by Félix Pérez; image courtesy of Ali Moradmand
Residents of Flint, MI, were back in court last month, arguing that state and city officials were negligent in the actions that led to toxic levels of lead, e-coli and other dangerous chemicals in the city’s drinking water, resulting in, among other consequences, lead poisoning of an estimated 9,000 children ages six and younger.
One person not present in the courtroom was Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, currently the Republican front-runner in the race to become the state’s next governor. Schuette, a longtime ally of Betsy DeVos, was the subject of withering criticism from Flint residents earlier this year when he posted this statement on his social media accounts: “Had government leaders listened sooner to real people, we could have slowed or stopped crises like Flint… As governor, I will meet and hear from real people to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
The problem with Schuette’s statement, according to Flint residents in a blog post from Michigan Progress, is that he ignored their pleas for help.
“#Flint residents contacted your office about our poisoned water and you did nothing #flintwatercrisis,” wrote Nayyirah Shariff in reply to Schuette’s apparent flip flop. Shariff, executive director of Flint Rising, a coalition of community organizations and allies working on behalf of Flint families, continued, “You flipped flopped on the Flint water crisis. It was only after the national media wouldn’t go away that you launched your investigation.” Shariff added, “If Schuette wants to blame ‘government leaders’ for being slow to respond to the crisis, he needs to count himself among the guiltiest.”
Flint’s water poisoning dates to April 2014, when Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water from the Detroit River to the polluted Flint River to save money. That fateful decision, compounded by the manager’s judgment not to use corrosion treatment, resulted in lead, e-coli, coliform and trihalomethanes, which can cause liver and kidney disease, to leach into the water.
Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development.
Residents, who complained of rashes, headaches, hair loss and stomach ailments from the discolored, malodorous and bad-tasting water for more than a year, were continually assured by state officials that the water was safe. By the time Gov. Rick Snyder declared a health emergency in January 2016, Flint’s 100,000 residents had been drinking, cooking and bathing in Flint River water for 18 months.
Gretchen Whitmer, Schuette’s likely Democratic opponent, said she was inspired to run by the government failure in Flint. The city’s “tragic water crisis” was caused by “prioritizing balance sheets over people’s lives,” said Whitmer, the daughter and granddaughter of educators
She wrote: “What happened in Flint was the result of an undemocratic emergency manager law, and a failure of government at all levels to be accountable to the people.”
Not lost on educators is the immediate and long-term effects on students. “We have no idea what effect this will have on the children who were poisoned by the water. What will the second half of my career entail as my colleagues and I work to teach students who may have severe learning or behavioral difficulties. An entire town was poisoned,” said Jessyca Matthews, a Flint high school English teacher, activist and artist.