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Flint residents and activists argue Governor Rick Snyder’s claim of water restoration in Flint is based on flawed research as it excludes lead testing in schools

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EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.

There’s been a water crisis in Flint, Michigan since 2014, when they changed their source of water to the Flint River. They discovered that there was all kinds of chemicals, pollutants, and lead in the water that affected the health of the children and people in the community, led to some deaths.

SPEAKER: And I want to say, the Flint water disaster is alive and well. The so-called federal money that was sent to Flint to help resolve the crisis has been siphoned off into things that’s so remote from the people, $20 million for a CDC registry. We’ve got a large portion of the population that don’t have healthcare. But certainly you should allow single payer for a major health crisis of an entire city.

EDDIE CONWAY: The immediate solution to that was they opened up a free water bottle distribution center, and they gave people water. Just recently, Governor Rick Snyder from Michigan declared that the Flint water was safe to drink again.

There was some pushback from the citizens, a coalition of people including the mayor, and demanded that EPA send somebody to analyze it and investigate it. Just recently a new report came out saying it was, in fact, safe to drink the water. But the sample which they used to do it was so small that the citizens and people of Michigan pushed back even further.

So joining me today is Ms. Shariff, Who is the director of Flint Rising, a coalition of community groups that have joined together to combat the water crisis. Ms. Shariff, thanks for joining me.

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Thanks for having me on.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Is it true that the water is safe to drink? Or what’s the status of the water, according to your understanding?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, the water is not safe to drink. And while they are replacing the lead service lines, because of just the, the vibrations from that, it’s reintroducing lead particles into the system. So the water will not be safe to drink until after the lead service lines are replaced. But I will say a larger picture is there are a lot of things like lead that’s in our water that the state is refusing to act on.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So since they stopped distributing the water bottles, what are the citizens doing there for safe water?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, people are going back and buying water. There are still some small donations from people. And I would say one of the, one of the more unfortunate consequences from this is it’s given a chance for Nestle, who’s paying, like, $200 a year to pump 500 gallons a minute from our Great Lakes, they’re donating 100000 bottles of water a week to Flint. So that’s like one bottle per person.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So you’re saying it’s a PR boon for Nestle, who’s stealing a large amount of water out of the lake, and giving you all a bottle apiece a day? Is that what you’re saying?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Yes. Nestle is donating 100000 bottles of water a week to Flit residents. And while people are desperate and they’re using that water, this is just a PR move for Nestle.

EDDIE CONWAY: So beyond that one bottle a week, what’s the cost? I mean, is this costing you, your family, friends? And do you know of people that have suffered as a result of not being able to get clean water?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: For me, I’m purchasing bottled water. And that’s running me probably about $20-$30 a week for that. But I mean, I live by myself. But I mean, there are people who are spending between $50-$100 a month. And for people who cannot afford that, they’re going to those, to those giveaways where Nestle is handing out water, and they’re waiting two to three hours in line to get that, get that water.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well now, I’m curious, I understand the water source was switched in 2014. Why was it switched? What was the problem with the water that you, that Flint residents was initially getting from the Detroit River?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, nothing was wrong with it. The issue was our democracy got stolen by the state of Michigan when they put in an emergency manager, and which took over two branches of our local government. I would say it’s like one of these new versions of voter suppression, because it only went into the majority black communities. And they have the power to make all of these decisions without weighing public health, or, or anything. And they made the decision purely on a financial basis. And they made that decision knowing that they didn’t even have the equipment to treat the water.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So, so the-. And I think they did this also in Detroit. The emergency financial manager has the power to supersede the elected government, and they determined their decisions based on money, they can say. So was this an effort to save money because of the cost of getting water from Detroit River was too much? I mean, why would the financial management stop a source of water that’s coming in?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, there’s still a whole lot of backup work of the actual, real reason of that. One of the consequences that happened is, I mean, I call it, it’s a scheme. So what they did, the consequence of that was the city of Flint, which was Detroit’s largest customer, water customer, went off the system. It destabilized Detroit’s revenue, and it was used as justification, the emergency manager in Detroit used it as justification for them to file bankruptcy. And a consequence of the bankruptcy was that it regionalised the water system.

So really it was taking control away from a majority black community, and putting it into the hands of the more wealthy white counterparts. And Flint kind of became collateral damage in the scheme of taking this massively huge water system that’s worth billions of dollars and transferring that control into another, another system, probably on this road to privatize the system, and to totally tak it away from public hands and transfer it into private corporations.

EDDIE CONWAY: You’re saying that after the financial manager got in place, he removed the water system from controls of the local municipalities like Flint and Detroit, and gave them to the larger counties. And this water source distribution thing was actually a revenue generator for Flint and Detroit, and now it’s been taken away?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Yes. So right now, like, we’re part of a regional authority. Detroit no longer has ownership of their municipal water system. So that was, I would say, like, the overall consequence of this whole thing. Because at the time when Flint moveed off of the trade water system in 2014, the city of Flint had an emergency manager that was appointed by the state, and reported to the governor’s office. And the city of Detroit had an emergency manager that was appointed by the state and had, and reported to the governor’s office.

So the state of Michigan was very instrumental in crafting, like, this whole entire scenario. And then the consequence of that was Flint got poisoned. And the state is still, like, over this scenario, because we never got an emergency disaster declaration. We only got a declaration of emergency. And what that means is federal funds are distributed by the state of Michigan. And there are people still working at the state that made these decisions to poison us and cover, and then cover it up.

