by Harold C. Ford
“…When you have a great violation of the people and there’s a great sense of injury…you have to give people an honorable means and context in which to express and eliminate that grief and speak decisively and succinctly back to the issue. Otherwise your movement will break down into chaos and violence.” James Bevel; Episode 6, “Bridge to Freedom (1965),” Eyes on the Prize, 1987.
A simple two-sentence summary of the Flint Water Town Hall on Jan. 11 at the University of Michigan-Flint’s North Bank Center might read: 1. Government officials and independent water scientists said that Flint’s water was getting better but that consumers ought to continue to filter their water. 2. Many, if not most, Flint citizens remain doubtful about the quality of their water and the quality of the counsel given them by their government and the water scientists.
That Flint citizens remain mistrustful of government officials and skeptical about the quality of their water should hardly be a surprise to even the most casual observer. This view was confirmed on December 9, 2016 in a report released to the public titled Voices of Flint Project: Research Summary. The research effort was funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and Michigan State University. A section of the report titled “Trust and Power in Decision Making” was auspiciously placed at the beginning of the Executive Summary and proclaimed:
• “Flint residents do not trust government officials or government scientists. Flint residents do not believe these institutions have the best interest of Flint residents in mind.”
• “The lack of trust in government coupled with feelings of powerlessness and lack of appropriate ways to communicate their concerns and experiences will complicate recovery efforts and should be addressed in future planning.”
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver opened the Town Hall by rallying members of her community toward an informative and harmonious meeting. “We need to be working together,” she advised. “We need to be sharing and dialoguing and talking about how to move the community of Flint forward.”
Several dozen representatives of the law enforcement community were present inside and outside the North Bank Center, presumably to ensure the mayor’s wishes for unity. A horseshoe-shaped phalanx of officers, interspersed with members of the media, ringed the room filled with an estimated 300 attendees.
An estimated 200 others watched a live feed from an adjoining room and the nearby UCEN KIVA auditorium at the University of Michigan-Flint. One hour of the event was beamed to Flint area residents by WJRT ABC12 in addition to a live stream on its website.
Informational highlights from officials at the town hall meeting included the following:
• Testing in 2016 showed that bacteria is almost nonexistent. The City of Flint was required to collect a minimum of 100 samples per month, “but they collect way more than that,” stated Bryce Feighner, an official from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Additional samples were collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. Coliform bacteria, hardier than most other pathogens, were not found in any samples collected in the past year, according to Feighner. “That’s incredible,” he said.
• Chlorine added by the city is now effectively disinfecting the water. Residuals are “incredibly good”, according to the DEQ’s Feighner. (A chlorine residual is a low level of chlorine remaining in the water after its initial application.) Chlorine residuals were measured at the same time that bacteria was tested, up to 1,400 times in 2016.
• Data showed that phosphate is more uniformly distributed throughout Flint’s water system, thus reducing corrosion and resulting in a concomitant reduction in lead and copper.
• Lead levels in the water have dropped off significantly. Testing showed that 96% of Flint homes tested below the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (pbb). (The “action level” of 15 pbb lead is the point at which, by law, officials must take affirmative action to reduce the amount of lead in the water.) DEQ official George Krisztian explained that there were five sources for testing lead including: “tens of thousands” of residential samples; schools; food service establishments; elevated blood level investigations; and “sentinel sites”, locations where the water was routinely tested. Testing by the Michigan DEQ was done in partnership with other agencies to insure validity.
• Aggregate sampling for the copper level in Flint water showed a reduction from 170 pbb to 120 pbb. That’s far below the copper “action level” of 1300 pbb.
• “Shigella does not appear to be spreading through a drinking water system.” Rather, “shigella bacteria appear to be spreading in the community from person to person (and) slowing down.” The findings about shigella were presented by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards based on an investigation by the Center for Disease Control and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The findings were confirmed by University of Michigan professor Nancy Love.
• The stated goal of government officials is to replace some 6,000 service lines each year for three years contingent upon available funds. Weaver and retired National Guard Brigadier General Michael McDaniel, who Weaver appointed last year to head up the Flint Action and Sustainability Team, called the FAST Start program for lead pipe removal and replacement, reaffirmed this goal. However, “we do not have the funds right now to do 18,000 to 19,000 homes,” McDaniel cautioned.
