Power of the people 

Community organizer Nayyriah Shariff

Community organizer Nayyriah Shariff

Midway through August, community organizer Nayyirah Shariff stood in the basement of a Flint church, surrounded by cardboard boxes filled with 300 water-sampling kits shipped to the city by researchers at Virginia Tech University, and vowed to figure out what was plaguing her city's water supply.

"We're going to get these test kits out to the community, and we're going to find out the truth about what's in our water," said Shariff, punctuating her remark with a high-beam smile.

It was a hopeful moment and a pivotal one, important in ways that could not have been imagined on that day six months ago.

A grassroots effort by members of the Coalition for Clean Water to conduct an independent, scientifically valid study of Flint water, the tests were key to uncovering the extent of the water crisis. The testing — which revealed that water from the corrosive Flint River had leached lead from the city's aging pipes into the Flint water supply — also eventually helped push Gov. Rick Snyder to release Flint in October from an order requiring the city to use the river as its municipal water source.

Despite the city's return to the Detroit water system, however, Flint residents' long and hard slog back toward safe drinking water isn't over yet.

Recent tests have shown water lead levels in hundreds of homes exceed the federal action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). One home had a lead level of 10,000 ppb; water is considered hazardous waste if its lead content hits 5,000 ppb.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the crisis is adding to the city's woes.

For instance, newly elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has found herself embroiled in a dispute with Snyder over the pace of replacing lead service lines throughout the city. Weaver wants the state to replace all of the service lines immediately. Snyder, though, isn't sure that needs to happen.

In addition, immigrant-rights activists are worrying that not enough is being done to ensure that Flint residents who speak little or no English are being properly informed about the danger lurking in the water. Compounding their concern are fears that undocumented immigrants could be deported if they go seeking bottled water from relief sites.

Add to that the many stresses associated with a city trying to get by on bottled water for months.

And then there are the various lawsuits, both current and pending, that could keep the city and state embroiled in court proceedings for many years to come as lawyers and judges sort out just what is owed to the victims of this completely avoidable man-made tragedy.

The cost of addressing health issues, the price tag on increased educational and wrap-around services for lead-poisoned children, the significant loss of property values, and damage to infrastructure ­— taken together, the toll for the state's attempts to impose austerity on Flint seems almost incalculable.

In a sense, Shariff and others tried preventing this disaster long before anyone was talking about corrosion control and water service lines. Now, even with their trust in government badly fractured, they continue working to make sure residents are protected as fully and, as quickly, as possible.

In November 2012, Michigan voters went to the polls and rejected a law passed the year before by the Republican-dominated legislature. It was a law that usurped the power of elected municipal officials and gave them to "emergency managers" appointed by the governor to run financially stressed cities and school districts. Shariff was part of the prolonged volunteer effort to get the issue on the ballot, and she was disgusted when the Michigan Legislature, less than a month after voters soundly rejected a proposal for one "emergency manager" law, passed a similar law in lame-duck session. Adding to her disgust was the fact that the legislators included a democracy-quashing attachment to the bill that made it "referendum-proof."

And so Shariff joined forces with a handful of others. They began meeting regularly as the Democracy Defense League to talk about problems with the emergency management system and ways to oppose it.

Flint had been under state control ­— in one form or another — since 2011. An already caustic situation turned seriously dangerous in April 2014 when the state, in a stated attempt to save $5 million, forced the city off the Detroit water system to begin using the highly corrosive Flint River. The river was meant to be used as the city's water source during the interim while a new pipeline from Lake Huron to Genesee County was being built.

That pipeline is still being constructed, with completion slated for later this year. This will mean that the city, this time under close scrutiny from the federal government, will be changing water sources again fairly soon.

And this means that, in less than three years, as a result of decisions imposed on Flint by the state, the city's water source will have gone from the Detroit system to the river, from the river back to Detroit, and from Detroit to the Karegnondi pipeline.

It is all part of what activist Claire McClinton describes as the ongoing "debacle" created by the string of emergency managers appointed by Snyder to run Flint.

click to enlarge Claire McClinton, retired autoworker and longtime activist
  • Claire McClinton, retired autoworker and longtime activist

A retired auto worker and longtime activist, McClinton, like Shariff, was active in the effort to strike down the state's original emergency manager law, and helped co-found the Flint Democracy Defense League. She was also part of the citizen-led effort to conduct independent water tests in August.

The big issue now, though, is how fast to begin replacing lead service lines — the pipes that run from water mains to individual homes.

It is a problem complicated by the fact that the city, which is supposed to keep track of such things, doesn't have much of a clue as to which homes have lead service lines and which don't.

