CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Why the water situation in Flint should matter to us all
In an non-sports commentary, Eric Crawford writes that what happened with the water in Flint, Mich., should concern us all, because it was a textbook example of government failing to listen to input from people.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The water turned to poison in Flint, Michigan, and why should the rest of us care?
It’s not our water. It’s just another tale of government incompetence at best, apathy or dishonesty at worst. And we’ve grown all too accustomed to that. We all have our own tales, no matter what corner of the country we come from.
But here’s why I think it should matter to us. It’s yet another example of a widespread trend in this country. Flint made changes to its water system in April of 2014, leaving the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and switching to its own water treatment plant, drawing water from the Flint River.
Almost immediately, people started to complain. The water smelled bad. It tasted bad. It was brown. Within two months, residents were bringing plastic jugs of reddish brown water to city meetings. Nobody listened.
That, America, is the problem in 2016. Nobody listens. Governments, public agencies, private companies, everyone is more concerned with managing perception than addressing reality. In this case, they cared more about public relations than public safety. Had it been big money interests who showed up, they’d have listened. But if you’re poor, even middle class, with a problem, don’t expect anyone to listen. Or even care. At least, not until they have to.
For that, you have to work. Take a look at this timeline.
— Within four months of the water switch, Flint’s water tested positive for E. Coli. In response, the city began dumping large amounts of chlorine into the water supply. People, again, complained. But nobody listened. As a by-product of that, the water developed dangerous levels of Trihalomethanes. Far later on, it would be discovered that the city was using no anti-corrosive treatment — which keeps the water from eating away at metal pipes — at all in its water, though officials originally said they were.
— Six months after the water switch, General Motors in Flint stopped using the city’s water, noting corrosion of auto parts. (We could also talk about GM’s longtime role in polluting the Flint River, or its hand in crippling Flint’s economy by sending jobs elsewhere, but those are another story.)
— By January of 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Flint to be in violation of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
— Four days later. Listen to this. The (now former) mayor of Flint, Dayne Walling, said, “The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day.”
It wasn’t safe.
There are heroes in this story, too. One of them is an EPA water-quality specialist named Miguel Del Toral. He provided a report to a Flint woman, Lee Anne Walters, whose tap water was found to include lead at 13,200 parts per billion. The Federal government considers anything with more than 5,000 parts per billion to be hazardous waste.
She contacted a reporter with the Michigan ACLU. In that EPA memo she shared, Del Toral said that the city was “using testing measures that almost ensure that worst-case scenarios . . . escape detection.” He spoke out, but said he would only do so as a private citizen, not as an EPA spokesman.
State officials dismissed him. They called him a rogue employee. They didn’t listen.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel told Michigan Radio: “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. It does not look like there is any broad problem with the water supply freeing up lead as it goes to homes.”
When that leaked EPA report hit the media, everyone was talking about it. A group of concerned citizens went to meet with state officials in Lansing. Walters, who was with the group, told Michigan Radio, “They blew us off like we didn’t know what we were talking about.”
Multiple tests of high lead. An EPA memo. Still, nobody was ready to listen. Nobody in local or state government, anyway.
A few people did listen. But they weren’t the people in charge of treating the water.
Another hero. Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards. Walters called him to explain her plight. He moved immediately. He grabbed some grad students and drove 15 hours with a van load of lead testing kits to Flint.
He had his assistants work nights and weekends to return these tests to people in Flint. Every day they waited, he reasoned, kids were still drinking that water. He couldn’t sleep. It made him sick to think about it.
He held a press conference in Flint. City officials dismissed his findings.
In a recently released email, Wurfel said the Virginia Tech research group, “specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go.”
I could go on. I could talk about the city emergency manager who said in January of last year, “You don’t have to travel very far out of Flint to see that this news has been picked up not just in the Flint area but also out in the state. There’s also a perception issue.”
A perception issue. Not public health. Public relations. In February of last year, a memo reached Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s desk. But it presented Flint’s water issues in purely political terms. One memo said it was “not a top health concern,” and that once the city set up a new system in 2016, “this issue will fade in the rearview.” The problem: this was less an “issue” than people, particularly children, being exposed to dangerous water. Increasingly, our leaders fail to see the people through the politics.
By this time, people are on the courthouse steps. And the state still doesn’t act. It throws out two of the worst tests submitted by the city — one a test from Walters own home — meaning that the city can claim acceptable Federal levels.
But then there was one more hero. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center. She ran tests on blood levels of patients in her clinic, and found elevated lead levels. She went to a larger sample. She checked and rechecked.
In September of last year, she stood up at a press conference and said that the number of children aged 5 and younger with higher lead levels had more than doubled since Flint did its water switch.
Of course, city and state officials went after her. They disputed her numbers. She started getting calls from reporters to respond to their criticisms. She said she got physically ill.
In the end, however, they came around. The truth doesn’t leave people much choice.
Mea culpas are being issued, even now. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized. Some heads have rolled.
None of it, of course, does any good for kids already exposed to lead poisoning.
This cycle — the reluctance to acknowledge problems, the hyper-attention to public relations, the unwillingness to accept the input or opinion of the public, is standard operating procedure in government, and elsewhere.
And it is making people very angry.
But that was in Michigan, you might say. Couldn’t happen here. I don’t know. In this city, are our schools not simmering and struggling, and we’re told, “There’s no crisis,” while more PR measures are put into place. We have violence in our streets, the whirlwind we are reaping in part because of decades of unwillingness to address our educational failures, and we do little more than shake our heads.
Many of my colleagues in the media don’t understand how the political climate in this country can be what it is. Many in this state were shocked when Matt Bevin swept into the governor’s mansion. There was a period of media hand-wringing. They tried to blame the turnout, even though he received more actual votes than some of his predecessors. They say that people are voting against their own self-interests.
They don’t understand — people are voting to be heard. And sometimes in unexpected ways.
Nobody listens, and people are tired of it. They’re tired of being ignored. They’re tired of lobbyists and corporations and billionaires having all the say. Some have lost faith and simply don't participate. They accept the cup they've been handed. Others, not so much.
People, I’m telling you, are angry. They may be angry enough to elect the loudest, most obnoxious voice they can find, just to send a loud and not-so-polite representative to the White House. If billionaires are destined to run the country, perhaps they figure, they might as well elect their own billionaire.
Or maybe they’re showing up by the thousands, in places you would not expect, to watch a white-haired candidate in his blazer and sweater vest speak plainly but forcefully about where this nation got off the tracks, and how it can get back on.
I know some will dismiss my pointing to the failure of government in all this. And I’m not trying to say that government never works. And I’m surely not saying to throw out the basics of the system and start over. I am saying that when government officials can so easily dismiss the voice of the governed, we should not be surprised when radical disruption occurs.
This was a textbook failure of government. What makes it of concern to all of us is that it could happen anywhere. In fact, it does happen, on scales large and small.
And if you’re having trouble understanding why Americans are behaving the way they are in elections and politics in general, it’s worth considering that a lot of them have been holding their own cups of crap for a long time. And they’re tired of no one listening.
Postscript: Much credit should go to the reporters and producers at Michigan Radio, who have done excellent work on this story from the start. My column draws from their reporting liberally, and I hope you’ll check out their website here, and listen to this audio documentary, “Not Safe to Drink.”
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