'A Total Disregard for the Human Needs of the People': Broadcast Premiere of ACLU Documentary on the Fight for Democracy & Clean Water
March 09, 2016
The ongoing Flint water crisis has become a major campaign issue for Democrats. The crisis began when an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s water to the corrosive Flint River in an apparent bid to save money. Today, in a Democracy Now! exclusive, we broadcast the ACLU of Michigan documentary "Here’s to Flint," produced by Michigan Journalist of the Year Curt Guyette and filmmaker Kate Levy. The film tells the inside story of how local residents, journalists and scientists organized to uncover the water contamination crisis that has sparked congressional hearings, the resignations of public officials and a national debate about the impacts of austerity and infrastructure decline in the United States.
Watch: Full documentary and transcript of the Democracy Now! conversation below
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: In the race for the White House, voters head to the polls in four states today, with Michigan seen as the top prize. Republicans also vote in Hawaii, Idaho and Mississippi; Democrats vote only in Michigan and Mississippi.
On the Democratic side, the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has become a major campaign issue. The crisis began when an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s water to the corrosive Flint River in an apparent bid to save money. The river water corroded the city’s pipes and poisoned the water with lead. On Monday, seven Flint families filed a class action lawsuit accusing Snyder of gross negligence for allowing Flint’s water to be contaminated by lead. In a debate on Sunday in Flint, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders called for Snyder’s resignation.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I had the opportunity to meet with a number of residents of Flint at a town meeting in Flint. And I have to tell you, what I heard and what I saw literally shattered me, and it was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America, in the year 2016, are being poisoned. ... I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.
ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton?
HILLARY CLINTON: I’m very grateful that my request that we hold this debate be held here, so we can continue to shine a very bright spotlight on what has happened in this city. I agree: The governor should resign or be recalled. ... I know the state of Michigan has a rainy day fund for emergencies. What is more important than the health and well-being of the people, particularly children? It is raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today, on the day of the Michigan primary, we bring you a Democracy Now! exclusive: the broadcast premiere of a new documentary that tells the inside story of how local residents, journalists and scientists organized to uncover the water contamination crisis that has sparked congressional hearings, the resignations of public officials and a national debate about the impacts of austerity and infrastructure decline in the United States. The film draws on months of filming by Kate Levy and more than a year of investigative work by Curt Guyette, who has just been named Michigan Journalist of the Year. It’s called Here’s to Flint.
JERRY AMBROSE: We chose to use the Flint River for a short period of time.
FLINT RESIDENT 1: Look, Jerry, it’s working.
JERRY AMBROSE: It would make sense—
FLINT RESIDENT 1: It’s working, Jerry. Look at that ball of hair!
JERRY AMBROSE: It would make sense—
FLINT RESIDENT 1: Look at that work, Jerry. It’s working.
JERRY AMBROSE: Excuse me.
FLINT RESIDENT 1: You’re killing us!
UNIDENTIFIED: Sir, please.
JERRY AMBROSE: I’m not killing anybody.
UNIDENTIFIED: We have an agenda here.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Under Michigan Public Act 436, a law championed by Governor Rick Snyder, the state can take over financially struggling cities by handing complete authority to an appointed emergency manager. Emergency managers can break collective bargaining agreements, create new ordinances, abolish existing laws, sell off assets and take away healthcare benefits from retirees. There’s only one thing the law prohibits them from doing.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: My name is Claire McClinton. I’m a member of the Flint Democracy Defense League Water Task Force. It’s interesting to note, in Public Act 436, the emergency manager cannot void a contract with bondholders. That’s off limits. Bondholders are sacred. They cannot be touched. People are not sacred.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Nearly every city and school district that has had its democracy suspended under emergency management is a community like Flint—majority African-American and saddled with high poverty rates. What these communities also have in common is that severe cuts in state funding have helped push them into financial distress. Emergency managers completely usurp the authority of locally elected officials.
FLINT RESIDENT 2: How is this democracy?
MAYOR DAYNE WALLING: Well, it’s as much as we have for now.