"They don't know where the lead service lines are," says Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and the scientist who spearheaded the water tests last summer. "It has been proven that their records are no good."

click to enlarge Marc Edwards was hired by the city to oversee lead testing.
  • Marc Edwards was hired by the city to oversee lead testing.

Working with residents to conduct those tests, Edwards was able to establish close ties to many Flint residents. As a result of the trust he established by exposing Flint's lead problem, Edwards has been hired by the city to oversee the lead testing currently under way.

Identifying the exact location of the estimated 15,000 to 25,000 lead service lines bringing water into Flint homes is a task that will take at least a year, Edwards predicted.

"People need to know that this is not going to be a quick, easy fix," he says.

Edwards has been caught in the middle of a struggle between Weaver — who won an unexpected victory over incumbent Dayne Walling last year because of her unwavering criticism of the water fiasco and a promise to address the problems immediately — and Snyder, whose administration has been engulfed in scandal as a result of its mishandling of the disaster.

Weaver, who's been impressive in the ways she's dealt with the complex and chaotic situation during her first few months in office, is pushing to move full-speed ahead to replace the city's lead service lines.

Snyder, whose administration has been dangerously slow to react at every step of the crisis, has promoted a more measured approach, initially saying he wanted an engineering firm he selected to conduct a study of service lines before beginning replacements.

Edwards says that, despite the number of homes still being found with elevated levels of lead in the water, the switch back to the Detroit system and the application of phosphates to control corrosion are slowly improving water quality.

On the other hand, he said in an interview last week he supports Weaver's plan to focus attention immediately on replacing lead service lines going into homes with the most vulnerable residents — pregnant women and children under the age of 6.

What makes Weaver's fast-forward approach feasible, says Edwards, is her decision to incorporate a method of service line removal and replacement pioneered by the Lansing Board of Power and Light. The method, which avoids digging trenches to replace the old lines, can be done at half the cost and in half the time of the traditional approach.

"I will not accept anything less than full removal of all lead pipes from our water system," says Weaver. "I continue to hear from Lansing that the people of Flint should wait to see if pipes can be 'coated.' I call on Governor Snyder to end that discussion, and to commit fully to getting the lead out of Flint."

Bowing to pressure, Synder announced last week that Flint will receive a $2 million state grant to start replacing lead lines immediately. Although that's a start, it's estimated that the cost of replacing all of the city's lead service lines will be $55 million.

In an attempt to keep pressure on the state to fund the full cost of service line replacement, activists are planning a march on the state Capitol building in Lansing on Feb. 25.

More than ever could have been imagined has occurred since Shariff stood among those boxes filled with sample kits back in August. And none of it would have occurred were it not for the relentless efforts of residents to learn the truth about what was in their water, and then spread the word once the truth was uncovered.

First and foremost was conducting those independent tests to find out what the lead levels in Flint's water really were. As an investigation by the ACLU of Michigan found, the city and state were conducting water tests in a way that ensured minimum amounts of lead would be detected in an attempt to make it appear the city was in compliance with federal drinking water standards.

When Virginia Tech's Edwards came to Flint for a Sept. 15 press conference to announce the independent study found lead levels much higher than what the city and state were claiming, a critical victory was achieved.

As Edwards noted that day, the biggest danger isn't having lead in your water, "it is having lead in your water and not knowing about it."

By leading the way in conducting their own study, activists such as Shariff and McClinton were at the forefront of sounding the lead alarm in a way that gained widespread public attention.

And from there, they kept pressing. When the state, in early August, held a press conference to announce a 10-point action plan that didn't include a switch back to the river, the two women were part of a protest — held outside, because, even though they were the ones being poisoned, residents weren't allowed inside to hear the state's plans to address their concerns.

And though there were hugs and high-fives a few weeks later when Snyder announced Flint would be allowed to switch back to the Detroit system, they knew that in some ways their work was only beginning.

As McClinton said following that press conference, it wasn't enough to just focus on fixing the problems created by the state. After Snyder said initially that his administration would produce an "after-action report" to prevent the same mistakes from being made in the future, his "no-blame" approach was quickly abandoned in the face of public outrage. He appointed a task force to actually investigate. The final results of that effort have yet to be revealed, but the task force's initial findings — sent to Snyder in a Dec. 29 letter – resulted in the resignations of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant and his chief spokesman, Brad Wurfel.

Howard Croft, director of public works for Flint, had already resigned prior to that. And Flint Mayor Dayne Walling lost his job in November when voters replaced him with Weaver. At the federal level, Susan Hedman, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 office in Chicago, has stepped down because, under her failed leadership, the problems in Flint were not addressed by the federal government until the disaster had erupted into a full-blown scandal. Liane Shekter Smith, the former head of the MDEQ's Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance unit was fired earlier this month. Another MDEQ employee has been suspended while the department conducts an internal review. Add to that list the MDEQ's Wurfel and Wyant.

