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“The Poisoning Of Flint”: A Nightmarish Example Of How Misguided Austerity Policies Can Literally Poison The Public

In early 2015, shortly after his victory in a heated reelection contest, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) began exploring a run for president. With his business experience and electoral success in a blue state, Snyder was considered a viable potential candidate, so he embarked on a national speaking tour and set up a fundraising organization. Its name: “Making Government Accountable.”

As Snyder was testing the presidential waters, however, his government was being shamefully unaccountable to constituents who were concerned about their water supply. The city of Flint switched its primary water source from Lake Huron, through Detroit’s system, to the Flint River in April 2014. Approved by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the move was supposed to save the beleaguered city millions of dollars. But residents soon began reporting tap water that appeared discolored, smelled rotten and caused kids to break out in rashes. Today, Flint has become a nightmarish example of how misguided austerity policies can literally poison the public.

We now know that Flint’s water supply was contaminated by lead that it collected from deteriorating pipes. In recent weeks, Snyder has issued a public apology to the city, declared a state of emergency, activated the National Guard and requested assistance from President Obama, who declared the situation a federal emergency on Saturday. The state health department is also looking into whether an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has killed 10 people in the area is connected to the water crisis. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the state and local government’s actions, while it could cost up to $1.5 billion to fix the city’s water distribution system.

All of this is the result of the Snyder administration’s stunning lack of accountability, beginning with the fateful decision to put Flint under the control of a political appointee who was unelected and unaccountable to the public. When the city’s residents initially reported their concerns in 2014, officials responded by pumping hazardous levels of chlorine into the water. When complaints persisted, officials assured citizens that the water was safe to drink, repeatedly disregarding clear evidence that it wasn’t. But when elevated levels of lead showed up in children’s blood this past fall, the government was forced to admit there was a problem. Snyder appointed a task force to investigate the crisis, which found, among other things, that legitimate fears were met with “aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit” the individuals speaking out.

“They cut every corner,” said Flint resident Melissa Mays. “They did more to cover up than actually fix it. That’s criminal.” Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, acknowledged the administration’s deplorable response in a July 2015 email, writing: “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

But the water crisis in Flint represents more than a catastrophic political failure. It is also a direct consequence of decades of policies based on the premise that government spending is always a problem and never a solution. Long before Flint tried to reduce spending by moving to a cheaper water source, the pipes that ultimately poisoned the water were neglected. Across the country, crumbling infrastructure is a pervasive threat that is creating serious issues in other cities and could produce similar crises . As Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone explained , “Flint is an extreme case, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure. This is a common problem nationally — infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacles to desperately needed public investments are politicians like Snyder who conflate “accountability” with austerity. For Republican technocrats in particular, more accountability almost always means less spending on government programs that help ensure the public good.

With less than a month until the Iowa caucus, the conventional wisdom is that voters are fed up and that their anger is reflected in the polls. That frustration and distrust of government is understandable when politicians like Snyder and their cronies are so blatantly unaccountable to the public. Indeed, when government is polluted by officials who put corporate interests above their constituents and cost-cutting above the common good, it too often fails to fulfill even its most basic functions, such as protecting access to safe drinking water. But instead of giving in to anger and austerity, in this election, we should be having a vigorous debate about how government can be truly accountable to the people it serves.

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 18, 2016

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Austerity, Flint Michigan, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Flint Was Forgotten Before It Was Poisoned”: America’s Forgotten Cities Populated By A Forgotten People

Long before Flint began dealing with a toxic water crisis, the city was already rusting and oozing from its underbelly.

What little hope remains is weary and torn, abandoned like the rows of dilapidated uninhabitable homes and weed-strewn lots that dot the avenues, drowning in water too toxic to drink.

The story of Flint, Michigan, not unlike other former smokestack cities that dot the upper Midwest, is almost too painful to tell. The latest revelations, involving a water supply tainted with lead, feels like a cruel joke being played on people who can least afford the laugh.