REV. ALFRED HARRIS: My name is Pastor Alfred L. Harris Sr. of the Saints of God Church in Flint, Michigan. Basically, the mayor has no power, authority; the City Council has no power or authority—who were elected by the people. There’s something wrong with that. And all of us need checks and balances, because none of us make the best decision all the time.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: We knew that this law was undemocratic. We knew it was dictatorial. We knew it was unprecedented. But we never dreamed that we would be faced with not being able to use our municipal water.
DARRELL DAWSEY: While Flint was under state control, the city’s long-term water source was switched, from Detroit’s regional system to the newly created Karegnondi Water Authority. While the pipeline was under construction, the state forced the people of Flint to use the highly corrosive Flint River as the source of their drinking water. It was a cost-cutting move, designed to save no more than $5 million.
MELISSA MAYS: When we heard it on the news that we might be drinking Flint water, might be going to that, we all thought it was a joke, because everybody knows how gross the Flint River is.
MAYOR DAYNE WALLING: Here’s to Flint!
UNIDENTIFIED: Here’s to Flint!
UNIDENTIFIED: Here! Here!
DAUGHERTY JOHNSON: Average resident won’t notice any difference.
DARRELL DAWSEY: But there was a drastic difference. Almost immediately, people began to complain about water that looked bad, smelled bad and tasted bad.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: And it’s just been one debacle after another. We’ve had three or four boil water advisories.
MELISSA MAYS: My name is Melissa Mays. I’ve had all sorts of things happen, with the rashes, the hair loss, the muscle stiffness, the soreness.
REV. ALFRED HARRIS: For instance, right now, we don’t baptize. If we baptize, we have to go outside of the city of Flint.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: It’s almost like we’re living in a nightmare.
DARRELL DAWSEY: While Flint residents were forced to continue to drink the river water, General Motors was allowed to switch back to the Detroit system, because the highly corrosive Flint River was causing engine parts to rust. While many of the problems with the river water quickly became apparent to residents, other dangers remained hidden. For nine months, they were subjected to high levels of TTHMs, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine. The state kept that information secret until January 2015. After that information was finally disclosed in a letter to the residents, officials met with an angry public in an attempt to assure them that everything was under control.
HOWARD CROFT: If there is disruption, the police are prepared to remove the disruption, and then we will go on with the meeting.
FLINT RESIDENT 3: This letter spoke about cancer. It spoke about nervous problems and people with weak immune systems. You spoke about that, Doctor. And I think people feel that their bodies and their lives and their well-being is being compromised.
FLINT RESIDENT 4: Yeah!
FLINT RESIDENT 3: So please, elaborate.
JOAN B. ROSE: So the study of water and disease has been going on since, you know, early Egyptian times. We have evidence of studies—
FLINT RESIDENT 5: [bleep]!
JOAN B. ROSE: —United States since the 1900s.
DARRELL DAWSEY: The TTHMs weren’t the only concern. Flint residents were also at the meeting to express outrage over being forced to use water so foul you wouldn’t give it to an animal.
JOAN B. ROSE: I’m a tester. What do I do? I test water. I do it all.
FLINT RESIDENT 6: You drink it?
JOAN B. ROSE: Wholesome water is important. And you don’t want to drink water that doesn’t taste good, that doesn’t smell good and is cloudy.
FLINT RESIDENT 7: And that’s what we’re doing.
JOAN B. ROSE: And so I understand that.
DARRELL DAWSEY: One of the people at that meeting was LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four. That meeting is where she met Jerry Ambrose, the fourth emergency manager who was appointed by the governor to run Flint.
LEEANNE WALTERS: My first encounter with the emergency manager, he called me a liar and called me stupid. I went up to him with bottles from my tap, and I’m like, "Well, this is my water." He’s like, "No, it’s not." He’s like, "I don’t believe that’s your water."
DARRELL DAWSEY: In late February, after LeeAnne Walters had demanded that the city test her water, the results showed the water Walters’s family was using had lead levels seven times higher than the federal action level. Walters shared the startling information with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which reacted with alarm. In an email to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an EPA official wrote, "Wow!!!! Did he find the LEAD! ... She has 2 children under the age of 3. ... Big worries here." Those high levels prompted EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral to ask what kind of corrosion control the city was using. "Flint must have Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment—is it Phosphates?" The MDEQ responded to the EPA by saying it had an optimized corrosion control program in place, but offered no specific details. By March, residents were increasingly calling for a return to the Detroit system. Pastor Alfred Harris helped lead this effort.
