By Jan Worth-Nelson
Near the end of the two-hour-long town hall Thursday night at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church, a teenage girl, Tiara Lee Darisaw, stepped up to the mic.
“I realized that the more and more we speak about Flint, the less and less you guys speak,” she said. “I want to know what’s gonna happen in September when you all stop the water pods, and in 2019 when you’re all supposed have fixed the pipes, and what’s going to happen to our families that we care about?”
“Sometimes we need to listen,” Pamela Pugh, the city’s chief public health advisor, agreed once the cheering died down. “We will act,” she said, and announced several dates for upcoming water discussions, in particular several that she said would focus on health issues.
A panel of ten officials — from the state, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the city — were there to explain and answer questions about the Mayor’s announcement Tuesday that the city would stay on Great Lakes Water Authority — what some call “Detroit water” as its primary water source, instead of switching to the Karegnondi Pipeline as had been scheduled for this summer.
Instead, they faced down familiar themes of anger and frustration with ongoing health concerns related to the water crisis and the city’s notoriously high water rates.
John Young, a water consultant to the city and retired president of American Water Works, reiterated to the audience what he had spelled out at the Tuesday press conference: that of 12 options considered as the city attempts to move forward from the crisis, staying on GLWA water was the best. The four criteria used for the comparisons, he said, were the cost, the public health benefits, the risk and reliability of the infrastructure elements required, and the time required to make the change.
Under the proposed arrangement, the GLWA would take on the city of Flint’s 28-year, $7 million/year bond obligation to the KWA. In exchange, the KWA pipeline and its water supply will be available to the city as a backup water source. Since Flint’s water plant — the nexus of so much trouble in the last three years — will again go back to not treating water, money which had been allocated for its upgrades would instead be applied to infrastructure improvements such as repairing leaks in the city’s distribution system. Weaver said it has been estimated the city is losing 35 to 40 percent of its water from leaks in the aging pipes.
Young said the Flint plant still could be used for water storage, however, providing a backup supply when needed.
An anonymous question submitted on a card from the audience was “How can the people who still live in the city of Flint get past the mistrust of government and trust what is being said about the rates and quality of water?”
Applause and rustles of comments followed the question. Richard Baird, the governor’s senior advisor, replied over catcalls from some, “I’m not afraid to answer that because there is no good answer. There is absolutely no reason for people to be trusting until they see day in and day out consistency of behavior in putting things together that make a tangible difference and that address real problems that people are having.”
Weaver agreed, “It’s on us to prove it to people. We have to verify each other’s findings and hold each other accountable.”
But many in the audience remained restless and unconvinced.
Some, like water activist Arthur Woodson, asked for more specifics and more time to study the costs and benefits of the proposal. David Sabuda, the city’s chief financial officer, said the comment time was determined partly by the risk of competition for the federal government’s authorized $100 million for the state’s response to the water crisis,
Woodson also said Flint residents need to be represented on the GLWA board, to have a voice in water delivery and concerns.
At times officials struggled to explain how the rate structure would be handled under the evolving proposal. Sabuda said, “We anticipate holding the current rates stable,” though making it clear the terms of the proposal are still in process.
The new GLWA contract would replace a contract with the GLWA which has been in effect since October, 2015. The city, which had been on GLWA water for years, switched to the Flint River in April, 2014 as what was billed as a cost-saving measure until the Karegnondi Pipeline was finished. But the city switched back to the GLWA, ostensibly for the short-term, after the disastrous sequence of corrosion and lead poisoning that became the water crisis.
As questioners lined up, the tenor of the town hall shifted into increasingly emotional territory, with speakers venting suspicion of the state’s behavior and pleading for their needs — especially the needs of the poor — to be taken seriously.
“We are not taking this no more,” Tony Palladeno, a water protestor who appears at almost every water meeting, said. He said poor people were being driven out of Flint by others trying to make it into “Ann Arbor.” Offering his usual colorful language, Palladeno said he is broke, asserting he was “squeezing Abe’s head so bad in my pocket because it was all I had, I had him in a choke hold and his head came off.” He said he hoped he and his supporters, some of whom are out of town water warriors camping out in Kearsley Park at an outpost they are calling “Camp Promise,” would have a chance to meet with Mayor Weaver to share some of their ideas.
Things got heated when Palladeno and his wife went over their two-minute comment time limit and, objecting to requests to quiet down, were eventually dragged from the sanctuary and into the parking lot by security and police, Palladeno shouting, “Don’t touch my wife, don’t touch my wife!” and others loudly saying, “Leave her alone.”
[Added Friday: The situation deteriorated badly by the end of the meeting, when the Palladenos, along with four others, were ejected from the building and arrested, according to FlintPolice Chief Tim Johnson, on charges of disruptive behavior, assaulting an officer and interfering with police.]
Debra Williams, a Vernon Street resident and General Motors employee, voiced futility as she departed the sanctuary after the event.
“It just seems like this will never get resolved,” Williams said. “One would think they would have done an assessment of the Karegnondi pipeline switch back then — of what it would cost and what it would involve.” She said she still didn’t understand why officials at the time were in such a hurry to use the Flint River.
Among other complaints, one speaker, Nancy Burgher, declared the town hall should not have been held in a church. Her comments were met by applause and cheers from about half the room.
“Politics and this — this church — don’t match. We should be able to speak.” Referring to a previous speaker who had been ejected for using the “F-word,” Burgher said, “She accidentally used it — she was frustrated — she’s got a lot of physical damage and was agitated, and they escorted her out, and I had to go get her stuff and bring it to her and they would not let her back in.”
Before being ejected, that commenter said she and her husband both were ill because of the water and though they have been receiving health care assistance, many of her friends and neighbors don’t qualify. She issued a passionate pleas for health care for all and predicted that there would be more deaths, and “it’s on all of y’all.”
The GLWA recommendations will undergo further consideration during a 30-day comment period and also are under consideration by the City Council, who will need to agree to the proposal. The relationship between the Mayor and the council have not always been smooth, and council members already are registering complaints that they had been left out of the process.
After the press conference Tuesday, Fourth Ward Councilwoman Kate Fields commented, “The Mayor and the state have been working on this for six to nine months. Don’t’ you think an interesting question is why city council has not been present for those discussions? Who actually makes that final decision? The City Council does. So far, we have seen no real documents…no real figures.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.