Flint Water Crisis Keeps Getting Bigger and More Shocking Each Day

Health + Wellness

Congress held its first hearing today on lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River.

Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at today’s hearing despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. On Tuesday, Earley announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. One person that will be testifying is Snyder’s handpicked appointee to run the state Department of Environmental Quality, Keith Creagh. According to the Detroit Free Press, Creagh is expected to fault the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for contributing to the Flint crisis, saying it "did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded."

Watch here as Amy Goodman and Juan González interview Thomas Stephens, communications coordinator for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, and Tawanna Simpson, elected member of the Detroit Board of Education

Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Juan Gonzalez: Congress is holding its first hearing today on lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River. Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at today’s hearing despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. On Tuesday, Earley announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

One person that will be testifying is Snyder’s handpicked appointee to run the state Department of Environmental Quality, Keith Creagh. According to the Detroit Free Press, Creagh is expected to fault the federal Environmental Protection Agency for contributing to the Flint crisis, saying it, quote, "did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded."

Amy Goodman: While many Michigan residents have called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over the crisis, he was not asked to testify at today’s hearing. Newly discovered emails show Michigan officials began trucking clean water to a state building in the city of Flint last January, long before admitting to residents the water was poisoned. Progress Michigan, which obtained the emails, told Mother Jones they "blow a hole in the governor’s timeline for when they knew or started to have concerns about Flint water." On Tuesday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver called for Flint’s lead-contaminated pipes to be replaced.

To talk more about Flint and also the resignation of the Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who was the emergency manager for Flint as the water got contaminated, we’re joined by two guests. Thomas Stephens is with us, member of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, an attorney who has long been involved in the environmental justice movement, also a member of the National Lawyers Guild. And we’re joined by Tawanna Simpson, an elected member of the Detroit Board of Education.

Before we talk about Darnell Earley, the emergency manager who has just left his position as head of the Detroit Public Schools, we are going to turn to Thomas Stephens to talk about these latest developments around Flint: a congressional hearing, Darnell Earley refusing to testify—he was subpoenaed late yesterday—and this news of the Michigan state building getting water more than a year ago—this was well before Gov. Snyder says they knew that there was a problem with the Flint water. Talk about the significance of all of this.

Thomas Stephens: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having us on.

Yes, this story just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more and more shocking. You mentioned a couple of the points. And the question, I think, on everybody’s mind is: How could they do this? How could they—once the water started flowing in April of 2014 and it was brown and yellow and tasted bad and smelled bad and gave people chemical burns, how could they possibly allow it to continue for 18 months and take no action? And then, even then, even since then, since October of 2015, their action has been perhaps the clumsiest cover-up that I’ve ever seen in my life. And I think that it’s reached the stage where the governor’s supporters are trying to narrow the question to: Well, who was responsible for the decision to withdraw water from the Flint River? And who was responsible for the failure to include anticorrosive chemicals in that water?

And I think it’s really important for people, as these congressional hearings begin and the finger-pointing between the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the state officials and the emergency managers and the local officials in Flint gains momentum, for people to realize that there’s a broader historical significance, in that in the 1990s, when for a brief period of time it seemed like there might be some relief in the offing from the environmental authorities for environmental racism, that there was a presidential order in the Clinton administration, early in the Clinton administration, on environmental justice and there was a draft guidance by the EPA—I think it was in the late '80s—that began the process of responding to this disproportionate and adverse environmental risk and contamination that low-income, people of color communities, in particular, are exposed to. And it was in Flint, where, with the Republican governor, the previous Republican governor, John Engler and his DEQ director, Russell Harding, leading the charge, the EPA and the DEQ and the state of Michigan decided, no, we're not going to provide the kind of protection these communities need to have the kind of environment and public health that are enjoyed in white communities. And in particular, in what’s known as the infamous Select Steel decision, the EPA, under enormous political pressure from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress threatening to cut their funding, determined that they weren’t going to even apply a civil rights analysis.