REV. ALFRED HARRIS: Our goal is to return Flint to the purest water source, and that is the Detroit source. In the interim, we want an injunction for that. We’re not worried about long range right now; that still has to come to fruition. But immediately, we want to go back to Detroit. I haven’t talked anyone in the state, city, anywhere, that does not agree that the purest water source for the people of Flint is the Detroit source.
AL MOONEY: So, in answer to the second question, Detroit water—can we hook up again to the Detroit water? Great question! Everybody’s asking, "Can we hook up?" We can if we have a money tree. We don’t have a money tree. And you guys would be sorry. So you’d be sorry if we hooked up on that. So that’s the answer to that question.
FLINT RESIDENT 8: Do you live in Flint?
CLAIRE McCLINTON: The emergency manager on through to the Treasurer’s Office and on to Lansing, the Governor’s Mansion, have shown a total disregard for the human needs of the people.
DARRELL DAWSEY: As public anger grew, what would become a persistent lie took root. Throughout the crisis, city and state officials repeatedly claimed they were forced use the Flint River after Detroit canceled a long-term contract. And here’s emergency manager Ambrose.
JERRY AMBROSE: It was Detroit that sent us a letter that said, "We’re canceling your contract. Go find your water someplace else." All right?
FLINT RESIDENT 9: That is a lie.
JERRY AMBROSE: Now, we looked at that, and we said—
FLINT RESIDENT 10: That’s not true.
FLINT RESIDENT 9: I’m not sure that’s true.
FLINT RESIDENT 10: It’s not.
JERRY AMBROSE: "Well, we have the Flint River."
DARRELL DAWSEY: What those same officials didn’t say was that Detroit had tried to enter into a new agreement. Darnell Earley, the city’s third emergency manager, flatly rejected this offer in a letter to Detroit just before the switch.
JERRY AMBROSE: We chose to use the Flint River.
FLINT RESIDENT 1: It’s working, Jerry. Look at that ball of hair!
JERRY AMBROSE: It would make sense—
FLINT RESIDENT 1: Look at that work, Jerry. It’s working.
JERRY AMBROSE: Excuse me.
FLINT RESIDENT 1: You’re killing us!
UNIDENTIFIED: Sir, please.
JERRY AMBROSE: I’m not killing anybody.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Faced with public outrage, the Flint City Council voted to return to the Detroit water system.
COUNCILMEMBER KERRY NELSON: Let us go back to Detroit, give the people good-quality, clean drinking water, until this KWA come.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Emergency manager Jerry Ambrose overruled that vote. Citizens like Melissa Mays were enraged to see their democratically elected officials silenced and their health sacrificed for a dollar amount.
MELISSA MAYS: The City Council voted and followed and did what the people asked. The next day, he put out a press release saying, "This is incomprehensible."
DARRELL DAWSEY: Emergency manager Ambrose insisted the change back to the Detroit system was unnecessary because Flint’s water was perfectly fine. But Claire McClinton saw through this.
CLAIRE McCLINTON: The narrative that they’re using to get us to sit down and be comfortable with this situation is that the water is safe.
DARRELL DAWSEY: But the water was not safe.
LEEANNE WALTERS: In April, beginning of April, we found out my child had lead poisoning.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Lead is a powerful neurotoxin. Childhood exposure to lead results in IQ loss, behavioral problems and learning disability, all of which can push young kids into the school-to-prison pipeline. For children and adults alike, lead can cause extensive harm to almost every organ or system in the body, especially the central nervous system. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the impact of lead exposure can be passed from one generation to the next.
LEEANNE WALTERS: I’m terrified of what, you know, the outcome of this, the aftermath of this, could be, neurologically, for my children.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Remember that claim from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that corrosion control was in place? LeeAnne Walters found out on her own from a water plant employee that, in fact, no corrosion control was being used.
LEEANNE WALTERS: On Detroit water, we were using a corrosive control, phosphate. The city is not using that control. Pipes are eating themselves from the inside out, and everything that’s built up into them is now coming through our homes because these things are not in place.
