Politics & Prejudices: Poisoning Flint and other atrocities

Oct 14, 2015 at 1:00 am

"... mistakes were made."

—Richard Nixon, on Watergate.

Don't you love how our politicians and other so-called leaders refuse to take responsibility for their screw-ups?

Dennis Williams, for example, the roly-poly United Auto Workers union president. He began this round of auto contract talks this summer by giving Fiat Chrysler emperor Sergio Marchionne a big bear hug. Then they negotiated a contract that all the industry and union leaders agreed was a beaut.

Everybody loved it, except the churlish workers themselves. Somehow they were bothered by the fact that there was no plan to phase out the infamous two-tier pay system.

The workers thought they'd at least been promised a cap on the number of lower-paid Tier II workers. They didn't get it. They weren't thrilled when news leaked out that Chrysler planned to move production of two key models to Mexico, and the union didn't protest. They were given a new health care co-op plan they fear will cost them more, and which their union didn't bother to explain how it worked.

Basically, their leaders said, "Take this, you slobs. We know what's good for you." Guess what. Those actually doing the work had the guts and strength to say no. Did Williams then apologize, vow to learn from his mistakes, maybe even make an effort to talk with some real live autoworkers?

That's what he should have done.

Instead, he said, "We don't consider this a setback. We consider (this) a part of the process." What bullshit!

But that pales in comparison with what happened in Flint. Ask yourself this: What do you suppose would've happened if some crisis required Gov. Rick Snyder to put an emergency manager in a place like Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills?

A town, that is full of white people who vote Republican. Let's say that manager stopped buying Detroit water to save money, and announced the city would take water out of the Rouge River instead. Soon, the residents complained the water smelled bad, tasted funny, and was making them sick.

Later, after the emergency manager had lied and said the water was just as safe, researchers found E. Coli and other harmful bacteria in the water. Next, they discovered the chemicals the city was using to kill the bacteria gave people an elevated risk of cancer. Finally, it was shown that the river water was so corrosive that it caused lead to leach out of old city pipes.

Finally, babies and small children began showing up with lead poisoning. Does anyone really think state officials wouldn't have sprung into action, and immediately intervened?

My guess is that even before the lead poisoning was discovered, a way and funds would've been found to hook the city back up to Detroit water, and the emergency manager would've been indicted. But alas, all of that happened in Flint, where the people affected are poor and largely black.

In fact, the lead poisoning was only uncovered after former MT staffer Curt Guyette got an internal EPA memo that convinced him to "believe there was a real problem with lead in the city water." The state and the city denied that, saying their tests showed the water was fine.

So in a fine bit of unsung heroism, Guyette, a coalition of residents, and Mark Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech, came up with a plan to test the water at nearly 300 homes.

Edwards got a grant from the National Science Foundation; Guyette and his present employer, the ACLU, helped coordinate and conduct the study.

"In a little over two weeks, we tested about four times as many homes as the city tested in six months," he told me. There was indeed lead in the water. A week later, the hospital study "both built upon and validated our study, which Brad Wurfel (the communications spokesman, aka administration mouthpiece at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) was trying his best to discredit."

Guyette added, "If it hadn't have been for this unprecedented effort ... kids in Flint would still be getting lead-poisoned because the city and MDEQ would still be assuring everyone that the water was safe."

That's inspiring, but Guyette is wrong about one thing: Kids are still getting poisoned. Despite the state's earlier assurance that the water was fine, the Snyder administration had quietly been working to get a donor to buy water filters to be distributed free by churches in poor areas.

The Flint Journal said the state told the pastors to keep quiet about it. After it was clear that it was Snyder's emergency manager who was responsible for the switch, the governor dragged his feet for a few days, made some usual vague comments, and then announced with some fanfare that the state would provide a paltry $1 million to buy more filters and help "improve corrosion controls."

What about switching back to much safer Detroit water? Mayor Dayne Walling, who is running for re-election, said he had no interest in that, thank you.

After his office was besieged by angry residents, he said he was still "considering it," but said it would cost the city $2 million a month it doesn't have.

Pat Clawson, a former investigative reporter for CNN who lives in the Flint area, told me the mayor's "handling of this crisis shows he is absolutely unfit to hold public office."

Snyder, of course, didn't offer to help get Flint residents reconnected to safe water again. I wonder if, just out of curiosity, someone might ask both of them what the cost of a bunch of irreversibly brain-damaged children might be?

Mass Shooting Update

What struck me most about the school shooting in Oregon was that the media, even The New York Times, now have a format for every new mass gun atrocity.

News story the first day, with sidebar on the terrified ones who hid and heard the gunshots. The next day, profiles of the shooter and the slain, reports on the angry reaction of the president, with a few comments from the pro-gun nuts.

Yes, they've got it down pat. The fact is that we love our guns and our potential ability to murder far more than we do our children, and we might as well admit it.

We could, of course, stop nearly all these killings, if we had sane laws that took all these guns away. Hey, fanatics: You heard that right. I indeed want the government to take your guns away, except maybe those you keep in a hunting lodge.

Detroit News editorial page editor Nolan Finley wrote a column after Oregon in which he wondered if President Obama wanted to impose the same horribly restrictive gun laws on this country that Great Britain and Australia have.

"Owners of all weapons have to be licensed and the permits expire after five years (!) You have to "then wait nearly a month before receiving the firearm," the horrified Finley said.

Well, I don't know what Obama wants, but that sounds pretty good to me. What Finley didn't mention was that 33,169 Americans died from guns in 2013.

In Australia in 2012, the total was 226. In Great Britain the year before, there were 59 firearms-related murders.

See what can happen when you lose a little "freedom?"

Why, I'll bet those Australian and British commies even force local governments to provide clean and unpolluted drinking water. So I say, let's sign up for more repression.

Tens of thousands who won't die may be glad we did.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.