With thousands of children at risk, the Justice Department has announced an investigation into who knew the water was toxic and when; Michigan’s attorney general has launched a separate inquiry. Ultimately, what happened in Flint may not be a criminal matter, but there is nothing moral about what happened there.

The once-booming center of industry has lost half of its population in recent decades and is now one of the poorest cities in the nation. Today, nearly 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. What remains of Flint is 56 percent black and nearly 40 percent white—all too poor to get up and leave.

Blink and you could be standing in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Camden, New Jersey, watching a similar tragedy unfold. Factories close, the middle class takes flight to the suburbs to build better schools and tend to pristine lawns.

They are among America’s forgotten cities—wracked with pervasive poverty and violent crime—populated by a forgotten people. Mostly black and brown, they have little voice over their own destiny. There are no finely suited Washington lobbyists pressing their interests. Presidential candidates rarely come to places like these and they almost never make the national news unless something really bad happens.

There are so many problems, so many complications in Flint that it is difficult for any one issue to command its collective attention.

Back in April 2014, an unelected manager appointed by the state to make Flint solvent decided the city could save money by drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron. Local residents thought it was a joke given the ugliness thought to be swimming in that river.

It would have taken a five-minute test to prove the river water unsafe. City leaders, who were then weighing less expensive options, knew as early as 2011 that water from the Flint River would need treatment with an anticorrosive agent before it would be drinkable.

In the end, the governor says he had no choice, since Detroit “kicked Flint off” its Lake Huron system. The fact is, that never happened. Detroit asked for a rate change and instead of negotiating, Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointee opted out. They were more concerned about saving money than saving lives.

To make matters worse, the Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality decided $100 a day was too much to pay for an anticorrosive additive that could appropriately treat the water. Consequently, the iron pipes eroded—turning the water brown—and lead began seeping into the water supply.

State and federal officials knew there was a problem. With brown water pumping out of kitchen faucets and fire hydrants, there was no way to hide their error.

State agencies reportedly used testing methodologies that would hide the real level of pollutants—including flushing residential systems before testing. They cheated to make it appear that the water was in compliance, knowing that skewed tests were used.

Ultimately, it took 18 months and a mother named LeAnne Walters who wouldn’t give up, Chicago-based EPA regulations manager, a local physician, an investigative journalist, and a class action lawsuit to force the state to do the right thing.

By then, the damage was done—to Walter’s 4-year-old twins and the at least 5 percent of Flint children who have tested positive. The effects of lead poisoning, especially on children, are well known and there are no safe levels for human consumption. Lead poisoning can have devastating effects on children, causing convulsions, hyper irritability, and neurological damage that lasts into adulthood. Studies show linkages to juvenile delinquency, ADHD, and a decrease in IQ performance. In fact, there is so much lead in the blood of Flint’s children that the state has called a state of emergency. The scourge is irreversible. This is a manmade disaster that will have catastrophic generational effects.

The Flint water crisis is just the latest among a host of serious environmental issues surrounding the city. When General Motors and suppliers pulled up stakes and left for greener pastures, they left unconscionable levels of contamination behind. The same is true in other Rust Belt cities. A community’s wealth is not only tied to jobs and education but also to health and the environment.

Economic recovery for Flint and others towns like it is about more than moving in a new company with some new jobs. It’s about rebuilding failing infrastructures and remaking social institutions. We can keep thumping our chest about personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, but there will be no economic uplift in Flint, Camden, Gary, or East St. Louis, until government does its part.

That means forcing chemical manufacturers, automakers, steel mills, and others to clean up their own mess. They should be forced to fill the hole they dug.

It is hard to believe that no one knew what was in that river. It is hard to believe that no one thought to test the water and the system through which it would travel for potential problems. And, the governor’s explanation about why the change was made as well as his reliance on his hand-picked investigative task force is even more dubious.

