The Flint Water Crisis: Detroit is Where it all Began

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Eddie Conway speaks with Rev. David Bullock about how the largest municipal bankruptcy in the world gave birth to a public health crisis

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Flint, Michigan has now been without clean water for four years. Though the water crisis rarely makes headlines these days, it’s continuing to impact the health and well-being of Flint’s residents. To learn about continuing affects I traveled to Michigan, where I sat down with Detroit pastor and activist David Alexander Bullock at his church. We discussed the roots of the Flint water crisis, how it’s being managed, how it impacts the city of Flint, and also how it impacts Bullock’s home, Detroit.

Thanks for joining me, Rev. Bullock.

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: Oh, thanks for having me. I enjoy The Real News Network and all of what it means.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Tell me, give me a little background about this. You were here when this first started, and you were involved. Tell me a little bit about that. What happened, why it happened, and what you all did.

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: Well, I was here from the beginning; the beginning meaning the fight against emergency management, right, and the emergency management model, which really was a model for urban Michigan put in place by Governor Rick Snyder to manage Flint, Benton Harbor, Highland Park, Detroit, and key urban centers around Michigan. Muskegon.

EDDIE CONWAY: Wait a minute, they all sound like black communities. Is this the case?

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: Yes. Yes. They are all- they are all black communities, and then many black school districts, like Inkster school district. So the emergency manager model is like receivership on steroids. You have one man and one woman who reports to the state treasurer and the governor only. OK? So there’s no democratic accountability. And they don’t come with any resources. They basically come with the power to cap and cut budgets.

So they’re always counting the beans, looking for maybe what they can get rid of that might be-.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well wait, let me just- what happens with the mayor and the city council and the elected officials?

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: They become illegitimate lame ducks with a paycheck. And I’m not saying that to demean, but I want people to understand. Because sometimes when you say ‘take democracy away,’ people don’t understand. You have an emergency manager, you have a mayor, the mayor has no power. You have city council, they have no power, and they probably still have- but they probably still have to have meetings. Can you imagine going to a city council meeting, talking to your city council president, going to the mayor, talking to the mayor. The mayor says, “Thank you for coming, I can’t do anything about it. You have to go talk to the emergency manager.”.

So in these communities, the democratic process gets stunted. People stop taking government seriously. And mostly what the elected official does is they go through the formalities of government, and, and may collect a paycheck. And usually what happens is is that the emergency manager can hold that compensation as a way of keeping the elected officials from protesting, or becoming activists or organizers. Have you just play ball and rubber stamp the stuff that I tell you to rubber stamp. Don’t talk to the news. Don’t criticize the emergency management process publicly, I’ll keep your salary.

I mean, so this is an ingenious and devious way of controlling communities, destroying democracy, and ultimately leading to bad decisions.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK, so that’s how it started. And I understand at some point Detroit went into bankruptcy, $1.8 billion- I can’t remember the numbers. But that triggered this whole thing. Well, how did it lead to the water being changed from the Detroit River to the Flint River in relationship to the Flint city water system?

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: All right, so Detroit goes through the largest municipal bankruptcy ever in the history of the United States of America. And there are different classes of creditors in the bankruptcy formula. Different people affected. Pensioners are affected. They’re looking at getting a haircut on their pensions. Pensions are supposed to be sacrosanct, but ultimately they crack open those pensions and go into them. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is a separate entity at the time. They have the bond rating- actually have a good bond rating, and they’re run by union workers. And the ultimate solution to the bankruptcy, what happens is is that the city of Detroit actually ends up losing its Water Department.

OK? Now, how did Detroit end up losing its Water Department? Well, it lost one of its largest customers. Who was that? Flint. So under the bankruptcy emergency management process, you saw the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department lose Flint as a water customer. OK? And then you saw the emergency manager in Flint make the great idea that says we’re not going to get our water from Detroit, because it’s going to be cheaper. Right. So you had emergency management process in Detroit and the emergency management process in Flint. Emergency manager in Flint says, let’s come off Detroit water. It will be cheaper.

EDDIE CONWAY: So, so how did this bankruptcy impact the water system in Flint? What happened?

REV. DAVID BULLOCK: All right, so Detroit goes through the largest municipal bankruptcy in the world, and has an emergency manager. OK. Which means that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has all the power, and only reports to Governor Snyder and the state treasurer. Now, Flint ultimately gets an emergency manager, too, so you have multiple cities with emergency managers. Flint was a water customer of Detroit. The Flint emergency manager has the bright idea, I could save money if Flint comes off of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department system and gets their water from the Flint River. OK.

Now, of course, this is a decision being made by somebody not from the local community. This is a decision being made without going before city council. This is a decision being made without consulting the mayor, right. Voters don’t have any real way to engage this process. So basically it’s a bean counting decision. We’ll come off Detroit, we’ll take our water from Flint until the KWA is finished. All right? Which- there are all kinds of questions here though, right? Why do you need a KWA, why do you need to come off Detroit? What’s really going on? But that’s essentially what happens.

And then makes the other bad decision of not deciding to coat the pipes in the Flint system, because the Flint water is different from the water that comes from the Detroit system; the river water is more corrosive. If he had talked to anybody in Flint they would have told them. I mean that water been around since Oldsmobile. That water been around since GM. You know, that’s some different kind of water. So the water goes through pipes that are not coated, leaches lead off the pipes. Bam, you get the Flint water crisis. But what you don’t get is an immediate alarm, right. You get meetings with certain ministers, and filters. You get rumors, letters in state buildings, right, we’re switching over to bottled water. But you know, just here at the state building. Right?

And so there’s a, there’s a gap between switching from the Detroit Water and Sewege Department to the Flint River, to not coating the pipes, to lead leaching off the pipes, to actually the state of Michigan and emergency managers, and the governor, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, right, and people who really are responsible for this decision actually raising the alarm to the people in the local community. So they’re just drinking the water. It wasn’t until the doctor, right, and others started to study the lead levels of babies, because babies were being carried into the hospitals. Right. And they were saying, why do all these babies have very, very high lead levels?

And so the Flint water crisis is for me, I mean, its like the Tuskegee experiment. I mean, you know, it is, it is like intentional genocide. Why not immediately, day one. Right? Emergency managers make a report, right. I’m not going to treat the pipes. Like, who does he report to directly? The state treasurer and the governor. Why aren’t they reading those reports? Why doesn’t the state treasurer say, well, wait a minute. Michigan Environmental Quality needs to look at this report. I mean, is the water the same? I mean, what will be the effects of putting Flint River water in a system that previously didn’t have it before?

I mean, all those levels of government were removed by emergency management. And so if you want to pin the tail on the donkey, you got to pin it on Rick Snyder. You got to pin it on emergency management as a system, and all the emergency managers. And you’ve got to spin it even maybe on a mainstream media that was so intent on guilt tripping local elected officials.