DARRELL DAWSEY: She shared that information with the EPA’s Del Toral, who was able to verify it. In an April 2015 email, Del Toral wrote, "Pat Cook has confirmed that following the disconnection from Detroit, Flint has not been operating any corrosion control treatment, which is very concerning given the amount of lead service lines in the city." The state had made a catastrophic decision to not treat the corrosive river water with the mandatory corrosion control. People’s water was discolored because it was leaching rust from the city’s old iron infrastructure. What was not visible were lead particles being leached from lead service lines and lead plumbing.
LEEANNE WALTERS: I’ve reached out to the health department, with no answers—City Hall, Ambrose. I’ve written to Governor Snyder. I’ve called his office, with no results.
Our water is discolored, and my lead is at 397. The maximum is 15. People with discolored water are at a greater risk for having lead or copper in your water. Everybody needs to get it tested, but especially anybody with discolored water.
REV. ALFRED HARRIS: I’m Pastor Harris, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, pastor at Saints of God Church here in Flint, Michigan. The powers that be may not be listening to us. I believe that if we keep on talking and if we keep on screaming and if we keep on shouting, sooner or later something is going to happen.
FLINT RESIDENT 11: We need the federal government in here.
DARRELL DAWSEY: In May 2015, Governor Rick Snyder declared Flint’s financial emergency to be over. The city’s fourth emergency manager vacated his position with one final order: He forbade Flint’s elected officials from overturning any previous EM orders, including the switch to the river, for at least one year.
GERTRUDE MARSHALL: And when it gets to the point where you feel like it don’t matter what I say or do, they’re going to do what they want to do anyway, that’s a sad day for America.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Flint resident Gertrude Marshall. We’ll be back in a minute with more of Here’s to Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: "CanciÃ³n para mi AmÃ©rica," "Song for My America," by Mercedes Sosa. We’ll have more on the assassination of Berta CÃ¡ceres, the Honduran indigenous land rights activist, later in the broadcast. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the broadcast premiere of Here’s to Flint, a new documentary produced by the ACLU of Michigan, by Michigan Journalist of the Year Curt Guyette and filmmaker Kate Levy.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Distrustful of the city and the state, LeeAnne Walters, with the help of the EPA’s Del Toral, connected with Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. Edwards helped Walters and Del Toral conduct a full analysis of the water flowing into her home. Here’s Marc Edwards.
MARC EDWARDS: They were the worst results we have seen in 25 years, so bad, at first, we didn’t believe it. The levels got as high as 13,500 parts per billion, which is about 10,000 times higher than recommended levels, the maximum levels, two-and-a-half times hazardous waste levels of lead. It’s not even corrosion 101 to realize that water is going to cause this problem. If anyone had looked at this who was reasonably competent for five minutes, they would have predicted that this would have occurred.
PROTESTERS: Our water!
PROTESTER: Whose water is it?
PROTESTERS: Our water!
PROTESTER: Whose water is it?
PROTESTERS: Our water!
PROTESTER: All right!
DARRELL DAWSEY: By the middle of June, the city was wrapping up federally mandated drinking water sampling. Flint was very much in danger of exceeding federal safe water standards. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which analyzes those samples, began warning Flint officials that its water supply was in danger of violating lead and copper standards. State MDEQ officials wrote, "We hope you have 61 more lead/copper samples collected and sent to the lab ... and that they will be below the action level for lead. As of now, with 39 Results, Flint’s ... over the AL for lead." If any more high-lead samples were collected, the city would be out of compliance, forcing it to start spending millions of dollars to replace lead service lines throughout Flint. Given that warning, the city focused on testing homes it knew would produce low lead results. Consequently, all of the remaining home sample came in below the action level for lead.
Also in June, based on test results from LeeAnne Walters’s home, the EPA’s Del Toral wrote an internal memo sounding the alarm about lead in Flint’s water, warning that it should be a "major concern from a public health standpoint." Feeling a sense of urgency to make the issue public, Del Toral broke EPA protocol by giving a copy of the memo to Walters. She shared it with the ACLU of Michigan, which published the memo in early July. In response, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality completely denied there was any problem with lead in Flint’s drinking water, even though all the warning signs were clear and evidence of contamination was mounting.
BRAD WURFEL: Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. There is no broad problem right now that we’ve seen with lead in the drinking water in Flint.