• Locating the lead service lines is, at present, an inexact science that is slowing the Fast Start project to replace them. Thus far, 130 of the 900 homes where digs were made were found to be serviced by copper lines where replacement was unnecessary. Acting administrator for EPA Region 5 Robert Kaplan, told Michigan Public Radio that decades-old information inhibits the ability to locate lead service lines. Kaplan also told listeners that the EPA has awarded a grant to the city to find a way to speed up the location of lead service lines.
• Upgrades to the Flint water plant are not likely to be completed before 2019 and will require upwards of $20 million to complete. And, according to Flint Water Plant Supervisor Jolisa McDay, “You must have employees, you must have a team that is capable and competent in order to run your water treatment plant in order for the City of Flint to have a public water system..that can produce quality drinking water.”
• The water system is too big. Flint’s water system was designed to serve a population of 300,000. It should now be reconfigured to serve a population of 100,000.
• The rate of Legionnaire’s Disease that spiked in 2014 and 2015 has declined. “We can’t say this new rate is back to baseline levels”, observed Wayne State University professor Shawn McElmurry, “ but we’re grateful that the rate has come down.” Legionella bacteria were found in 12% of Flint homes during a fall 2016 sampling, but McElmurry pointed out that, generally, the “overwhelming” number of legionella bacteria found are not associated with disease.
• Nary an official called for an end to the use of water filters or the discontinued use of bottled water for drinking. EPA official Mark Durno likely spoke for all the panelists when he bluntly stated, “We recommend that Flint residents do not drink unfiltered water.”
Despite Mayor Weaver’s call for unity and the omnipresence of law enforcement, the deep mistrust of government featured in the “Voices of Flint” report was evident throughout the meeting. The crinkling of–what else?–water bottles from dozens of audience members signaled disagreement with many utterances of panel members. The crinkling began less than eleven minutes into the meeting during a presentation by Dr. Nicole Lurie, an Obama appointee to the US Department of Health and Human Services. At times, the noise of the water bottles was replaced by rhythmic clapping.
Midway through the presentations, one audience member shouted, “Your lies are killing us!” This was to have been a signal for a “die-in” staged by members of Flint Rising Coalition, an advocacy group that had also planned the crinkling of water bottles and rhythmic clapping of hands.
However, the die-in didn’t happen and was possibly muted by the presence of panelists perceived by many as heroes in the water crisis saga. Miguel Del Toral is the Chicago-based EPA official who advocated for Flint in the barely responsive EPA Region 5. Dr. Marc Edwards, who weighed in remotely to the Town Hall via Skype audio, has vigorously represented Flint’s citizens in congressional hearings and other settings. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha stood up to the dismissive Michigan DEQ when her findings of elevated lead levels in Flint children were discredited.
“I never thought that (the die-in) was going to be something that actually happened,” Flint activist Brandon Strong told EVM. “The die-in required one moment where somebody said something that was…a really blatant lie.”
Nonetheless, discord boiled to the surface when Flint resident Adam Murphy twice rose from his chair and unloaded some of his anger onto the panelists: “Shame on you! Shame on you guys! My house was 530 parts per billion after the state ripped all the pipes out of my house! You gotta’ get the mains out, buddy! You’re wasting our time! And we’re dying; people have died from this damned water! I got kids that are sick and teeth falling out. You have no solutions to this problem.”
Another woman, inspired by Murphy, joined in the scolding of the panelists: “And (you) get paid for nothing, nothing but killing us! Nobody’s done shit at my house!” The entreaties of Murphy and his female compatriot encouraged the shouts of others and stoked the rhythmic clapping.
The cacophony was not unexpected by the event organizers. In fact, the meeting was to be by invitation only until Mayor Weaver lobbied for an event open to the public. Nonetheless, town hall organizers were hardly surprised by the angry expressions.
Weaver attempted to quiet the crowd. “Let me talk please,” she implored, “We’re angry, and we’re scared, and confused,” she continued. “We’ve been waiting for this; we have an opportunity to get some things that we didn’t have before.” Referring to the panelists she warned, “We deserve some more money…I want them to talk; I want it on the record, to hold them accountable in front of all these people.”
The clamor continued. “Liar!” shouted one man. “You’re killing us!” repeated another. Eventually Flint Police Chief Tim Johnson stepped to the mic, and calmly said, “I have a lot of friends in this hall, and I know you’re upset. We’ve all got the same kind of goals in mind. Friend or no friend, I’m gonna’ get you out of here.” And with the application of his cordial, but firm, verbal nightstick, Chief Johnson quieted the troubled waters for the remainder of the meeting.
