As Democrats and progressives are mounting increasingly strident calls for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign because of perceived mishandling of the Flint water crisis, Flint resident and veteran political analyst Bill Ballenger said that he not only bathes in but also drinks the water provided by the Flint water system. A media frenzy has ensued ever since a local physician claimed to have found elevated levels of lead in blood samples taken from area children.

Democrats ranging from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have condemned Snyder and call for his resignation. Ballenger, while he did not term the controversy a "hoax," told a Detroit radio station on January 19 that the issue has vastly exaggerated Flint’s water problems. He told WJR Radio’s Frank Beckman, "This has been a vastly overblown crisis, perpetuated by a lot of politicians with an axe to grind and, for that matter, the news media, and some national figures, some political, some entertainers who don't know what they’re talking about." Some understand Ballenger’s remark to be directed at Michael Moore – the famed Flint native and movie director who is a regular critic of Republicans and capitalism.

Ballenger is a Flint native and respected non-partisan political analyst.

"I had my blood tested just yesterday, and I have no elevated blood-lead level. It's way down there, and in fact," Ballenger said. He added, "... The tests that have been taken in Flint so far show that a very small percentage of children had lead levels in their blood that is higher than what is tolerable... The idea that the entire population of Flint has been poisoned and that we all have elevated blood-levels because of this is just a total canard. It's just a crock. And for this to be perpetuated as a story is doing a lot of damage to Flint as a community."

Reacting to Ballenger’s statement was L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican who serves as Executive of neighboring Oakland County, just south of Flint and Genesee County. Patterson spoke to listeners at the Detroit Economic Club on January 19, saying “That's the other side of the story…I think we have to wait and judge the size of this crisis until testing is complete." "The buck stops at your desk," said Patterson. He expects Gov. Snyder to "take the hit" and say "my departments were not well-managed."

"The buck stops at your desk," said Patterson. The governor is expected to give his annual State of the State speech to the Michigan legislature on January 20. Millionaire moviemaker Michael Moore showed up over the January 16-17 weekend and added fuel to the fires of controversy. Calling on President Barack Obama to visit the beleaguered city, Moore said in a letter to the president that Flint is facing a “Katrina” moment. With characteristic hyperbole, Moore accused Snyder of racism.

During the midst of the controversy, Obama visited Detroit for the annual auto show but did not visit Flint. And despite an appeal from Snyder and 14 members of Michigan’s congressional delegation, the Obama administration refused to designate Flint a disaster area and thus free up the approximately $95 million requested by the state government. Only $5 million is forthcoming from the federal government.

Lead levels in Flint water and in the blood of young children spiked when the city switched its water source to the Flint River in April 2014 while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manger. There were immediate public complaints about odor and discoloration in the water, which then morphed into boil water notices when elevated levels of E. coli were found. Poor chemical management in the water treatment plant damaged the scale inside pipes, some of which are those that are not under city control, and thus causing elevated levels of the toxic metal.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency knew about the elevated lead levels as early as April 2015, but poor relations between the federal agency and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality meant wasted time. Ultimately, the DEQ director resigned and Snyder declared an emergency in October 2015. Flint reconnected to the Detroit water system in October 2015 when a local physician presented a study alleging elevated levels of lead in children.

One of the reasons for controversy could be that 2016 is a presidential election year, and voters in Flint are reliably pro-labor and Democratic. The naming of emergency managers by Michigan’s governors, both Democratic and Republican, has come under fire from Democrats and minority advocates as being racist. For example, an article by Chris Lewis in The Atlantic says that “while the cities under emergency management together contain just nine percent of Michigan’s population, they contain, notably, about half of the state’s African-American residents.”

The Root, a news and opinion website directed at African-American, ran a story entitled ‘How a Racist System has Poisoned the Water in Flint, Mich.’ The article stated, “The EFM (ed. Note: Emergency Financial Manager) law, as designed and implemented, rests on the premise that democracy in predominantly African-American cities is unnecessary and that the state knows best. But the state shares blame for Flint’s fiscal problems: It cut almost $55 million in expected revenue to Flint from 2003-2013 in a move that disproportionately defunded already impoverished (and majority-African American) cities.”

When Flint resorted to sourcing its water in the Flint River, the U.S. Representative and native son Dan Kildee, the city mayor and the majority of the city council and the county commissioners were (and remain) Democrats. It was the city council that voted on April 16, 2013 to approve the pipeline project to bring water directly from Lake Huron to the city and bypass Detroit. The council had no authority to make the change because the Flint was under the control of Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, but the vote was understood elsewhere as an endorsement of the switch to Flint River water. This precipitated a decision on the part of the Detroit water system to refuse further negotiations on its contract with Flint. The shut-off took place one year later while ground was broken to build the new Karegnodi water supply pipeline. As its second choice, Flint leaders decided to source the water in the Flint River. It was Mayor Dayne Walling, a Democrat, who actually pressed the switch that cut off Flint from Detroit’s water system.

 

A report by National Public Radio affiliate Michigan Radio averred that determining the responsible parties in the crisis is difficult while a blame game unfolds. The Detroit Free Press, for example, tried but failed to find a document that determines exactly which person decided to source Flint’s water in the Flint River as a viable option.

However, both the Michigan Radio and the Detroit Free Press story refer to the same two documents: a February 2013 report to Michigan’s treasury department that says the Flint city leaders were no longer considering the Flint river as a source; and the June 2013 decision by state-appointed Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz to hire the Rowe engineering firm to prepare Flint’s Water Treatment Plant for the Flint River water.

Officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency began looking into Flint’s water problems back in February 2015 and that by April of that year knew that there was a lack of corrosion control on the part of Flint’s water authority. Regional EPA head Susan Hedman has evaded any responsibility, saying that it is not the “role” of the EPA to regulate local water systems. EPA water expert Miguel del Toral, identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water, and then confirmed in an April 2015 memorandum. Critics have criticized his boss, Hedman, for keeping the information within the walls of the EPA.

According to The Detroit News, the EPA and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality wrangled "over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water." Officials are still advising residents of Flint not to drink unfiltered tap water because the coating or scale inside city pipes and homeowners’ pipes may have been damaged by the highly corrosive water that flowed when water was sourced in the Flint River. The National Guard, police, and local charities have been distributing water filters and bottled water to residents. Many residents are grateful for the presence of so many Guardsmen and police officers, hoping that it will stem the city's nationally-known high murder rate.

There are now three class-action lawsuits circulating in the courts concerning the Flint water crisis. Lawyers are askign the "state of Michigan to step up" and solve the crisis. Lawsuits have been filed against Gov. Rick Snyder, former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, the state Department of Environmental Quality, state Department of Health & Human Services. and Genesee County. The Genesee County Drain Commissioner, who oversees sewer services for the area, was not named in the lawsuits. However, he was prominent in pushing for the idea of declaring independence from the Detroit water system by building the Karegnondi water pipeline at a cost of $223 million.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schutte - a Republican - is investigating the crisis in an effort to determine whether any state laws have been breached. Democrats piled on him, asserting that he has a conflict of interest since he is also tasked with defending the State of Michigan in lawsuits. Rumored to be interested in succeeding the term-out Gov. Snyder, Schutte has commented forcefully on the Flint water crisis.

 



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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