Darnell Earley, Flint's third emergency manager and the man in charge of the city when the ill-fated switch to the river had occurred, recently announced he will be stepping down early from his current job as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. He's been subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee to answer questions about his role in the Flint crisis.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Michigan attorney general have launched criminal investigations.

As for Shariff and McClinton, they were out on a recent Sunday, going door to door with others from the newly formed Flint Rising coalition to make sure that those being overlooked by the government's distribution of bottled water and filters are aware of the help available to them and the dangers exposure to Flint's water continues to pose.

"There are areas in the city that continue to be marginalized," says Shariff. "Translators are needed for immigrant communities. We have to make sure the needs of residents of public housing are being met.

"And we have to keep getting out there to do what government isn't doing — because if you are not in the streets, you are not able to confront and expose the inequities that continue to occur."

Will anyone be prosecuted for Flint?

click to enlarge feature-flint-city.jpg

Last summer, when the ACLU of Michigan and Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards began filing Freedom of Information Act requests to try and get to the truth about problems with Flint’s water, a limited number of emails were turned over. But with the release by the state of some 20,000 documents in recent weeks from a variety of state agencies, as well as emails to and from Gov. Rick Snyder in January and documents obtained by news outlets and others, the picture that began coming into focus last year has gained even more clarity.

The slow trickle of documents has turned into a flood. And the higher the flow of information rises, the worse things look. What’s evident is just how negligent the federal, state, and local governments were in protecting the health and well-being of Flint’s residents.

Warnings were being raised in a variety of places, but they were either ignored or, worse, buried.

In April 2014, just before a state-mandated switch to the Flint River was about to be made, Flint water plant operator Mike Glasgow wrote to MDEQ officials warning that the plant wasn’t ready to begin adequately treating the river water:

“I assumed there would be dramatic changes to our monitoring,” Glasgow wrote. “I have people above me making plans to distribute water ASAP. I was reluctant before, but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”

Despite that warning, the plant began treating river water on April 25, 2014. At that point, the city had been under state control for more than two years.

Although the city council had voted to join the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority, which is building a pipeline that will bring water from Lake Huron to Genesee County, it was the state that made the decision Flint would get its water from the river while the pipeline was being built.

Again, there were warnings. In 2013, when the river was still being considered as a permanent water source for the city of nearly 100,000, one staffer at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote to then-department director Dan Wyant and others in the department that switching to the river posed an “an increased microbial risk to public health” and an “increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health.”

Both fears quickly came to fruition after the switch to the river. In the summer of 2014 the city issued a series of boil water notices because of an E. coli outbreak. When chlorine use was increased to combat the bacterial problem, residents began being exposed to elevated levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine. Residents weren’t informed of that risk to their health until January 2015.

The now well-publicized issue of lead contamination first became known publicly in July, when the ACLU of Michigan first published a leaked internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo written by agency water expert Miguel Del Toral.

We know the MDEQ responded to that alarm by telling the people of Flint that, when it came to concerns about lead in their water, they could just “relax.” That statement was made even though the state’s own tests had shown lead levels in Flint’s water had nearly doubled between the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015.

What’s recently been revealed was that, along with the denial of a lead problem state officials knew existed, information regarding an outbreak of the pneumonia-like Legionnaires’ disease following the switch to the river was also kept from the public.

The Flint Journal report, based on emails the paper obtained, revealed: “Worry about the river’s possible role as a source of Legionnaires’ dates back to at least Oct. 17, 2014, when representatives of the county Health Department and the city’s water treatment plant met, discussing the county’s ‘concerns regarding the increase in Legionella cases and possible association with the municipal water system.’”

It wasn’t until January 2016 that Snyder held a press conference addressing the issue of Legionnaires’ and the possible connection between the disease and the state’s ill-fated decision to begin using the river in a shortsighted attempt to save no more than $5 million.

So, the state and city knew for nine months that residents were being exposed to elevated levels of a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine because faulty treatment had led to E. coli bacterial contamination.

The issue of lead contamination of the city’s water was first raised by the EPA in February 2015, but Snyder didn’t allow Flint to return to the cleaner, safer water provided by Detroit until 10 months later.

And an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that took the lives of 10 people was not publicly acknowledged by the state until 15 months after officials became aware of the issue.

There’s a line about treating people like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit. That’s exactly what happened in Flint, with this tragic addendum: Along with being kept in the dark and being fed one load of crap after another, they were also being forced to use poisoned water. With state and federal criminal investigations under way, the question now is: Who, if anyone, is going to go to be prosecuted over this, and will the charges include manslaughter?

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He was recently named Michigan Journalist of the Year for his coverage of the Flint water crisis. You can reach him at 313-578-6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.

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