteria. Then it had cancerous chemicals called trihalomethanes, or TTHMs. A deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by a water-borne bacteria, spread throughout the city, killing 10 people. And quietly, underground, the Flint River water was corroding the city’s aging pipes, poisoning the drinking water with lead, which can cause permanent developmental delays and neurological impairment, especially in children. Since the news about the lead poisoning broke last October, a slew of Michigan public officials have been ousted, the FBI has opened an investigation, and a special counsel for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office has announced top officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, could face criminal charges, including manslaughter. Well, this past weekend, we went to Flint to learn the remarkable story of how the governor and other officials ignored residents’ complaints for a year and a half, and how the city fought back—with protests, citizen journalism, a new mayor and a massive resident testing project.


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

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: Flint resident Troy Perkins. Just a few of the voices from the front lines of Michigan’s water wars. This is Democracy Now! "Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City." While Flint residents are still paying some of the highest water bills in the country, we’ll look at how the world’s largest water bottling company, Nestlé, is pumping millions of gallons of water from aquifers nearby that feed Lake Michigan. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Pay to Be Poisoned" featuring ZebrA OctobrA and Lisa Brunk, produced by Native Keyz.

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