Abusive Government and Environmental Racism at Heart of Flint Water Crisis

Posted Jan. 27, 2016

MP3 Interview with David Holtz, executive committee chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, conducted by Scott Harris

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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has in recent weeks attracted widespread media attention with a focus on the reckless actions of Michigan Republican governor Rick Snyder's administration. The Governor's appointment of an emergency manager in Flint, nullifying the city's democratic governance, began a chain of events that led to the municipality switching water source from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in April 2014. The water from the river corroded the city's pipes and contaminated the water supply with dangerous levels of lead impacting Flint's mostly poor and black population of 100,000. Lead poisoning can produce lifelong health effects, especially in children, that includes brain damage, learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Although Governor Snyder recently apologized for his administration's mistakes that resulted in Flint's water disaster, his attorney general's appointment of a special counsel to determine if state laws were broken, was later revealed to be a donor to both the Governor and attorney general's 2010 & 2014 election campaigns, did not instill confidence in the credibility of the investigation.

Local and state government were not alone in their culpability in Flint's water crisis. Susan Hedman, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency region responsible for Michigan has resigned effective February 1st, due to charges that she hadn't done enough to prevent the Flint water crisis. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with David Holtz, executive committee chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, who examines the causes and solutions to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, as well as the role of environmental racism in the disaster.

DAVID HOLTZ: People almost immediately, after the switch to the Flint River, noticed that there was something wrong with their water. They weren't scientists, but it tasted funny, it looked funny, it was brown, discolored and they would take these complaints to – like you would expect in any other community – their local public officials, but unlike in any other community, the local public officials had no power to do anything to do about it.

So, it was this sort of echo chamber of people complaining. The state, through their public relations people at the state agency in charge of drinking water dismissed them as kind of being troublemakers and really downplayed the whole thing. And, meanwhile, within the government process, we had this very interesting and tragic tension going on where drinking water experts inside the state government who were the regulators were not treating the water according to law, legal requirements, they were testing and monitoring outside the protocols that are required under the federal safe drinking water act.

And all of this came to the attention of a few people, kind of at the same time. Mark Edwards, who was a drinking water expert from Virginia Tech, he basically got a call from Flint who said, "My water is … there's something wrong with my water." And he took her through the process of testing the water; found lead levels that, he said were in 25 years of his experience as an expert on drinking water, had never seen anything close to the lead levels that were coming out of the faucet in this woman's home.So he immediately began using his own money to recruit people to do testing in Flint, and they came up with a series of samples and using the EPA protocols, it clearly showed that there was a lead contamination problem. And still inside the drinking water state agency, they were discounting, downplaying , dismissing and reassuring people publicly that there was nothing wrong with their water.

BETWEEN THE LINES: David, tell us what role you think environmental racism may have played in the various missteps that were made here by local and state government?

DAVID HOLTZ: I cannot imagine that if a community – say, Grosse Pointe ¬¬ – which is a wealthy suburban Detroit community, or Bloomfield Hills, which is in one of the wealthier counties in America in Michigan, if there was lead contamination or if they were switching their water source, and needed and need corrosion controls, that someone in state government would have said, "Well, we're going to save $150 a day, by not treating the water, so let's not treat the water."

You know, it's really unimaginable that would have happened in a white, wealthy community in America. Communities like Flint, there's a pattern and practice in the last six, seven, eight years, where whenever there is a choice between protecting public health – whether it's water or air, saving money or delivering a benefit for a wealthy corporation – the choice seems often, if not always, to err on the side you know, not protecting the public when it comes to a community of color.

BETWEEN THE LINES: David, as we conclude here, what are the steps you think it will take to have a safe resolution to the water crisis in Flint. How much money is going to be needed, how much reconstruction of the infrastructure in Flint has to be done?

DAVID HOLTZ: You know, the best answer to that question really is that the EPA has issued an emergency order where it's beginning to assume control over the Flint water monitoring and is attempting to hold the state to the requirements of the law. And the requirements of the law – the lead and copper rule has very specific rules about what you do in situations like that, and the rules first of all, require a level of monitoring that hasn't gone on, so you know the scope of the problem.

When you understand that the problem has triggered more than 10 percent contamination or more of the drinking water supply and it's related to lead and lead pipes, you are then required to begin replacing those pipes. That, I think, is sort of the path toward address the situation in Flint. And the costs, the estimates have ranged from $80 million to $1.2 billion to replace the entire lead infrastructure in Flint of water pipes. This is something in my view, requires the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for this community that we need to set aside the ideology that caused this problem and go out and bond to the amount of money that it's going to take to solve the problem, and get it moving.

This is the problem with the Snyder administration and in Michigan we have not seen the urgency meet the demands of this crisis yet.

For more information, visit the Sierra Club article at sierraclub.org/michigan/flint-water-debacle.

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