The final hour of the Town Hall featured a panel of health care and medical professionals. The most cogent advice was likely given in the first few minutes by Flint’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. “My recommendations are unchanged,” she said. “People need to protect themselves and use filtered water.” Dr. Eden Wells, Chief Medical Executive of the Michigan DHSS, speculated about the possibility that hot water heaters might serve as a breeding ground for legionella bacteria.
Finally, some members of the Community Outreach and Resident Education, or CORE Team were introduced. Flint CORE Team members, canvass door-to-door in the city and educate community members about the water crisis including use of filters and testing. “They are Flint residents helping Flint residents,” Weaver bragged. Thus far, the 36 CORE Team members have knocked on 36,500 doors where they engaged in 10,600 conversations. Plans are to expand the team to 160 members.
Observation: One thing that could lessen the tension between politicians and water scientists and the constituents they serve is to find a common language. Frankly, much of water science is complicated beyond the grasp of most citizens save for the most interested and/or dedicated of students. Prior to the Flint water crisis, who could tell much about the science of adding phosphates or chlorine to water? Quick, raise your hand if you can explain the difference between coliform, shigella, and legionella bacteria. Write it down if you know the action levels for lead and copper. Delineate the responsibilities of city, county, state, and federal government in terms of responsibilities for quality drinking water.
The sad fact is that the pollution of our environment by the human species has created a witch’s brew of environmental mushroom clouds that will, in reciprocal fashion, pollute the human species. Congressman Dan Kildee agrees. He told Michigan Public Radio:
“It’s often the case that these officials speak in terminology and lingo and very scientific language. What people need to hear is in terms that they can completely decipher…To be fair, EPA and other officials are doing that but it’s going to take a while until the citizens of Flint actually trust them.”
Spirit of ’76, the history:
That Flintstones are angry about finding themselves the victims of environmental injustice is hardly surprising when examined in its historical context. After all, Flint residents are American citizens, inheritors of the Spirit of ’76 that propelled the American Revolution. The philosophy of Enlightenment thinker John Locke influenced the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, particularly his social contract theory.
Locke’s theory envisions a compact between the citizens and their government. A community surrenders some degree of its natural rights in favor of government, which is better able to protect those rights than any man could alone, reasoned Locke. Because government exists solely for the well being of the community, any government that breaks the compact can and should be replaced.
The actual words of the US Constitution speak clearly to the Lockean roles of the government and governed: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Demanding environmental justice is as American as apple pie.
Flint resident Melissa Mays, an unrelenting spokesperson for the group Water We Fighting for, would likely find support for her militant response to the water crisis in the philosophy of Locke. For her, the government-citizen compact has been grievously injured.
Her rapid fire responses about the crisis for EVM reveal her wounds: “They (government officials and water scientists) are still doing the same things that they’ve done to us for two years. They’re still trying to paint the happy (face) while still not answering the questions. I’ve never seen such tap dancing in my life…They’re sweeping it under the rug and they’re not talking about my son’s school that tested at 828 pbb…”
Mays continued: “We’ve asked these questions for two years now and they’re still not getting answered. They lied on several occasions…We are very well researched. So we’re able to say, ‘You’re lying to me. Please stop!…We’re tired. It’s 2017 and we still are nowhere closer than we need to be…It’s my water; it’s my right to find out what’s in it, to know what’s being served up to my kids…They actually don’t like that we were informed, educated, asking the right questions.”
Flint area environmental activist Mike Haley has an unsympathetic take on Flint’s wounded water warriors who disrupted the Town Hall. “Thank god, they finally settled down,” he told EVM. “It was somewhat embarrassing. This was no longer two years ago. The whole calculus has changed and people should respond to the new reality—that people are not lying to them, that people are not delusional as they were in 2014 and 2015.”
Haley viewed his personal motive for involvement in the water crisis as consistent with his public motive. “I believe the people that caused the water crisis will destroy the environment and they’ll take my pension away from me; they’ll make me poor. This is a subset of something bigger that’s happening in this country. I’m not here just for the people of Flint; I’m here for myself…Members of the Tea Party don’t want any regulation; they want it all to be money-driven. They’ll ruin everything for most of us.”
Spirit of ’36; the history:
Our Flint grandparents understood American democratic values some 81 years ago when they forced the corporate giant and enemy of labor General Motors to the bargaining table during the Flit sit-down strike of 1936-37. Then and now Flint captured the attention of the nation.
Flint citizens were propelled then by the unhealthy conditions in the auto plants. Illness, premature deaths, and exhaustion were a constant in the plants. Illness, premature deaths, and weariness are also consequences of the water crisis. In the Battle of Bulls Running, fourteen auto workers fell from gunshot wounds. In 2014 and 2015, at least twelve Flint citizens died from Legionella that was likely related to contaminated drinking water, and countless others will suffer adverse long-term health effects.
