TRNN Exclusive: Flint Mayor on the Struggle for Clean Water

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver speaks with Eddie Conway about how budget cuts, poor existing infrastructure maintenance, and government mismanagement have caused a health crisis in her city

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Story Transcript

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

I’m following up on my concern about the water crisis here and I’m here now with the mayor, honorable Dr. Weaver. Thanks for joining me. Could you give me an understanding of where this crisis started, what’s transpired in the last few years and where we are now?

KAREN WEAVER: Okay. Well you know what, I’m glad to give you that information because I don’t know if people realize that our crisis started with a state takeover, with an emergency manager coming into Flint and making decisions for us and about us and taking away the voice of the people. And not only did that happen in Flint, but that happened in so many of the urban communities that are in Michigan; Flint, Detroit, Pontiac, Benton Harbor. It happened to a lot of the urban communities where the governor did a state takeover and put emergency managers in place. So, that was the start of what happened in Flint.

And then, to save money, because they were only about the money- they took away the voice of the mayor and of the city council for the most part. But a decision was made to save money and to switch from Detroit water, which is actually Lake Huron water, to the Flint River. And while people said that was a switch that could be done safely, you have to add corrosion control, which was about a hundred dollars a day. And they fail to add corrosion control to the water in the Flint River. And that’s when people started noticing the water was brown, the water didn’t taste right, it didn’t smell right, it didn’t feel right.

And that went on for about a year and a half before anybody actually knew what was happening in the city of Flint. People were holding up brown jugs of water, we were complaining about that for a year and a half before anything was done. And not only were we complaining about brown water, prior to the water being brown we were complaining about the high cost of the water because we knew that we were paying eight times the national average here in Flint. So, that was what started, it was a bad decision. And while I’m going to say it was the emergency manager, we still had our local government, our previous administration signing onto that, the state and the federal government telling us the water was fine.

So, for a year and a half, people held up jugs of brown water, let people see that their hair was falling out, breaking out in rashes, those kinds of things were going on. And I got in office in November of 2015. The very next month, I declared a state of emergency for the city of Flint. We’d had- the medical community spoke out probably a couple of weeks before that, saying that they’d been testing the water and they had noticed elevated blood lead levels in the infants that were coming thorough, and they were two times, three times, four times higher than normal, which- we know zero is normal. But as they were tracking, that’s what they were noticing.

And so, an emergency declaration was was called in the city of Flint. And I believe in January, that’s when the governor sent that up to the federal government. So, we had the emergency and that’s when the bottled water distribution started. And we had pods, well, they’re points of distribution. That’s what they are. But that’s where we handed out the bottled water. And that was going on immediately after the declaration was made. And so, that’s what we had to do and we were asking for money from the state and the federal government because we knew what it caused, this crisis in the city of Flint. And so, we were going after money because we knew that the infrastructure needed to be addressed, the infrastructure needed to be changed.

Because it was not only a water crisis in the city of Flint, it was also a public health crisis, because I know one of the things I had done, even while I was campaigning, was to do a press conference saying as a licensed clinical psychologist, I had a moral and an ethical responsibility to speak out about the damage lead does, especially in young children and pregnant and nursing moms. So, we had a water crisis, a public health crisis, an infrastructure crisis, economic development, all of those things were tied into what was going on with the water.

And so, we were fighting to get money because we knew that the people of Flint, not only did we need new piping but when knew we had some health concerns that were going to be taking place as a result of what happened in the city of Flint. And we also had people that died of Legionnaires’ during this time. We lost twelve or thirteen people. And a lot of people don’t know that. They know that we ingested lead for eighteen months without knowing, but some people have not heard that part of the story, that we had a Legionnaires’ outbreak and we lost twelve or thirteen people as a result of that. So, those were some of the things going on.

EDDIE CONWAY: The association of higher lead blood makes Legionnaires’ disease more deadly, it accelerates the disease itself and causes death?

KAREN WEAVER: You know, people weren’t drinking bottled water, they weren’t using filters for their water. They were just ingesting it because that’s what they were told, it was okay to do that. Now, I remember when I heard the switch was going to take place, I said, “Well, I’m sure not going to drink water from the Flint River.” I mean, I’ve been looking at that river ever since I was a kid, seeing what goes in there and never comes out. So, it was a conscious decision but it was a choice I was able to make. It was, I’m going to drink some bottled water. But everybody’s not thinking that. You’re not thinking that when your mayor, your state government, your federal government are saying, “The water’s fine, drink up.” You’re not doing that.

