Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder turned down an invitation to testify in front of the U.S. House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee earlier this week about Flint’s ongoing water contamination crisis.
According to a spokesperson for Snyder, the governor was scheduled to present a 2017 budget plan at the same time and had been slated to do so for at least a month. However, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Township), a member of the committee, called Snyder’s declination “deeply disappointing” because the governor has yet to be held accountable for his central role in the crisis.
“To date, Congress has not heard testimony from you on the Flint water crisis,” the Feb. 2 letter, on which Kildee was one of three signers, said. “Unfortunately, a prior Congressional hearing this week did not include top state officials, including emergency financial managers appointed by you to run the city of Flint. Seeing how it was your administration’s decisions that led to this public health crisis, including Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, we believe it is important to hear testimony from you on this manner.”
In 2014, Flint switched its water system from Lake Huron to the Flint River (despite the river already being known as a polluted water source), a move that would save Flint millions of dollars. Snyder’s former city emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who took his position in 2013, praised the decision to switch the water system, saying in April 2014, “This is indeed the best choice for the city of Flint going forward.”
“The water quality speaks for itself,” Earley said. Earley, who is Black, saw a salary of $180,000 a year while serving as emergency manager.
Indeed, the water quality did speak for itself. Residents complained almost immediately of the water not smelling or tasting right and sometimes coming out brown. At the time, government officials continued insisting the water was safe.
However, additional information has recently been trickling out since Flint residents were finally informed of the crisis several months ago including emails showing that the government knew the water was unsafe for many months before informing the residents. Water coolers with safe drinking water were delivered to the Flint state building in January 2015 about nine months before the general public was provided with clean water. Correspondence among government officials points to a potential cover-up of the contamination as well as a possible link to the water and a 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County (where Flint is located), which resulted in nine deaths.
While a link between the outbreak and the contaminated water cannot be definitively proven, the number of cases of the disease in 2014 when the water line was switched was four times that of 2013. No new cases of the disease have been reported since the water was switched back in October.
In emails dated as early as February 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality raised potential concerns regarding the Flint River water quality, describing them as “initial hiccups.” The email described the river’s condition as “variable” and cited organic matter that does not exist in water bodies like Lake Huron.
“The challenge to using the Flint River as a source is that the condition of the water Is (sic) variable and changes with the season and weather. It has substantially more organic matter than deep lake sources like Lake Huron. This organic matter is mobilized by high water events, and warm weather also can account for more organic material in the water.
“The treatment of the organic matter is done with chlorine,” the email stated. “One might conclude that the continual answer is just to use more chlorine to achieve water safety. However, at some point on the continuum, the chlorine and organic matter create TTHM total trihalomethanes as a byproduct. When the standard for those is exceeded over several consecutive quarters of testing, the supply is required by law to issue public notice and submit an approved plan for addressing the situation.”
While it is not 100 percent clear if consumption of TTHM causes health problems, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did put a limit on how present TTHM levels can be in drinking water for it to be considered safe.
In a September 25 email to the governor, Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s former chief of staff, describes the subject of the water quality as “challenging” but focuses more on its political ramifications rather than health concerns.
“Kildee is asking for a call with you,” Muchmore wrote. “That’s tricky because he’s sure to use it publicly, but if you don’t talk with him it will just fan the narrative that the state is ducking responsibility. I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that [former State Treasurer Andy] Dillon did make the final decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject.”
People have pointed to Flint as the latest example of environmental racism. As defined by activist Ben Chavis, who is credited with creating the term, “Numerous studies show that communities of color are disparately impacted by the nation’s environmental, industrial, and land use policies.” Chavis defines environmental racism as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants in communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.”
According to the U.S. Census, the city of Flint is 56.6 percent Black, compared to the 14.2 percent Black population of the state of Michigan. 41.5 percent of the city lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is $24,834.
When asked on Jan. 22 on MSNBC’s Morning Joe if what happened in Flint was a case of environmental racism, Snyder said, “Absolutely not. Flint is a place I’ve been devoted to helping. If you look at all the work we’ve done in Detroit several cities, Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw I’ve made a focused effort since before I started in office to say, ‘We need to work hard to help people that have the greatest need.’ So we’ve done a lot in terms of programs there to go help the structurally employed get work. In terms of public safety we’ve done a lot.”
But Snyder’s “work” in Detroit, a city that is 82.7 percent black, has also garnered him along with his government cronies some unwanted attention recently as well. Earley now serves as the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) emergency manager and came under fire following the exposure of the horrific conditions of many of Detroit’s public schools. Bugs, rats, mildew, warped floors, broken heaters, vastly overcrowded classrooms and leaky ceilings all plague the schools. To draw attention to the issue, teachers across the city forced nearly all of the schools to shut down by staging “sick-outs” last month and refusing to report to work. Earley, who now makes $225,000 a year in his DPS emergency manager job, described the sick-outs as “unacceptable,” “unethical” and an “extreme disservice” to the students who missed school as a result.
Teachers, including Joel Berger, a high school English teacher at Cass Technical, find the inaction of Earley and other government officials to be what’s actually “unacceptable,” “unethical” and “an extreme disservice.” And the connection between Detroit and Flint has not been lost on Detroit residents.
“Teachers, parents and students are just fed up with the injustices that are being done to our students,” he said. “It’s about Earley, who was the emergency manager in Flint when they switched the water over, and now he’s being charged with looking over Detroit Public Schools.”
Kildee called race “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint” and accused Snyder and his team of regarding the situation as “a public-relations problem” rather than the nightmare it has become for Flint citizens.
“His administration’s policies led to this man-made crisis, and he needs to answer questions so that the whole truth can be found,” Kildee said.
While questions regarding environmental racism and the connection to the water and the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak linger, legal accountability may finally occur: earlier this week, the state’s attorney general stated that a team was investigating the crisis. Too Flood, special counsel for the investigation, said, “We take this very seriously.”
“We’re here to investigate what possible crimes there are, from anything to the involuntary manslaughter or death that may have happened to some young person or older person because of this poisoning, to misconduct in office,” Flood said.