It’s kind of a long and complicated story and it requires an understanding of how civil rights and environmental regulation and public health intersect. But the important thing for people to realize is that this is not—the reason why the good explanation for what the Snyder administration did is unbelievable incompetence is because, actually, this was the policy they put in place 25 years ago.

Juan Gonzalez: And in terms of policy, this whole issue of water supplies, privatizing water supplies, the decision to switch from the water supply by the Detroit water system, talk about the privatization efforts that have been occurring.

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Thomas Stephens: Sure. And, you know, you’re in a state where this governor instituted the emergency management policy, which is like privatization on steroids, total privatization of government. Right? And we have in southeastern Michigan two new water authorities: what’s called the Karegnondi Water Authority in Flint, which is still digging a trench and laying pipe to Lake Huron and the Great Lakes Water Authority, which has taken over all of the old infrastructure and operations of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. And while these authorities are being created, you have poisoning of the poor people of color community in Flint and you have mass water shutoffs—also in violation of the human right to water and sanitation—in Detroit. So people can draw their own conclusions. I mean, what’s happening is the resource, the very essence of life itself, water, is being privatized and being subjected to a corporate bottom-line approach that is in violation of the human rights of the people, the most vulnerable people, in the state.

Amy Goodman: But can you explain—I mean, a lot has been made of, has been said about the Detroit switch, the emergency manager’s decision to take Flint off the Detroit water supply and, as an interim measure before moving to a new system, just take the Flint water, that that was done to save water [sic]. But you’re investigating something else—the possibility that it was done, what, to bankrupt the Detroit public water system—you know, they were getting money to provide the Flint water—so that it could be privatized?

Thomas Stephens: Well, you said "save water"; I think you meant "save money." And it’s not quite that conspiratorial. I mean, remember, both Flint and Detroit were under state-appointed emergency managers, accountable only to the governor and empowered to override contracts and laws. And during the same time period, they approved—and there’s a story in the Detroit News today that provides new details, according to participants, of behind-the-scenes meetings between the governor himself, the emergency managers and the water authorities in Detroit and Flint.

And the decision to start a new water authority in Flint and invest all the money and resources that is involved in that kind of an operation and the construction—they still haven’t finished the pipe to Lake Huron—and the decision to cut it off, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system, which is now the Great Lakes Water Authority, at a cost of, I think it was, about $12 million a year to that system, makes no economic sense. From the perspective of emergency management, which is supposed to be about fiscal integrity of the municipalities, which, as I’m sure you’ll hear from Tawanna in a little while, in the Detroit Public Schools hasn’t exactly worked out, it makes no sense to start a new authority and deprive the existing system of revenue. Right?

So, the question is: Why did they do that? It probably comes down—it almost certainly comes down to the economic and political power that local officials get. And I’m talking about in the Flint area, Genesee County, which was still on the Detroit system, by the way, where the white, suburban Genesee County was still getting good water from Detroit the whole time. If you can build a system like this and then you control development, right? Somebody wants to—owns a lot of property and wants to do a development and make a lot of money by creating a residential suburb out of it or whatever and selling the property, they need water and drainage. So if you have control over that in your area, you have an immense source of power and money. And I think that’s what’s behind it. And if Gov. Snyder is ever tied to that in Genesee County, he will be—that will be the end of his career.

Juan Gonzalez: Well, I’d like to turn to Tawanna Simpson. You’re an elected member of the Detroit Board of Education, but obviously you’ve had extremely limited power, because the school system has been under emergency management of the very same person, Darnell Earley, who was implicated in what’s occurred in Flint. Could you talk about what emergency management has meant to your school system and your response to the resignation of Earley?

Tawanna Simpson: Yes. Good morning. I’d like to give you a little history. Detroit Public Schools has been under a form of emergency management since 1999. At that time, we had a $1.5 billion bond, a $93 million rainy day fund, when Gov. Engler took—first took over our public schools. So, we know it’s about money. Emergency management is about taking over our schools, causing—suspending democracy and not educating our children in Detroit.

Amy Goodman: I wanted to turn to Detroit public school student Wisdom Morales describing the conditions in his Detroit public school.