And so, I think it was a combination of all of that, was not protecting ourselves and continuing to drink this water. And the bad part was, we were even told to boil the water. Well, when you boil the water, the things that were in it were exacerbated. It was worse as a result of boiling it. Boiling didn’t kill what was in there. And in fact, it made it worse and it made it more harmful, because that’s when we started learning about the TTHMs, and not only if you ingest the water but if you inhale it, it was even more damaging. And so, not having that kind of factual information, people were drinking this water. People were taking hot baths and hot showers and thinking, “I can boil this water and it’s okay. I can still cook with it, I can still drink it.” And that was not the case.

EDDIE CONWAY: After you got in touch with the federal government and made it clear we had a major health crisis here, an infrastructure crisis, and actually, it seemed to me like a long term kind of health situation in terms of the impact of later on, not just young people but the population in general, what did they do? What happened, what was the response?

KAREN WEAVER: When I met with the federal government, that was under the Obama administration. And I did get a good response from them. What was disappointing, and I think those are some things that need to be looked at was, because it was a manmade disaster, you don’t get as much federal funding. And a manmade disaster can be just as devastating, if not more devastating, than a natural disaster. But they make those distinctions. But it was a manmade disaster. And then so, but we were able to get funding. And not only did they help with the bottled water but I remember one of the things I talked with the president about was this is a health crisis for our city and we need somebody to represent us and speak up and speak out on behalf of the city as far as public health, because this was an emergency.

And one of the things President Obama did was to send a medical team up here. He sent a medical team up here that stayed in place for about six months and started going out and engaging with the community to say, “What are the concerns, what are the needs?” And he agreed that this was a problem and we did need this kind of representation, at which point the Ford Foundation gave us funding to hire a chief public health advisor. We also got a hundred million from the federal government to start replacing the pipes. That was what happened. And that got matched later on through a lawsuit against the state to get another ninety-seven so we could start lead service line replacement, and that was what we did. And we started that, actually, that March of 2016, we started replacing pipes.

EDDIE CONWAY: Was it around thirty or forty thousand pipeline systems the houses needed to replace?

KAREN WEAVER: You know what, we did an estimate of about- based on the information we had, that we said it was probably between eighteen and twenty thousand of the lead service, because it was lead and galvanized lines that needed to be replaced. And it was interesting, because at first, they said, we were told, “Well, those pipes, because we’ve switched back to the treated water, those pipes can re-coat themselves.” But nobody knew how long that would take. And we said, “No, we aren’t waiting for some pipes to re-coat themselves, we deserve new pipes.” And so, we got started in March of ’16 replacing the lead service lines.

And our goal has been a three year project, replacing six thousand every single year to get to that eighteen. One of the things we had to make sure we did was prioritize, because people said, “Well, how do you know where to start replacing those pipes?” And what we did was looked at areas where we had high lead readings, we looked at areas that had a high density of of kids under the age of six or seniors, and we got started that way replacing those pipes. So, we’re into year two right now. And it was really- you know, one of the things you said was you heard about the bottled water being stopped. It was really a bad situation because we’ve been treating this water, we’ve been testing and monitoring and we’re making progress with the water.

And one of the things that the governor said was, “Well, your water is testing just like every place else in the state, you don’t need bottled water anymore.”. And I said, “Well, that’s really not true.” Yes, we’ve made progress with the water, why wouldn’t we want to make progress with the water? But on the other hand, if you drive around, we’re replacing pipes all over the city, all over the city. And the EPA have said when you have the amount of construction going on that we have going on, you still have to protect yourself physically. There’s still a public health risk to just go ahead and turn your tap on and start drinking the water even though your pipes may have been been changed. So, that was why the need for bottled and filtered water still remained.

And one of the things we had talked about when we were meeting with the state was that they would keep the water distribution sites open until we did get through the replacement of the lead and galvanized lines. So, I just thought that was a terrible thing for them to stop it midstream. We were making such progress. Like I said, the water was testing better, we’re almost halfway through replacing these lines and you stop it? You know, especially when the EPA has not changed their stance on the issue around the amount of construction. We do still have homes that test high for lead, and that was the other thing we told the state, was while we’re changing the pipes and the water’s testing better, people’s plumbing has been damaged. The fixtures and the homes have been damaged. The hot water heaters, all those things have been damaged as a result of this corrosive water.

So, while the water might be testing better, if those in-home infrastructure things have not been changed- and they don’t need to be changed in every situation because some people have newer plumbing, we know that. But everybody doesn’t. So, if you have not addressed those things, you can still get a high lead level reading. But it’s because of the fixtures in the home. It’s the plumbing. And so, that was one of the other things we’ve been asking for, is funding to replace fixtures, to replace these things that are in people’s homes that have been damaged. So, it was a bad decision, I believe, by the governor, to stop the water midstream. And that was what we went and had a conversation about.

One of the things I was willing to do was compromise and say while we have made this progress, maybe we don’t need as much bottled water, maybe we don’t have to keep as many of the water distribution sites open, we can cut it in half because we’re halfway there. But to completely stop it is wrong. It’s wrong. And you went out and told the people these things would stay in place, and we’re trying to rebuild trust. And that was when the governor told me I needed to get over it and have a new conversation with him.

