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“A Democracy Problem”: As Debate Brings Attention to Flint, a Look at the Roots of the Water Crisis

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The Democratic candidates for president faced off Sunday night in Flint, Michigan, which has been in the national spotlight over the poisoning of the city’s water. The crisis began in 2014, when an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of the city’s drinking water from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River. Last month, Democracy Now! went to Flint and spoke to residents on the front lines of Michigan’s water wars. Lead contamination in the water supply 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. We then went 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.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to an excerpt of our documentary, “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City.” Democracy Now! traveled to Flint, Michigan, last month.

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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.

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: 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.


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.


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: 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: AMY GOODMAN: Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in Mecosta County, Michigan. To see the whole documentary, you can go to When we come back, we’ll play more clips from the debate last night in Flint, Michigan, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and then we’ll get response from a Hillary Clinton supporter, New York Congressmember Yvette Clarke, and a Bernie Sanders supporter, Arizona Congressmember Raúl Grijalva. Stay with us.

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