Wisdom Morales: I’ve gotten used to seeing rats everywhere. I’ve gotten used to seeing the dead bugs. I’ve tried to ignore all the graffiti when I’m trying to use the bathroom. But any way it goes, still, I’m still bothered by these things. And it makes me feel sick and it doesn’t feel good. I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms.

Amy Goodman: That’s Wisdom Morales speaking to reporter Kate Levy, who produced the piece for Detroit Public Schools for Democracy Now!, which you can link to at our website. But, Tawanna, if you can explain? I mean, teachers have been sicking out, major protests. These conditions—you’ve got the Flint water supply contaminating the children of Flint and then you’ve got these conditions in the Detroit Public Schools under the same manager, emergency—unelected emergency manager, who just quit.

Tawanna Simpson: It’s very disheartening. It’s overwhelming. It’s really sad that democracy is suspended here in Detroit. And, you know, it’s heartbreaking. I was—just went on a tour not too long ago and was actually locked out of a section of the school, because they didn’t want the school board members to see the deplorable conditions inside of Spain Middle School. And to watch, you know, preschoolers in class with their coats on and having to play in a hallway instead of being able to go into a gym is very disheartening.

Juan Gonzalez: You’re saying that you, as an elected school board member, were locked out of a public school that you’re supposedly in charge of?

Tawanna Simpson: Yes, a section of the building. Yes, I was.

Juan Gonzalez: Well, Thomas Stephens, what about this whole issue of emergency management across the board in Michigan, the reality that almost all of the communities that are being under emergency management are largely African-American and Latino?

Thomas Stephens: Yeah. It’s a racist policy. And under the emergency management statute, the elected school board in Detroit has no power at all. The emergency manager has all the power. They only have the power that he chooses to give them and he’s given them none. And, you know, this is why I’m in a group called Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, that formed out of the appointment of Kevyn Orr in Detroit in March and April of 2013, is because, you know, the Flint River catastrophe is really the realization of our fears. The idea that—and this goes back to that environmental justice experience in the '90s that I referred to earlier, too. The idea that a white Republican governor in Lansing appointing a single individual—of whatever race—to, you know, run a city, without accountability to anybody except the governor and with the power to override laws and contracts, was bound to be harmful to these communities. And it's turned out to be, unfortunately, for—especially for the children of Flint and also the children of the Detroit Public Schools, even more harmful than we feared.

Amy Goodman: So, Tawanna Simpson, what are you calling for now? You have Darnell Earley. He just quit. He’s been subpoenaed to testify before this, well, Republican congressional committee, that is not calling for Gov. Snyder or for the others responsible for the Flint water supply, but Darnell Earley is, who was the emergency manager in charge of the Flint water, now Detroit Public Schools and he’s just left, but he says he’s not testifying. So what’s going to happen to your school? Has a new emergency manager been appointed? What are you demanding for the Detroit Public Schools?

Tawanna Simpson: Well, what I demand for the Detroit Public Schools is to return the elected school board. Give them—give us our power back. Let us educate our students. Let us rebuild our school district. That’s what I’m calling for. No DEC. The governor is proposing to provide an additional layer of bureaucracy by creating another board that would govern charter schools, public schools and the EAA. It’s just ludicrous. Nowhere—nowhere in America would you find three competing companies working together. So, you know, by making education—providing choices, that also creates competition. And so, we don’t want to be a part of a DEC. P.A. 436 says that after the locals return to governance, that there will be a fiduciary board in place. So the law already provides for oversight. So we don’t want a DEC or any other level of bureaucracy. We want in Detroit Public Schools what every other public school in the state of Michigan have: an elected school board that elects their superintendent and governs their district.

Amy Goodman: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. And, of course, we’ll continue to follow the story and cover the congressional hearing today on Flint’s water supply. I want to thank Tawanna Simpson, who has joined us from Detroit, elected member of the Detroit Board of Education. And thanks so much to Thomas Stephens—

Thomas Stephens: Thank you, Amy.

Amy Goodman: ... with Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, who’s responsible for printing that fake New York Times that was distributed all over New York yesterday? You’ll find out.


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