State leaders, it seems, were content to continue tightening the city’s belt until somebody strangled and died.

 

By: Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast, January 18, 2016

January 19, 2016 Posted by | Flint Michigan, Lead Poisoining, Rick Snyder, Toxic Water | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Economic Self-Kneecapping”: How Michigan Literally Poisoned An Entire City To Save A Few Bucks

You know what’s bad? Brain damage.

Flint, Michigan, is finding this out after it accidentally gave its entire population at least a little bit of lead poisoning when it switched up their water supply. In an attempt to save money for a cash-strapped city, Flint started drinking water from the Flint River — but ended up contaminating children with a poisonous heavy metal. Governor Rick Snyder has declared a state of emergency, and the federal government is investigating.

Why on Earth did they do this? Austerity. Aside from the obvious humanitarian disaster, this is a stark demonstration of austerity’s false economy. Trying to be cheap on Flint’s water supply will end up costing the state of Michigan (and probably the country as a whole) a ton more money than it would have to fix it properly in the first place.

Flint, as you may have heard, has been an economic disaster zone for decades now. What was once a key part of the great Midwest industrial powerhouse — General Motors was founded there over a century ago — has been troubled since the 1970s, beset by deindustrialization, population loss, a collapsing tax base, and the inevitable concomitant spike in crime and poverty.

Of course such a situation is going to require some painful downsizing of local services, which has been partially accomplished under a succession of emergency managers imposed by the Michigan state government with a tremendous amount of legal scuffling. While some cuts or tax increases are surely necessary, in such a situation it’s critical to lay out a trajectory to future fiscal sustainability to avoid a death spiral.

Ideally, this is where the state or federal government would step in, making sure that pain is spread around equitably — particularly to bondholders, who probably knew exactly who they were lending to — and the city doesn’t get stuck in legal limbo for years on end.

But emergency managers, particularly the ones appointed by Governor Snyder (a Republican) have been far more focused on cuts for their own sake, particularly crushing unionized public sector workers. The idea to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed was one of those cost-saving measures.

It was immediately obvious that the water was filthy, and residents loudly protested that it was cloudy, smelled bad, and tasted worse. General Motors stopped using the water because it was literally corroding their machinery. But Snyder and his handpicked head environmental official Dan Wyant studiously ignored the problem — despite internal warnings of lead poisoning as early as July of last year — until an outside scientific study demonstrated extreme levels of lead in Flint children. In late December — over a year after the water switch — Snyder finally apologized and Wyant quietly resigned.

Lead poisoning is one of the lesser-known great evils of the 20th century. Most notably it may have even caused a great crime wave, as basically the entire population was subjected to minor aerosol lead poisoning from leaded gasoline, resulting in lower IQs and poorer impulse control across the population — and therefore higher crime.

Things have improved since lead was removed from gasoline, but it’s still a gigantic problem for many impoverished communities, who can’t afford to replace their lead pipes or properly remove flaking lead paint. The threat is greatest for small children, who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and most likely to eat lead paint (which often has a sweet taste). Freddie Gray, the Baltimore resident whose death in police custody sparked major unrest last year — was just so brain damaged.

Now Snyder has already been forced to pony up over $10 million to switch the Flint water system back to the way it was before (hooked up to Detroit, basically), and the city is asking for some $50 million more to replace lead pipes. But that’s very likely only the beginning. Flint’s population is roughly 100,000, and several families have already sued state and local officials over the lead issue. It’s unclear so far how badly the city’s children have been poisoned, but it’s a pretty safe bet the state will end up spending tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions on settlements.

And that’s where a moral atrocity becomes an economic self-kneecapping. Aside from the cost of settlements, children are the major portion of the future’s economic capacity, which depends critically on their ability to function normally. Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.

Being a cheapskate can be expensive indeed.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, January 7, 2016

January 10, 2016 Posted by | Austerity, Flint Michigan, Lead Poisoining, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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