DARRELL DAWSEY: But the person who sounded the warning, the EPA’s Del Toral, was no longer available for comment. And here’s Edwards.
MARC EDWARDS: MDEQ told Ms. Walters that Mr. Del Toral had been handled and that he would no longer be able to work on the Flint water situation. So when I heard that, I grew quite concerned, because scientifically, you know, there’s—it wasn’t just smoke here, there was fire here.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Early July, Flint residents and clean water activists from across the state tried to take their concerns directly to the governor.
KIM REDIGAN: My name is Kim Redigan, and I’m a member of the People’s Water Board coalition. In July, a group of us attempted to take our concerns about the water situation in Flint and beyond directly to the Governor’s Office.
JOHN BYRD: I mean, what did you do?
KIM REDIGAN: We sent a registered letter—
JOHN BYRD: OK.
KIM REDIGAN: —asking for the governor to come to Flint. We have people from all over the state of Michigan here. We’re representing several cities.
PEOPLE’S WATER BOARD MEMBER: No, we have people from all over the country here.
KIM REDIGAN: And we got a terse—a terse response two weeks later simply saying, "The governor’s busy and cannot meet with you." So we’re going to be persistent 'til we do have a meeting. And it would be very good to talk to the person who handles the governor's calendar.
JOHN BYRD: OK, because I—really, to follow and do what we were supposed to—we’re supposed to have a request. That was denied. You have come in. I have come out and tried to speak to you people. And I—
PEOPLE’S WATER BOARD MEMBERS: "You people"?
JOHN BYRD: Excuse me, yoooouuu people. So with that being said, I am more than happy to accept what you would like to give to the governor, and I’ll be more than happy to get it to him.
DARRELL DAWSEY: In the face of official denials, the question became how to get to the truth. The answer was to conduct an independent, scientifically rigorous and citizen-led study of Flint’s water. Marc Edwards applied for an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation. Test kits were sent to Flint in August. On the ground in Flint were the ACLU of Michigan and Flint’s Coalition for Clean Water, a diverse, grassroots group of organizations that had come together in the spring of 2015. Operating from the basement of the Saints of God Church, they began the work of distributing and collecting water samples from 300 homes.
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: My name is Nayyirah Shariff. I am the coordinator for the Flint Democracy Defense League. This week we’re going to get these kits out to the community, and they can test, and we’ll know for sure what’s in our water.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Citizens ensured the most scientifically valid and geographically broad sampling was conducted.
MARC EDWARDS: You know, scientifically, we couldn’t have done it any better ourselves. They implemented training procedures that I think the city and EPA should be using around the country.
FLINT DEMOCRACY DEFENSE LEAGUE MEMBER: So, after 45 seconds, you’re going to fill up the medium-sized bottle. And then, when that’s full, you’re going to take the bottle out and then wait for two minutes with the water still flowing.
MARC EDWARDS: They also implemented procedures to prevent tampering with the samples, because they knew that that might be raised as a possible concern. And they were right.
MELISSA MAYS: We want to have zero reason for anyone to question what we’ve done here.
LEEANNE WALTERS: What we did when we picked up samples from people, we had them initial near the seam, and then we taped up everything in front of them, so the initials are under the tape, so that the resident would know that their sample hasn’t been touched by anybody but them. And Virginia Tech also knows that.
MARC EDWARDS: I thought no one would claim people would put lead in the water samples to fake that there was high lead in water. But state—people from the state said that to me.
DARRELL DAWSEY: In addition to supplying and analyzing test kits for the citizen-led study, Edwards also loaded up a minivan with students and drove to Flint for two days of additional on-site testing. As Edwards conducted tests at various homes, new concerns were raised.
MARC EDWARDS: So that’s chlorine. So there’s just none in the water here. So there’s no disinfectant.
HEATHER BEACH: Which I was questioning the Legionnaires’ disease. Is that a possibility with the water? Is it only in—
MARC EDWARDS: It’s a—Legionnaires’ disease can sometimes come from water. People do sometimes get it in their showers.
HEATHER BEACH: I mean, we have to bathe in it. We do cook with it. We have this one here who got sores all over his body. He’s on antibiotic—antibiotic ointment right now. They all have just gone through pneumonia in the middle of summer, which, according to the hospital, is extremely rare.
