Don’t Drink the Water in Flint, Michigan
Rev. David Alexander Bullock and investigative reporter Curt Guyette explain why it took so long for officials to act to address growing corrosive elements and lead toxins in the city’s water
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Don’t drink the water in Flint, Michigan, where a public health emergency has been declared after dangerous contaminants, including elevated lead levels and corrosive elements have been found in the city’s water system. Advocates have been warning of the dangers of the water for more than a year after the city switched their water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The city’s leadership had vowed the water was safe until last week, when they acknowledged the dangers of high levels of lead and corrosive elements.
Here’s a portion of a documentary the ACLU of Michigan produced exploring this issue. Let’s watch.
CURT GUYETTE: In April of 2014, the city of Flint switched its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River. It’s been a nightmare ever since.
SPEAKER: My water’s been brown since the switch.
SPEAKER: The rashes, the hair loss, the muscle stiffness, the soreness.
SPEAKER: My family broke out in a rash that we were told looks like scabies, but it wasn’t scabies.
GUYETTE: The water going into many homes throughout the city is foul-smelling and badly discolored. Initially there were problems with E. coli, and then high levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine. Within the past several weeks researchers at Virginia Tech, working with a grassroots group of Flint residents and the ACLU of Michigan, have found dangerously high levels of lead in the water. To absolve themselves of the responsibility for this disastrous decision, made while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, officials continue to claim that they were forced to leave the Detroit system and had no choice but to use the Flint River as its water source. That’s simply not true. Flint could have kept using Detroit water if it wanted to.
Following a recent press conference where Virginia Tech scientists released the results of their study, two city officials faced tough questions from city residents and the ACLU of Michigan.
HOWARD CROFT: And we’re talking about Detroit, that had over $1 billion of infrastructure cost coming that we could see, and we were kicked off their system [faced with threats]–.
SPEAKER: Let me just address that. I have a letter from Darnell Earley saying the city of Flint has decided not to return to, not to continue using Detroit water. Correct? Is that correct?
CROFT: There were, I think evaluations have gone on all the way up to the state level on what the best course of action would be for the city of Flint, and that was the determination.
SPEAKER: All the way to the governor’s office?
CROFT: All the way to the governor’s office.
NOOR: Well, now joining us to discuss this are two guests. David Alexander Bullock is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. Also the founder and national spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium, a coalition of faith, labor, civil rights organizations and active citizens. Curt Guyette, who you saw in that video piece by the ACLU, is the ACLU of Michigan’s investigative reporter. Thanks so much both for joining us.
REV. DAVID BULLOCK: Thank you.
GUYETTE: Nice to be here.
NOOR: Rev. Bullock, let’s start with you. Talk about what the human impact of this crisis has been. And as we witnessed in that video, it’s been everyday citizens that have stepped up to challenge this, to raise these issues for more than a year now. And it seems like officials are finally listening.
BULLOCK: Well, definitely. I want to thank the ACLU folks like Curt, also local heroes like Bishop Bernadel Jefferson, the concerned clergy of Flint, [Naira Sharif] and so many others who have been fighting this issue for over a year. What’s the human impact? Well frankly, first of all there is a deep mistrust of government in the state of Michigan. Two, there is the destruction and decimation of democracy while at the same time there’s th sense that the governor’s administration and emergency management really puts budgets over bodies and profit over people.
But then there’s the physical toll. I mean, children have been poisoned with lead. People are sick. Rashes. Hair falling out. You know, they’re mixing baby formula with this water. They’re taking medicine with this water. Now schools are having to use bottled water. Hospitals have to use bottled water. And in the wake of all of this, lead poisoning is irreparable. Irrevocable. You know, every small amount, even a small amount of lead, is poisonous. So you have children, seniors, and residents in Flint who are poisoned with the water.
And let me say lastly, what’s the long-term solution here? Obviously the governor has announced that now Flint will go back onto the Detroit water system. Of course, the city of Flint has to pay $2 million of the $12 million. Don’t know why that is, they didn’t decide to come off in the first place. But then who’s going to pay for the long-term infrastructure repair in the Flint water system? How long will the heavy metals and the bacteria now in that system stay in that system before they’re completely flushed out of that system? And ultimately who’s going to be held accountable for this decision? Will it be the emergency manager? Will it be Gov. Rick Snyder? Will it be folks at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality? And where has the federal government been in a major way to come in and save citizens in Michigan, when in fact the governor’s office would not?
So I think ultimately there is so much fallout from this, and we await to see what happens next.
NOOR: And Curt, I wanted to bring you in. So this whole plan to get off Detroit’s water system was supposed to save $5 million. We know Flint is a cash-strapped city. But now changing it back to Detroit’s water system is going to cost $12 million. So talk about your response to that. And we saw you question a local official about this problem. And just back in July, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling actually drank tap water on TV, saying it’s safe.
GUYETTE: Yeah. Well, in terms of the costs I think Rev. Bullock was on point. You know, you talk–on the one hand you have the cost of the water itself. But then you have the cost of all the problems that are associated with having been on the Flint River water. So when you’re calculating it you have to figure into that calculation what it’s going to cost to provide special education to all these kids who will, you know, suffer lower IQ, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, as a result of the high lead that they’ve been exposed to as a result of this supposedly cost-cutting measure. So if you just look at it in those terms, aside from the moral outrage of having scarred kids for life because of this, there is an actual financial impact, so big I think it would be hard to calculate.
But even on that basis, right, the balancing the books basis, it is a terrible, terrible, terrible financial deal having gone to the Flint River. There’s also the cost to the infrastructure. The water from the Flint River is so much more corrosive that Prof. Marc Edwards, a renowned expert on this issue from Virginia Tech who has done incredible work testing Flint’s water, helping expose this problem, estimates that in just the 18 months so far that the city’s been getting its water from the Flint River it’s done, maybe taken 12 years off of the life of the infrastructure. So there’s another cost that’s tens of millions of dollars, maybe $100 million or more.
So the phrase penny-wise and pound-foolish has never been more appropriate than with this issue. In order to save $5 million, now they say it’s $12 million. The costs of their mistake are really almost incalculable in some ways. So it’s been not only from a health perspective, from a moral perspective, it’s also been a financial disaster for the people of Flint.
As far as the mayor saying the water’s safe, you know, he’s not the only one that’s been saying the water’s safe. The state Department of Environment Quality, which is supposed to be there overseeing this whole issue, has also been saying the water is safe. And at every step of the way, as more and more evidence was mounting to show that it’s not safe, they continue to insist that it was safe until they couldn’t, they evidence was so overwhelming that they couldn’t ignore it anymore. And even then they wanted to take half measures and provide filters and still keep using the Flint River, until finally they had to buckle on that.
But what the reverend is saying is absolutely true. There was a small group of citizens who were just relentless, absolutely relentless, in accepting what the government was saying, that the water was safe, and kept pushing and pushing and pushing until the truth was finally arrived at.
NOOR: All right. I want to thank you both for joining us.
BULLOCK: Thank you.
GUYETTE: Thanks for exposing this issue and talking about it.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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