By Jan Worth-Nelson
When Ricky Baty, 55, got out of prison two years ago after six years behind bars, he came back to his childhood home on Milbourne Avenue in north Flint, where he and his brother have tried to keep things going after his father’s death. He noticed people getting water from trucks, and the news about lead in the water. One of the first things he heard was people talking fearfully about “babies dying” from the water.
A 1981 Flint Northern grad, Baty watched Friday as pipe replacement crews dug a hole in front of his house and a scrum of reporters awaited the arrival of a delegation of Congressional Democrats in town, to check out Flint’s progress.
Even though he’s grateful for the pipe replacement work, Baty said he no longer drinks water from the tap and probably never will.
Baty was one of the Milbourne residents the congresspeople met after they exited their big black bus on a rainy afternoon. Hosted by Congressman Dan Kildee, who grew up within blocks of the Milbourne site in Civic Park, the delegation of Democrats was guided around the pipe replacement project by W.T. Stevens co-owner, former NBA star Jeff Grayer.
Members of the delegation included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (SC-06). Others were Debbie Dingell (MI-12 ), Sandy Levin (MI-09), Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Jim McGovern (MA-02), Denny Heck (WA-10), Dwight Evans (PA-02) and Jared Huffman (CA-02).
After meeting some of the residents on the street, Pelosi said, the “eloquence of their stories” carried more power than anything she had heard.
The occasion offered the opportunity for several updates. Mayor Karen Weaver announced the city has replaced 6,724 pipes so far, 496 this year, with about 7,000 to go. She also said city officials had met Thursday with representatives of Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor who has offered help to Flint. She and Kildee said they would continue conversations to see if an appropriate match is possible.
The Congressional team lamented attempts by the GOP majority last week to cut $300 million from federal provisions for clean water and clean drinking water, Pelosi declaring, “We have to explain to them this is not a good idea.”
As Pelosi watched, in high heels at the lip of an excavation, workers inserted a shiny copper pipe.
“There it is! Copper! That’s so exciting!” Pelosi exclaimed, all smiles, as the pipe slipped in.
They stopped at a house next door to Baty’s, where Deranda Jones and her children David, Shaniya and Chrissy sat on the porch watching the action.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Pelosi said, after Jones assured Pelosi and Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence her children are receiving medical care in the aftermath of the crisis. With Kildee and Mayor Karen Weaver right behind her, Pelosi said “He’s made a lot of this possible in Congress by getting resources, so you call him if you have a problem: K-I-L-D-E-E.”
“Thank you,” Jones said to Kildee as baby David watched, wide-eyed. “He never saw this many people before.”
In comments at a podium set up in front of Baty’s house, Kildee noted the visit is the fifth by members of Congress to Flint since the water crisis began–and a total of 30 members of Congress have been to the city. He called his colleagues “champions,” adding, “It says something that even though they don’t represent this area, they know that we all share this challenge of making sure that a community like ours that is often left behind is NOT left behind when it’s facing its greatest crisis ever.”
A $100 million package of aid for Flint infrastructure was approved by Congress in 2016 providing funds for pipe replacement. An additional $50 million for expanded health care for Flint families and $20 million to establish the Center for Lead Excellence and create the Flint Lead Registry also have materialized from Washington.
Kildee noted the importance of “seeing the results of our work — seeing the dangerous lead service lines being replaced, essentially providing something that ought to be a matter of course, clean drinking water for families” Four contractors have been completing the pipe replacement work. Representatives of locally-owned W.T. Stevens, the company at work on Milbourne, in addition to Jeff Grayer were Beverly Beard, vice-president of operations, and Rhonda Grayer, president.
“But also it’s not just about water,” Kildee said, “It’s about the lack of investment in communities like Flint, urban and rural, all across the country. The poorer communities have been forgotten in many way and we’re not going to let that happen.
“The recovery is well underway,” Kildee said, “but it’s far from over–it will take more than just changing these pipes, although that’s fundamental to bring justice to the people of Flint — what Flint needs and what we’re working to provide is a path forward, to provide opportunity for everybody who lives here.”
“What happened in Flint was a challenge to the conscience of our country — that our children would be subjected to a manmade disaster, a decision of public policy that was detrimental to their health and to the economic security of the community,” Pelosi said.
She praised Kildee as “a man with a plan” which is producing results, and Weaver as a strong leader “who accepted a challenge.” She said the group’s meetings earlier in the day with business and nonprofit leaders had been encouraging.
Flint is going to “leapfrog,” over some obstacles other places have had because of the city’s “entrepreneurial spirit, the innovative spirit here,” she said.
Weaver said, “It gives us hope to have you here. It lets us know that we have not been forgotten and shows the country that we are moving forward. We’ve had trouble with not trusting government at any level, and this helps us get that trust coming back.”
In a Q&A with media, Kildee responded to the Inspector General’s report released last week about the handling of the Flint water crisis by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Yes, there were failures at every level of government,” he said. “But the EPA took the State of Michigan at its word when they assured the federal government the water was fine. It was a failure at the EPA, but we cannot allow people to cut the very protections responsible for oversight.” The rules are not enough, he said, if there’s no one there to ensure the rules are enforced.
Commenting on the Lead and Copper Rule that dictates 15 ppb (parts per billion) of lead as the triggering action level, Kildee said he has proposed to bill to update the rule, taking that number down to 5 ppb. “There is no safe level of lead,” he said. “The protections need to be based on health and science, not convenience of water systems.”
Answering a reporter who said people still are frustrated that they still can’t trust the drinking water after four years, Kildee noted Lansing’s pipe replacement project took 10 years, and requested patience.
“People in Flint have every right to be frustrated,” he said. “Our role is to continue to press forward, and try to overcome distrust with actions.
“Flint’s a tough town,” he said. “We never give up on ourselves.”
In her concluding remarks, noting that there is more work to be done, Pelosi added, “We don’t agonize, we organize, and what we’re doing here now is organizing for the children of Flint, for whatever they need to be well.”
Banner photo: Media trucks and official cars lined up on Milbourne, Friday, July 20 (Photo by Patsy Isenberg).
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org