MARC EDWARDS: We haven’t found—I haven’t sampled at a house that has any chlorine yet.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Five months later, the state disclosed, for the first time, that the number of Legionnaires’ cases in and around Flint began spiking dramatically in the months after the switch to the river. Since June 2014, 87 people have contracted the rare pneumonia-like disease. Ten have died.
As soon as the first sample kits began arriving back at Virginia Tech, their analysis showed alarming levels of lead. Feeling morally compelled to immediately address an apparent public health crisis, Edwards and his team began contacting residents with the results and posting information on a newly created website. As the results were revealed, the state continued to publicly claim that the water was safe. For example, Brad Wurfel told Michigan Radio, "The samples don’t match the testing that we’ve been doing in the same kind of neighborhoods all over the city for the past year." But at the same time, the Governor’s Office secretly arranged for an unnamed donor to purchase 1,500 water filters that were handed out to Flint families on September 1st. In a city with a majority African-American population, a poverty rate of 40 percent and average water bills of $150 a month, people had few options.
As Virginia Tech continued to analyze samples and post results, state officials responded by attacking the credibility of Edwards and his team. In an email to a Flint Journal reporter, the MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel claimed, "This group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. ... They’ve just arrived in town ... fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that."
On September 15th, members of the Coalition for Clean Water, which led the effort to collect sample kits throughout the city, held a press conference to discuss Virginia Tech’s analysis of water from 277 Flint homes—four times as many homes tested by the city and state in the previous six months.
MARC EDWARDS: We estimate that the water in about 5,000 Flint homes is over standards set by the World Health Organization for lead in water, because the water is too corrosive, it has too much salt in it, and there was no plan to control the corrosion. Flint is the only city in America that I’m aware of who does not have a corrosion control plan in place.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Shortly after Edwards raised that issue at the press conference, Howard Croft, then Flint’s director of public works, encountered a citizen visibly upset by the corrosion control issue.
MARIJOYCE CAMPBELL: Why didn’t you think that was important in the first place, the—about a corrosion? Why didn’t you think that was important in the first place? I am angry that I am doing this stuff and drinking this water and doing this stuff, and I could die before my time. Why didn’t you all think about that? Answer that point-blank question!
HOWARD CROFT: I think I will be the one asking the DEQ that. I will be the one asking, "Why did you believe, with the engineering team there?" because that’s—that’s—we followed their guidance.
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: My name is Nayyirah Shariff, with the Coalition for Clean Water and the Flint Democracy Defense League. The MDEQ did nothing to ensure that treatment was properly planned, approved or started when the switch took place. Because of this negligent act, there is a serious lead problem in the water in the city of Flint. We are in a public health crisis.
CURT GUYETTE: My name is Curt Guyette. I’m an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. What we found is that the city and state did a number of things that skewed the results.
On the day of that press conference, I also confronted Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft when he attempted to repeat the lie that Detroit kicked Flint off of its water system.
HOWARD CROFT: There was a determination made by DWSD.
CURT GUYETTE: Right, right. I have a letter from Darnell Earley saying they had the option to enter into a new agreement, and they chose not to enter into that new agreement.
HOWARD CROFT: They were—
CURT GUYETTE: Correct? Is that correct?
HOWARD CROFT: I think there were negotiations on what it would look like. And I think those negotiations were not anything that would have benefited the city.
CURT GUYETTE: So the city chose not to stay with Detroit.
HOWARD CROFT: Well, again, once the contract was terminated, I think evaluations were going on all the way up to the state level on what the best course of action would be for the city of Flint, and that was the determination.
CURT GUYETTE: All the way to the Governor’s Office?
HOWARD CROFT: All the way to the Governor’s Office.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Croft’s assertion was the first time the Governor’s Office was implicated in the decision to switch to the Flint River.
After Virginia Tech released its results, state officials continued to claim that the water was safe overall. But they began to talk about the issue of the aging infrastructure. For example, on September 21st, the MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel told MLive Flint’s water supply "presently meets all state and federal water quality standards," but added that "homes with lead service connections and lead plumbing always have been imparting some part-per-billion of lead, which is a concern." Focusing attention on infrastructure was a way to avoid addressing the root of the crisis, which was the state’s fateful decision to switch to the Flint River and its subsequent move to not use corrosion control, a $100-per-day expense. But those supposed savings led to unimaginable costs.