EDDIE CONWAY: And when you say halfway there, how many of those lines right now still need to be replaced? How many thousands are we talking about?

KAREN WEAVER: You know what, well like I said, our goal was eighteen. I mean, that was our estimate. So, last year we needed to do six thousand. Well, we had done six thousand plus, but we were also looking at the pipes to make sure- if they’re copper to copper, then we don’t have to change them. So, we were checking those as well. So, some people will have home pipes that are copper to copper and so, then you can move on. And so, that’s how we were able to say, “We’re halfway through this because we’ve changed over six thousand and looked at another three, if not more.” So, that puts you at nine.

So, why would you stop the access to bottled water? Especially one of the things we know is there are certain people that are more vulnerable than others as well that really have to have access to this bottled water. So, why would you stop that? And the other thing is, we’re talking psychologically, where the city is. When you have a city that has been not told the truth or lied to, misguided, misled, things have been covered up, you have really emotionally traumatized us as well. So, while people are starting to get trust back, they’re seeing new pipes going in the ground. We’re telling them, “Test your water,” and then you just completely stop everything, it’s a bad thing to do. It’s a bad thing to do.

EDDIE CONWAY: So, what’s happening with, say, the other nine thousand?

KAREN WEAVER: We’re changing pipes still.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, I’m saying that work is in progress. But how are they getting water? Is this an economic burden now?

KAREN WEAVER: We have had agencies and companies and people step up and donate water. So, we were able to keep the help centers open three days a week for people to still have access to bottled water. People have made donations. So, somebody will call and say, “We’re sending two semi truckloads full of water.” And so, we also, the churches have stepped up and said, “We will also give the water out.” And so, that’s what we’ve been doing, is through donations. I mean, Kroger grocery store, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Nestle, all of them have stepped up and said, “We want to contribute water.: Other places have called and said, “We’re sending water.”.

And so, we have three dedicated days a week that the help centers stay open, and they also give out fresh produce and water filters. We give out test kits. But like I said, other places have called and said, “We’re sending some water, where we want us to take it?” And we have a list of churches that are volunteering their time to distribute the water. And so, that’s how we have been able to maintain that. But I was at a grocery store the other day that they can’t give the water away for free, but they have, they’re selling it at at cost. If people want to do that, as well.

So, we have, we said, “That’s not going to stop us because one of the things we have recognized is we’re strong people, we’re resilient, we’re fighters and we’re not going to let that stop us from moving forward and to continue to make progress.”

So, that’s how we’ve been getting through it. And one of the other things is, I’ve said it publicly that we are exploring all of our legal options against the state. People have said, “So, are you suing for bottled water?” And I said, “No, this is bigger than bottled water because we can get water, people are donating water.” But we’ve talked about, like I said, the the fixtures, the plumbing, the hot water heaters, those things that have been damaged. We’ve talked about even our fire equipment has been damaged. You remember when GM said their car parts were damaged because the water was going through.

So, we’re looking at those kinds of things, we’re looking at the the civil liability. We’ve had loss of population and revenue as a result of this. So, we’re looking at all of those things, as well, and anything else. We started having even more difficulty with the state and working with them when we talked about “We will explore all legal options available to us.”.

EDDIE CONWAY: What’s the support around long-term health problems and who’s covering that cost for families that have already children that’s been exposed to lead?

KAREN WEAVER: Not enough, not enough. One of the things I can say is we used to have one school nurse. We have a school nurse in all of the schools now because we know that we need that. We’ve talked about Medicaid being expanded up to age 21 and to all pregnant women. We’ve been able to put some things in place with WIC as far as- you know, before it used to be the powdered formula, now it’s the ready-made formula. We’ve been able to do those kinds of things. There have been funds set up through foundations that are supposed to address health needs.

But that’s the thing, is we don’t know how far out this is going to go, how many years this is going to take, because we haven’t seen everything yet. We haven’t seen everything yet. Like I said, we’ve had people that died as a result of Legionnaires’. One of the things people are looking at now are the number of the infant mortality rate that took place during that time, the number of stillbirths and miscarriages during that time. So, we’re still gathering information about just that time, but that doesn’t tell us that in five years we’re not going to see another cohort with a certain physical illness or mental illness. We’re not going to see that.

Wow, look at our kids and how many have ended up in juvenile justice system or how many need more special education services. Or now, all of a sudden, wow, look at this spike in foster care services that have been needed. And so, this is something that’s going to manifest itself over years to come. And so, it’s interesting. I’ve told people we can put the cost to infrastructure, that’s an easier cost, but the human cost? We don’t know. We don’t yet know.