Flint is only the beginning

March 24, 2016

Dorian Bon reports on the continuing fight for justice and clean water in Flint--and how that struggle is leading to a greater awareness of the wider threat of lead poisoning.

THE POISONING of Flint, Michigan, has caused a scandal for Gov. Rick Snyder and his budget-slashing henchmen.

After grassroots activists in Flint pushed their issue into the national spotlight, the story of a poor and majority Black city having its water supply contaminated with lead connected with the growing sentiment against economic and racial injustice that has been expressed in different ways by both the Black Lives Matter movement and the success of Bernie Sanders' populist presidential campaign.

Sanders rallied behind the demand for Snyder to resign, followed soon afterward by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who in turn pushed for a primary debate to take place in Flint in order to highlight the city's ongoing emergency (and to solidify her support before the upcoming Michigan primary--unsuccessfully, it turned out.)

The emergence of the Flint water crisis as a key issue in the Democratic primary race has helped to give the issue of lead poisoning national scope, revealing it to be a major affliction in cities and towns around the country.

Flint residents protest Gov. Rick Snyder and the poisoning of their city
Flint residents protest Gov. Rick Snyder and the poisoning of their city (Water You Fighting For)

Hard as this may be to believe, there are many places in the U.S. with higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint--including Cleveland, a city of almost 400,000 people where 14 percent of children have elevated lead levels in their blood, twice the percentage as in Flint.

Sarah Frostenson at Vox has found that 18 different cities in Pennsylvania have higher levels of lead exposure than Flint, and that in Houston County, Alabama, a shocking 58.3 percent of children test positive for lead poisoning.

All told, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 500,000 kids suffer from lead poisoning, but, as science writer and lead expert Lydia Denworth wrote in Fortune, "these numbers don't capture the full problem, because only 10 percent of children nationally who should be tested actually are."

DENWORTH ARGUES that high levels of lead in pipe systems and wall-paint threaten the health of an incalculable number of people throughout the United States. Although the 1971 Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Act and the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act barred the use of lead in house paints and gasoline products, poisonous, lead-ridden materials have never been systematically removed from the country's civilian infrastructure.

Because there is no comprehensive data available on lead levels nationally, we really don't have a sense yet of how many people are affected by this crisis. Most people have been in the dark about the presence and impact of lead in their homes and water supplies, and many local authorities that do know about it continue to neglect the problem. But the explosion of anger in Flint has put a new spotlight on the issue.

The federal Department of Justice has just announced that it plans to launch an investigation into lead poisoning in New York City's 328 public housing developments, which house 400,000 people, most of them Black and Latino.

In the majority Black city of Newark, New Jersey, a recent inquiry revealed poisonous lead levels in 30 of the city's 66 public schools. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who in January took time from his flop of a presidential run to veto a $10 million bill to remove lead paint from old houses, argued that Newark's schools are "nowhere near" a lead crisis, and called lead-poisoning "an over-dramatized issue."

USA Today recently cited Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data to argue that at least 350 American school systems have lead-contaminated water in their drinking fountains. And new reports of lead poisoning are coming in almost every day, from Ithaca, New York, to Phoenix, Arizona.

Flint has exposed a national public health crisis, which has the potential to become a political crisis for local officials across the country who have silently presided over the poisoning of their constituencies, year after year.

RICK SNYDER was made to squirm for the cameras when he and EPA chief Gina McCarthy testified at a congressional hearing earlier this month.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee excoriated Snyder for the crime of poisoning Flint. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania used evidence that the Michigan governor waited a full year after learning of the water crisis to declare a state of emergency to dramatically accuse of Snyder of "dripping with guilt" and resorting to "false contrition and phony apologies."

Cartwright then insisted that "people who put dollars over the fundamental safety of the people do not belong in government," and that Snyder needed to resign. Elijah Cummings, the representative for most of the city of Baltimore, argued further that Snyder should face criminal charges.

Although it was satisfying to watch the Tea Party fanatic Snyder unravel on the floor of the House, his treatment raises questions for the other members of Congress in the room. With the lead-poisoning crisis rearing its head in cities and towns all over the country, it's becoming increasingly clear that not only Rick Snyder, but many, many more career politicians who have "put dollars over the fundamental safety of the people" by ignoring and neglecting a public health crisis under their watch.

Matt Cartwright, for example, represents the city of Scranton, which is facing its own lead-poisoning crisis. Elijah Cumming's constituents in the city of Baltimore face a lead epidemic as well.

In reality, the function of the session of the House Oversight Committee was not to understand and end the crisis of lead poisoning, but instead to direct all attention to Flint and all blame on Snyder.

Far from embracing a nationwide battle against lead contamination, members of Congress on the committee--Republicans and Democrats alike--would cower in fear if a rebellion against lead poisoning spread to their own districts.

What's more, the entire U.S. political establishment lacks the commitment to resolve the lead crisis, which would require redirecting many billions of dollars from the Pentagon or corporate tax breaks towards the needs of ordinary people.

EVEN IN Flint, there is still no comprehensive plan in place at either the state or federal level to end the crisis and tend to the health of the victims.

In mid-January, newly elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared that the city's crisis could cost as much as $1.5 billion to address. Since then, she has asked for an initial sum of $55 million from the governor, of which Snyder has thus far approved $39 million. President Obama intervened momentarily to provide $80 million in federal aid. And Snyder sent in the National Guard to deliver bottled water.

But for the most part, the day-to-day work of supplying an entire city with emergency water shipments has been left to grassroots organizers and social workers, as well as friends and neighbors tending to each other's needs.

Incredibly, until a temporary reprieve was issued only a week ago, Flint residents continued to pay some of the nation's highest water bills--upwards of $1,800 annually in a city where the median per capita income is $23,253 per year--for the poison coming out of their taps.

Throughout this time, the giant multinational corporation Nestlé has been pumping Michigan's finest water out of the aquifers of the Great Lakes Basin for little to no cost, at a rate of 400 gallons per minute.

As Democracy Now! uncovered in a brilliant documentary, Thirsty for Democracy, activists at the site of Nestlé's extraction facility in central Michigan called for the state deliver large tanks of fresh aquifer water to each household in Flint until a long-term fix can be completed.

Instead, these activists have been placed under investigation by the FBI for inciting violence against Nestlé!

Flint residents started fighting for their water supply when it seemed as if nobody was listening, and they are continuing to fight now to make sure that they get not just sympathy and truckloads of bottled water, but a functioning municipal water system.

On February 16, 400 residents gathered to develop a plan for a class-action lawsuit that is expected to bring together 30,000 households against local, state and federal officials directly responsible for the poisoning of the city. Some 30,000 households are expected to sign on as plaintiffs in the class-action suit, as well as tens of thousands more individuals.

Erin Brockovich, the environmental and legal activist who is well known for the movie about her successful campaign against Pacific Gas and Electric Company for poisoning the water of the small town of Hinkley, California, is supporting the class-action suit, which will continue to raise the profile of the ongoing water crisis.

But these efforts must only be the beginning. To remove lead from civilian infrastructures throughout the country and properly treat the victims of lead poisoning, we need to make this public-health crisis one of the centerpieces of a wider movement against inequality and racism, which can exert real pressure to win demands from Democratic and Republican politicians alike.

We have the people of Flint to thank for pushing lead poisoning and environmental racism into the center of the U.S. political discussion. Now is the time to push even further, and indict the whole system for putting the bosses' profits over the health of human beings.

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