On September 24th, a pediatrician from Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, released a study of thousands of health records. The study showed there was a direct link between the switch to the Flint River and the elevated blood lead levels of Flint children.
DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: We looked at all children under the age of five years. We looked at their lead levels pre-switch, and then we looked at blood lead levels post-switch. For children five years and below, the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels in Flint was 2.1 percent, and then post-switch the percentage was 4. So, a doubling. And that was statistically significant.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Confronted with that evidence, the state launched yet another attack. A spokeswoman for Governor Rick Snyder wrote in an email that the Hurley data had been "spliced and diced." The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also jumped in, saying the state’s data was "not in line" with Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s results. Those attempts to discredit Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s work quickly fell apart. The Detroit Free Press compared the state’s data with Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s results and found that the state’s own data showed that there was a higher percentage of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood after the switch. In fact, according to records obtained by Virginia Tech’s Professor Edwards, the state Department of Health and Human Services had detected a significant spike in the lead blood levels of Flint children in the months immediately following the changeover.
PROTESTERS: Lead-free water now! Lead-free water now! Lead-free water now! Lead-free water now!
DARRELL DAWSEY: Finally forced to take some action, the state held a press conference—one that Flint residents weren’t allowed to attend. EPA warnings weren’t enough. The Virginia Tech study wasn’t enough. The Hurley study wasn’t enough. State officials continued to deny the river’s role in Flint’s lead crisis.
DAN WYANT: Now, from my standpoint as director of the DEQ and our responsibility, whether the water comes from Detroit or whether the water comes from the Flint River, we still have the same issue.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Wrong. On October 7th, a panel of experts, formed earlier in the year by Flint’s former mayor and a previous emergency manager, held just its third meeting. In a small conference room crowded with media, the experts recommended that Flint switch back to the Detroit system, in order to protect its residents from further harm. On October 8th, six months after LeeAnne Walters learned that her child had lead poisoning, eight months after the EPA began raising concerns, and 16 months after the river water began causing massive infrastructure damage and irreparable physical harm to residents, Governor Rick Snyder finally announced that he would allow Flint to return to the Detroit system. The governor also insisted that there was no reason to assign blame to the completely avoidable man-made disaster.
GOV. RICK SNYDER: Again, this isn’t about blaming anyone. Right now I want to stay focused in on the solutions and taking action to solve the problems.
DARRELL DAWSEY: After the press conference, Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel provided a rambling response to a direct question: Was the Governor’s Office involved in the decision to use the river in the first place?
SARA WURFEL: Can you—
CURT GUYETTE: OK.
SARA WURFEL: Can you guys hang on a second? Because I’ve got two more—
CURT GUYETTE: Just one more question. Howard Croft, the director—
AIDE: Sara, can I see you for one second?
CURT GUYETTE: One more question. Howard Croft, the director of public works for Flint, in a recent interview, said the decision to switch to the Flint River came out of the Governor’s Office.
SARA WURFEL: I can’t address that at all, in fact, because at the time—you’ll go back to the history of this, of the community very much wanting to switch to a new water authority, making the switch—the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department at the time, back last spring, saying, "Hey, we’re going to cut you off."
UNIDENTIFIED: That’s a lie.
SARA WURFEL: There were certain steps at the time that I can’t speak to with all that history. But I can’t address that—
CURT GUYETTE: So, you can’t—you cannot—so you’re saying this decision did not emanate from the Governor’s Office?
SARA WURFEL: You’re saying that the Governor’s Office was directly involved. I can’t address that at all. No.
CURT GUYETTE: Why not?
SARA WURFEL: As far as I know—because that’s not accurate.
CURT GUYETTE: But you’re a spokesman for the governor, correct?
SARA WURFEL: Yes, I am.
CURT GUYETTE: So—
SARA WURFEL: That’s why I’m talking to you right now.
CURT GUYETTE: Right. So—
SARA WURFEL: Thank you for your time.
CURT GUYETTE: So, that’s a yes-or-no question.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Snyder wasn’t the only official saying there was no need to place blame. Darnell Earley, now the emergency manager over Detroit Public Schools and the man who signed the letter rejecting Detroit’s offer to keep selling water to Flint, echoed the governor’s words.
