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Flint’s Poisoned Water

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by Charles M. Blow

In November, I was the guest speaker at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s annual dinner. Before I spoke, the group called to the stage a longtime investigative journalist who had done tremendous work bringing the Flint water crisis to light. His name was Curt Guyette. He, in turn, recognized the scientists, doctors, politician, lawyers and activists who had helped in that quest.

I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard about this crisis before that night, but the details they laid out hit me with the force of a train.

Local officials made the decision to switch the city’s water supply in 2014 from its longtime source supplied by the city of Detroit, which contained corrosion-control chemicals, to the Flint River, which did not contain those chemicals. It was billed as a cost-saving measure for a city facing financial distress.

But the Flint River water corroded the city’s pipes and leached poisonous metals into the city’s water supply, including lead, which is particularly dangerous if consumed by children or pregnant women.

Some of the water tested so high for lead contamination that it was “more than twice the amount at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies water as hazardous waste,” according to Guyette.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.”

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The residents of Flint consumed this poisonous water, knowing that something was wrong because of its changing colors and smells, but mostly unaware of just how dangerous it was.

An entire American city exposed to poisoned water. How could this be?

It is hard to imagine this happening in a city that didn’t have Flint’s demographic profile — mostly black and disproportionately poor.

And, it got worse: Officials apparently kept assuring residents that things were under control, even though many residents knew intuitively that they were not.

As The New York Times reported in October:

“All along, through months of complaints from residents of this city about the peculiar colors and odors they said were coming from their faucets, the overriding message from the authorities here was that the water would be just fine.”

And not only did the city not respond quickly, according to Guyette’s reporting, it artificially suppressed finding on lead levels, and when the federal Environmental Protection Agency offered to help remedy the problem, city officials apparently declined the help.

The damage done by this misguided decision, and the callous apathy on the part of officials to quickly admit their error and work expeditiously to correct it, displays a staggering level of ineptitude, if not criminal negligence.

Lawsuits are sure to spring up by the thousand. It’s not clear whether anyone will be held criminally responsible, but it is highly likely that civil suits for damages could be successful, so much so that they could bring the state to its knees.

The possible damage seems almost incalculable and one can imagine that a jury would find that the monetary damages should match.

I have not stopped thinking about Flint since November, and now the story has gained new urgency as it has become a cause celebre and entered the national political debate.

Bernie Sanders has called for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, saying in a statement:

“There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water. He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Governor Snyder should resign.”

Hillary Clinton has condemned the Snyder administration, called for the federal government to “step up” in the crisis and dispatched two top campaign aides to meet with Flint’s mayor.

(On Tuesday that mayor, Karen Weaver, endorsed Clinton for president.)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday of the situation that the city should have tape around it “because Flint is a crime scene.”

Celebrities, including P. Diddy and Magic Johnson, have expressed their outrage, and some, like Cher and Meek Mill, have pledged large donations of water to the city.

The Flint native Michael Moore, in an online petition, demanded that President Obama visit the city when he went to Michigan on Wednesday, writing:

“This week, you are coming to Michigan to attend the Detroit Auto Show. We implore you to come to Flint, less than an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Do not ignore this tragedy taking place every day. This may be Gov. Snyder’s Katrina, but it will become your Bush-Flying-Over-New Orleans Moment if you come to Michigan and then just fly away.”

(Obama did not go to Flint during his visit to the state, but did address it while there, and met with the mayor of Flint in Washington the day before.)

Snyder conceded Monday that the Flint water crisis was indeed his Katrina and on Tuesday, during a State of the State address, apologized for the crisis.

But Moore tweeted a response Tuesday that might well capture the outrage many feel about this story:

“On Sat, I called Flint ‘Governor Snyder’s Katrina.’ Today he said he accepts that comparison. Except Bush didn’t cause the hurricane. #Jail”

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times JAN. 21, 2016 under the title “The Poisoning of Flint’s Water”)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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