Factory workers fought back with stones, lumps of coal, steel hinges, milk bottles, and streams of water shot from firehoses. Flint citizens have responded to the water tragedy with rallies, lobbying efforts, lawsuits, hand clapping, shouting, and the crinkling of water bottles.
Governor Frank Murphy sent the National Guard to Flint but resisted pressure to send them into the factories to forcibly eject the sit downers. Governor Murphy was guided by his blue collar sentiments and considerable identification with the common man. Governor Rick Snyder also sent the National Guard to Flint, to help deliver clean bottled water to beleaguered citizens. Snyder’s arm’s length approach to the water tragedy is probably guided, in part, by his patrician values and myopic, bottom-line economic spin on public affairs.
Sit-downers were supported by the Wagner Act that allowed workers to organize unions. Water warriors find guidance in the Safe Drinking Water Act and its Lead and Copper Rule. Both laws were routinely ignored or distorted by many of those holding political and economic power—including General Motors then, and the government officials today, that have played a role in the water crisis.
Both events were decades in the making; their historical roots run deep. Both will bequeath a legacy to the American story that will endure and likely be found in the nation’s history textbooks far into the future. The sit-down strike birthed the United Auto Workers union and helped to build America’s middle class. The water crisis will likely lead to a revision of the Safe Drinking Water Act and spur a commitment to rebuilding our nation’s water infrastructure.
The end — hardly:
Currently, there are 155,000 public water systems in the United States. “Flint has brought a lot to the fore,” EPA’s Kaplan told Michigan Public Radio. “(Flint) has shined a light on the need to make some changes in the Lead and Copper Rule. I’m pleased to say that the EPA is using the experience in Flint to guide its efforts going forward.”
Genesee County Health Department director Mark Valacak, who played a consistently principled and truth-telling role in the water crisis, agreed. He told EVM that the Lead and Copper Rule should be lowered as close to zero as possible. “The World Health Organization Standard is 10 pbb; the US standard is 15 pbb,” he observed. “We all need to understand how we can reduce our exposure to lead.”
Kaplan likened Flint’s story to “a graduate level course.” Twenty-something Nicole Herrera, who tended bar a few blocks down from the Flint Water Town Hall at Blackstone’s Pub and Grill, might find the “graduate level course” analogy apropos. A transplanted Saginaw native, in October 2015 she moved into a Flint house that had been remodeled by her significant other. This is the community where the couple would make their home. But the water crisis washed away their dreams.
“One day it (the water) started coming out brown”, she told EVM. She said she thought, “This isn’t normal.” Tests showed the young couple’s water to be at 45 pbb, well above the EPA action level of 15 pbb.
It was an eye-opening lesson for the youthful Herrera. “I am very bitter about it,” she said. “Before this I was never politically aware (and) it really sparked my interest…I attended my first protest in downtown Flint when Michael Moore came to town.”
Herrera said, “I’m way more skeptical about what government and mass media wants to tell you because they’ve told us false information…(and) I don’t believe the people that were responsible for this were held accountable.”
Weaver told the Town Hall attendees that Flint will need more financial help from the state and federal governments to replace tens of thousands of service lines. It’s estimated that 20,000 lines in Flint may contain lead and need replacement. But Flint didn’t get much love, or support, from its “one tough nerd” Governor Rick Snyder in his State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Whereas, Snyder devoted the bulk of last year’s speech to the Flint water crisis, this year he squeezed a paltry few minutes into the hour-long address.
Snyder’s State of the State snub prompted an angry response from Congressman Dan Kildee, a Flint resident.
“Governor Snyder has failed Flint families. It is disgraceful that a city of 100,000 people still doesn’t have clean drinking water and the Governor could barely devote two minutes of his State of the State to Flint. Just two minutes dedicated to Flint? Really? This is an ongoing emergency– people in my hometown are still drinking bottled water and using filters. The Governor is either completely aloof or simply doesn’t care about Flint.
“Shame on the Governor for not using tonight to outline additional steps that he is going to take to ensure clean drinking water in Flint. I will not rest until the Governor and the state step up to do more to help the city recover from this man-made crisis.”
So the bottles, those goddamn water bottles, the symbol of Flint’s dilemma, the plastic necklace that hangs around the collective neck of Flint’s citizens like the iron collar worn by the dispossessed of a previous era, will continue to pile up.
Staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.