DARNELL EARLEY: But I don’t want to focus on what happened back in 2013. I think it’s important that we mobilize all resources that we can to fix the problem.
DARRELL DAWSEY: But all resources weren’t being mobilized, prompting newly elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to declare a state of emergency.
MAYOR KAREN WEAVER: I’m looking for help from the state, and we’re looking for help from the federal government. I feel like we have no other option but to reach out and ask for help.
DARRELL DAWSEY: The Flint water crisis began to draw broad national and international media attention. On December 29th, a task force, that Snyder had appointed in response to mounting pressure, reported its initial findings from its investigation into the state’s handling of the crisis. "What is disturbing about [the] MDEQ’s responses," the letter read, "is their persistent tone of scorn and derision. In fact," the letter continued, "the MDEQ seems to have been more determined to discredit the work of others, who ultimately proved to be right, than to pursue its own oversight responsibility." On the day that letter was issued, MDEQ Director Dan Wyant and his chief spokesperson, Brad Wurfel, both resigned.
Three weeks after Mayor Weaver’s state of emergency declaration, Governor Rick Snyder issued his own, on January 5th, 2016, at last opening up the door to federal relief. By the time of the governor’s State of the State address in January 2016, the people of Flint had been drinking water contaminated with lead for nearly two years. People in the city still couldn’t drink the water.
ANNOUNCER: Members of the joint convention, the governor of the state of Michigan, Rick Snyder.
GOV. RICK SNYDER: Tonight, I will address the crisis in Flint, first and in depth. Let me walk you through the facts. Tonight I’m releasing a comprehensive timeline of the steps we’ve taken and the actions underway to solve this crisis. First, this crisis began in the spring of 2013, when the Flint City Council voted seven to one to buy water from the Karegnondi Water Authority, the KWA.
DARRELL DAWSEY: That vote had nothing to do with the decision to use the Flint River as the temporary water source for a city of 100,000 people.
GOV. RICK SNYDER: Detroit Water and Sewer Department provided notice of termination, effective one year later, and on April 25th, 2014, Flint began to use water from the Flint River as an interim source.
DARRELL DAWSEY: What the governor leaves out is the fact that Detroit wanted to keep selling clean, safe water to Flint. The governor’s comprehensive timeline also omits the fact that when the Flint City Council voted to return to the Detroit system in March 2015, Snyder’s emergency manager overruled that vote, forcing the people of Flint to continue using poisonous water.
GOV. RICK SNYDER: On September 28th, 2015, I was first briefed on the potential scope and magnitude of the crisis. You deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.
DARRELL DAWSEY: Governor Snyder has not yet testified under oath. But on February 3rd, 2016, LeeAnne Walters didn’t hesitate to raise her hand and swear to tell the truth.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Do you solemnly swear, affirm that the testimony you will give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Let the record reflect that all witnesses answered in the affirmative.
LEEANNE WALTERS: In 2014, in a city with no democracy, forced under an emergency manager handpicked by Governor Snyder, a decision was made to switch the water source without the proper testing and enforcement of regulation. The citizens in Flint were assured for 18 months that the water was safe. We fought the city and the state, saying there was something wrong, and we were dismissed. We conducted citizen-based samplings. We educated and distributed 300 samples equally throughout the city. We collected back 277 samples. All of this was done in a three-week turnaround. There are people in Flint today still not being assisted during this crisis—immigrants, disabled and shut-ins. Broken policy and procedures are smothering the outcry of an entire community suffering financially, physically, mentally and emotionally. I urge you to help restore some of the trust lost by never allowing this to happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: As of today, 23 months after the switch to the Flint River, though it’s been switched back, five officials have resigned and one has been fired because of their roles in the water crisis. The U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office have all launched criminal investigations. Congress continues to hold hearings.
The ACLU of Michigan documentary, Here’s to Flint, was produced by Kate Levy and Curt Guyette. The film was narrated by Darrell Dawsey of the ACLU. Special thanks to Melissa Mays, Jenn Teed, LeeAnne Walters, Antonio Cosme, Kayla Fenner, Notown the movie, Spectacle TV and All Points TV. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, go to democracynow.org.