The growing toxic water crisis and preventable lead poisoning of residents in Flint, Mich., has many people talking, from community leaders and celebrities calling on the governor to resign, to President Barack Obama declaring a state of emergency.
But, ironically, some of the nation’s most vocal personalities Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and fellow Republican candidate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are not talking this time, and their silence points to the root problem that contributed to this crisis in the first place.
When asked about Flint this week, Trump said it was “a shame” but that he “shouldn’t comment” on it, and Rubio’s response was that it’s “not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on.”
The city of Flint, with a population of nearly 100,000, is majority African-American in fact, at 57 percent, its Black population is more than three times the national average. Additionally, more than 41 percent of residents live beneath the poverty line nearly three times the national average.
The lead contamination occurred after the state decided to separate Flint’s water system from Detroit’s water line in spring 2014 as a cost-saving measure, switching Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River which already had a bad reputation as a polluted water source. A class-action lawsuit alleges the state Department of Environmental Quality did not treat the water for corrosion, in accordance with federal law, and the improperly treated water from the Flint River allowed lead to leach from the pipes into the water supply.
The decision not to treat the water with an anti-corrosion agent saved the state about $100 per day, according to a study. So when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was faced with the option to save $100 per day or risk the lives of the city’s residents, the decision was to save the cash.
Immediately following the change in water source, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny, but state officials assured residents it was safe. So safe, apparently, that the water in Flint has been found to be five times more toxic than the Environmental Protection Agency says is acceptable, with some homes tested showing lead contamination more than 10 times the EPA limit, and some even qualifying as the legal definition of “toxic waste.”
For months, Flint residents had been pleading with the state to do something about the mounting lead contamination, but their pleas were ignored.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton summed it up best, saying: “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what: if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.”
The governor had received scientific reports as early as last September showing high levels of lead contamination. Petitions signed by tens of thousands of residents were submitted to him as well, but neither the governor nor any state agency took any action until it was too late.
On Saturday, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint after Snyder finally made a request last Thursday.
Both Clinton and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have called on Snyder to resign. Meanwhile, crowds have gathered outside of the governor’s apartment in Ann Arbor calling for him to be arrested for “poisoning” the city of Flint, the Detroit Free Press reported. Filmmaker Michael Moore, who is from Flint, started a petition also calling for Snyder’s arrest, saying the state under his leadership “effectively poisoned, not just some, but apparently ALL of the children in my hometown.”
Now, beyond leaving Flint residents without acceptable running water, many officials are worried about the near- and long-term health problems residents are likely to face. Lead poisoning causes irreversible health damage, and children in Flint who drank and bathed in this water may have permanent brain damage.
This past fall, researchers found that the proportion of children with above-average lead in their bloodstream had doubled.
In his State of the State speech on Tuesday night, Snyder apologized to the citizens of Flint, saying he would take “full responsibility” for fixing the toxic water “catastrophe”: “Your families face a crisis, a crisis you did not create and could not have prevented.”
Snyder outlined the immediate actions that were taken in response to the water crisis, including daily door-to-door distribution of bottled water, water filters, filter replacements and water testing kits.
However, the damage from lead poisoning cannot be undone. Once lead is in the blood, it cannot be removed.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has said the costs to undo the damage, both to infrastructure and residents’ health, could be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, and the effect on mental and physical development in children, including learning disabilities, will require special attention paid to deal with mental health issues and “an increase in the juvenile justice system.”