By Jan Worth-Nelson
In Flint for the premiere of the upcoming NOVA production, “Poisoned Water,” towering and sometimes controversial water crisis figure Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech leaned into the near-capacity crowd at the Flint Institute of Arts theater and stated, “America really owes Flint a huge debt of gratitude.”
That’s because, he said, “in the aftermath we’ve discovered problems all around the country, especially in our poorer communities. Almost the only thing unusual about Flint is that we caught the problem and we got kids protected before even worse harm was done. We owe the same opportunity and outcome to other poor Americans as well.”
The film, set to air on PBS stations at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 31, takes a close look among other aspects at how water treatment works, particularly in the case of river water. It makes detailed comparisons between Flint and the city of Cincinnati, where river water continues to be used — without trouble — because of the exacting use of corrosion controls. Most Flint residents know well the saga of how the absence of corrosion controls led to what happened here.
But in documenting the science, the film also captures the scientists, and how their relentless observations and unflinching reports became an answer to the injustice: how EPA official Miguel del Toral called out his own agency for laggardly enforcement and discrediting significant data; how Edwards and his assistant Siddhartha Roy convinced a cadre of students, using pizza as a bribe, to devote hours and miles to testing Flint water; how Flint resident LeAnne Walters’ house became “ground zero,” harming her children, and how that transformed her eventually into a powerful “citizen-scientist” and advocate.
As NOVA producer Julia Cort put it, “We realized that there was a fascinating and important science story to tell, but we also realized that what makes this story so powerful, so essential, is not merely the science — it’s the people — it’s you, the citizens of Flint, and how…when all else failed you took science into your own hands until those in power could no longer ignore you.”
Filmed in Flint this winter, the documentary includes interviews with many familiar players in the Flint drama besides Walters, including Flint Rising organizer Gina Luster and a cameo by Michael Moore. Also featured is former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who was in the audience but didn’t speak. (See interview with Walling here)
A 52-minute examination of the crisis, the film deliberately focuses on the science, Paula Apsell from WGBH-Boston, moderator of the event and senior executive producer of NOVA, explained. “Science is what we do,” she said, after several audience members suggested the production had not adequately explored the sociological and racial elements of the crisis.
But a panel of experts and water crisis players commenting from the stage following the film made it clear the racial and socioeconomic elements of what Apsell called “this painful but important story,” were on their mind.
“We really stressed the areas that we could handle the best, but I think it is pretty damn obvious the role that poverty played in it, and you could see it,” Apsell said.
Flint Rising organizer Gina Luster, one of a band of Flint mothers and activists whose children were poisoned, agreed, asserting, “I live here, I sleep this, I eat this…and all I saw from the beginning was racial injustice.”
It also was clear the NOVA crew had been personally impacted by the Flint project.
NOVA producer Llewellyn Smith, for example, said one of the most challenging aspects of telling the Flint story was “understanding the level of injustice that happened in the city.” He said, “Most Americans who look at the story don’t realize how severely the city and its residents have been harmed, especially by agencies that had a mission to protect them.”
He said he was struck by “how many people were so involved in bringing attention to this injustice. Absorbing these things and trying to bring them into the film as effectively and honestly as we could was the biggest challenge.”
“It was your determination, your conviction, and your persistence, that helped expose the truth of what happened,” Apsell said. “We realize that this came at great cost to you and your families.”
Also featured on the panel was LeeAnne Walters, often touted as one of the heroines of the Flint story. Flint resident, mother, activist and “citizen scientist,” as she is often identified, Walters gained not just local but national attention for her dogged research, advocacy and protest efforts, memorably testifying in February 2016 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the role of the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in the crisis.
Walters and Edwards, especially, received loud ovations when they were introduced from a crowd that clearly appreciates their roles.
Asked how the crisis has personally affected her family, Walters stated, “We have changed, we have become stronger, we have become closer to each other because of what’s happened. We have struggled emotionally, mentally, but what helps has been talking to other people who are going through the same thing.”
Walters said she and her family will never drink the water again, emphasizing, “That’s never going to change.”
“We’re not done here yet,” Walters added, to loud applause. She pledged work would continue “until we get what we need — fighting actively for the adults that have been affected by the crisis.”
Gina Luster was joined on the panel by her father, Veo Luster, also of Flint, a career water distribution contractor who found himself in the middle of the crisis after his grandchildren were poisoned. Veo Luster still is engaged in working on pipe replacement in the city.
He said pipe replacement is likely to take much longer than predicted, listing many challenging logistics and physical elements — clay soil, special equipment, weather variabilities, state and EPA policies.
“I’m a realist,” he said, “and we’re in our infancy. I give it another seven years,” he said, to groans from the audience, noting that repair costs in Flint alone might reach $1 trillion.
Asked about the country’s readiness for water-related infrastructure repair, Edwards said he is “eternally optimistic,” and suggested this is “a rare area where there might be bi-partisan agreement.”
Edwards said, “there’s rarely a ribbon-cutting ceremony when a pipe that’s out of sight underground is replaced by a new pipe.”
However, he added, “Flint has illustrated the dangers to our basic levels of civilization if we continue to neglect our water pipes and the horrific cost that children and the elderly in Flint paid for that neglect.”
Some in the Flint audience, after getting a first look at the production, did not seem to have the rest of the country in mind, however.
Questioners lined up at the mic in the discussion after the credits rolled were more intent on telling their own stories. Some expressed thanks for the production, but some voiced ongoing anger and frustration about what has happened. Some were tearful, and several were clearly far from ready to move on.
Flint resident Quincey Murphy, for example, a member of the Flint Charter Commission, said he was concerned that the film left out the findings of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission report concluding “implicit bias” and “systemic racism” reflected in the water crisis.
“The governor had to know,” another commentator bewailed, voicing a common thread of government mistrust. Another asked if more indictments might be coming — in addition to the 13 handed down so far by state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Walters replied she had been told investigations are continuing and would expect to hear of more.
NOVA representatives on the panel, in addition to Llewellyn Smith, were Julia Cort, deputy executive producer and Kelly Thomson, another NOVA producer — both involved in the Flint project.
Elin Betanzo, director of the Safe Drinking Water Research and Policy Program at the Northeast Midwest Institute described how her friendship going back to high school with Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha almost accidentally led, during a dinner party, to the research and eventual blockbuster findings that Flint’s children had high lead levels in their blood.
Jeffrey Dwyer, director of the Michigan State University Extension, rounded out the panel with comments about how MSU has been attempting to bolster the community’s healing through nutrition assistance and education.
June Pierce Youatt, Michigan State University provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, made opening remarks, along with Susi Elkins, WKAR general manager.
The evening’s discussion was presented by WKAR Public Media from Michigan State University, in cooperation with PBS Nova and the Flint Institute of Arts. WKAR has made the panel discussion portion of the evening available for viewing on Facebook here. After the documentary airs Wednesday night, WKAR spokesman William Richards said, the episode will be available online at video.wkar.org (also video.pbs.org) for one month. Past June 14, it will be available to PBS local station donors through PBS Passport.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.