EDDIE CONWAY: So is this still happening now? I mean, after that report you’re still finding that the water is contaminated. And are any of the citizens drinking this water now that the governor declared it safe? What’s actually happening on the ground in Flint now?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, a lot of people don’t trust the government, and I would say rightfully so. I don’t trust the government. And one of the reasons why I don’t trust the government is they are saying that the water is safe. But there are people who are still getting a check that poisoned me. They’re still getting a check. They haven’t been fired. They haven’t been put on leave. They’re still making the decisions on what’s going to happen with the money. Like, it’s a mess.

EDDIE CONWAY: I thought at least 12 officials were indicted, or something. Is that not the case?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Yes. There’s, they’ve been indicted. But two of them, the head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon, and Dr. Eden Wells, who’s the chief medical officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, they still have a job. They’re still going to work every day, and they’re getting a check. And they’re in the middle of this trial.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So what’s, what’s going to happen now? What’s the coalition going to do? I mean, what’s going to happen with this situation if it’s still, it’s still an active situation in terms of people are still getting lead and other chemicals in their drinking water? What’s, what’s the solution to this now?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, I would say, like, one of the struggles is as we are trying, as we think that we’ve kind of taken care of the triage and moving towards some sort of long term gains, it feels like we’re falling backwards because of actions by the state.

But one of the things that we’ve learned in the middle of this fight is that there are a lot of places that aren’t required to be tested with the Safe Drinking Water Act nationally, like schools and hospitals, and colleges and universities. So we’re working on passing legislation at the state level, and building coalitions like that nationally to really address some of these loopholes with The Lead and Copper Rule and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

But I will say also, we want to make sure that there are no more Flints that are happening, that we are going to beat this drum wherever we go, because we have to make sure that there’s, like, no more places where people’s democracy is going to get snatched away, and the consequence is that you could be poisoned. But really raising awareness, especially in communities of color, around water and around environmental justice, because that’s something-. People don’t really think about water until it’s coming out your tap looking like chicken broth, or you can set it on fire.

EDDIE CONWAY: Is there anything that the main media networks are not covering that you think the public should know about?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, one of the things that people, like when they talk about the water crisis, they may bring up the water testing, the doctor who was the pediatrician that looked at the data around the the infants who were, who had elevated blood lead levels. But people don’t really talk about, like, the community was really organized and pushing back this narrative long before they got into the picture. And it was only because of the community’s perseverance that we were able to blow this media blackout and have the world know all about it.

But the thing I would say now is, like, a lot of people, you know, like me thank all the donations and all the people who talked about what happened to Flint or sent water, the celebrities who were moved by that. But this is still, this is going to be something that’s going to be, like, generations. Because lead has, it does, like, horrible things to your body long term. Right now we have people, like, they’re having all these dental issues, because the lead has settled in their teeth. Because your body thinks, when it gets absorbed, your body thinks it’s calcium. So it makes your bones brittle, including your teeth. So people are having dental issues, and there’s no dental services to really address that, even if people have, like, people may have health insurance but they don’t have dental insurance. But I mean, this is going to be something that people are going to be struggling with for, you know, a number of years.

EDDIE CONWAY: I notice you said that this is something you’re trying to pass information on to other communities of color. Are you suggesting that this is environmental racism, and it only happens to communities of color, or poverty communities? Is that, is that what you’re finding?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, I would say one of the consequences of living in poverty, because you’re living in areas where they have a lot of lead, because they’re older. So, so yeah. Like, that, that turns out to be, you know, like black and brown communities. And you know, like most of the homes in Flint were built between the ’20s and the ’50s, and I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of other communities across the country of black and brown people that, they’re still living in that, in that infrastructure. It’s kind of like, I would say, kind of like a snapshot in time.

And so you have people that are still living in that. And you don’t know, because like, especially like lead, because it’s odorless, colorless, tasteless, you have, like, since what happened in Flint you had a lot of school districts across the country, I know like Chicago Public Schools, St. Louis public schools. And another one. I’m just thinking about those in particular, where they test it. And they test the schools, and they had, like, super high lead. And it’s not required at the federal level for them to test the schools.

Which is just, like, crazy. Because you have, you know, kids are spending the majority of their life in schools. And especially like elementary schools, where it’s like, you know, you have kids going to the water fountain, and like, while they’re being hydrated. They’re actually, like, damaging their bodies and really, you know, having an adverse impact on their neural pathways, because lead is a neurotoxin.

So like we really need to have-. The fact that, you know, what’s happening in Flint is still going on; you have, like, over 5000 people in Puerto Rico that’s been, like, murdered, that I say, like, we need to have this conversation of, like, what type of society we’re living in, where the government’s busting up families, killing folks through their inaction. That’s not the type of society I want to live in.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. I’m kind of surprised, but I just want to be clear that I understand. You’re saying on the federal government level, the Environmental Protection Agency does not require testing in school systems for lead? Which, which is probably children are the most impacted by lead in water. You’re saying they don’t, there’s no law requiring the testing?

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: That is correct.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I will come back to you later on. Thanks for joining me. This is not good. OK. But yeah, thanks for joining me.

NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: You’re welcome.

EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.