Celebrity television host Rachel Maddow held in Flint what was billed as a town hall meeting as a forum to talk about the water crisis that has focused national attention on a city already known for murderous crime and economic blight. In opening her show, which was broadcast from an elementary school, Maddow said on the evening of January 27, "A disaster of national proportions has hit this city," adding, "The problem here is not actually being fixed. What's it going to take to fix it here?"
Among her guests were Prof. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, who as an environmental engineer has been among those who have exposed reports of high levels of toxic lead in the city’s drinking water, prompting an emergency declaration by the state governor and a response from the White House. He told Maddow, "We have to determine if and when the water is safe again and longer-term in Flint, we have to figure out a way to get these pipes replaced." Edwards said, "There’s really is no precedent for this type of man-made disaster."
Also on the show was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a staff pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who exposed the high levels of lead found in blood samples taken from children. Much of the debate over the effects of the lead has center on her research. When asked what is the upshot of the research on lead levels, Hanna-Attisha said, "We provide a lot of reassurance. Not every kid is going to have every problem." She added, "There are things we can do right now. ... Nutrition plays a tremendous role. We don’t have any grocery stores in Flint. We need to get them to their primary care doctor. We need a whole child approach."
Repeating a theme that has been heard from progressives and Democrats, Maddow got applause when she demanded a repeal of Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver agreed, saying "That’s how we got here. We didn’t have a voice…We need democracy. That’s how we’re heard as a community. It wasn’t in place for the city of Flint."
Speaking after the Maddow show was Flint native Michael Moore. The film-maker again called for the arrest of Governor Rick Snyder. “Flint was forgotten,” said Moore while condemning what he considers the indifference on the part of the Republican-led state government. In previous statements to the media, Moore has said “Ten people have been killed in Flint because of a political decision, to save money, that put at risk the city – that is majority African-American, where 41 percent live below the official poverty line.” In his interview after the Maddow show, he said that the crisis occurred because of Republican “trickle-down economics” and a faith in less government.
At issue are lead service pipes the conduct water from the city’s water service lines to customers. During the Maddow broadcast, some of the speakers called for the governor to resign, while others called for action to replace lead pipes. On January 27, a federal lawsuit was initiated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action – a group of African-American pastors, and Melissa Mays – a Flint-based activist. The lawsuit is calling for the replacement of all lead service pipes, at no cost to customers. The pipes going from the water authority’s service line end in a shutoff valve. It is at that point that the responsibility of the city ostensibly ends. The pipe leading from the valve to the home or residence is the responsibility of owner, as is the interior plumbing. Replacing the lead pipes and affected interior plumbing could cost $10,000 per customer, according to some estimates. That is a sum that is high in a community where the median value of owner-occupied homes is $41,700, half of households earn less than $25,000, and over 40 percent of them fall beneath the official poverty line.
And since there are 15,000 to 20,000 homes and businesses that have the dangerous lead pipes, the cost of replacement for the public treasury would thus exceed $200 million. Governor Snyder, however, provided a figure of $700 million while Mayor Weaver put the bill at $1.5 billion. According to Prof. Martin Kaufman – who is on the faculty of the University of Michigan-Flint – the city has 25,000 lead service pipes.
But there could indeed be more. Records were kept on paper index cards and may be incomplete, according to a Spero News source – who pointed out that the water authority has a history of over 100 years. The records are currently being digitized to aid in identifying homes and businesses that need replacements. The Land Bank of Genesee County – which owns properties in Flint and the surrounding jurisdiction that were seized in tax foreclosures - currently owns roughly 8,937 properties: 146 commercial buildings 4,477 residential homes 206 commercial vacant lots 4,108 residential vacant lots.
Not all of these Land Bank properties are in the city of Flint, but most of the foreclosure and abandoned properties are in the city. According to the Spero News source, who wished to remain anonymous, when abandoned homes and buildings are demolished, lead water lines have been crimped rather than being removed. Poor recordkeeping, suggested the source, can mean that lead pipes are still buried beneath the surface and still leaching toxic lead into the soil and water, adding to the cost of removal.
Information on exactly who is responsible for neglecting to add anti-corrosion controls, in the form of orthophosphates, to Flint’s drinking water has been hard to find. Howard Croft was the manager of the water system at the time of the controversy over lead in the water. He has since resigned, as have the head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and a DEQ spokesman. One of Gov. Snyder’s top aides has also resigned. Also, considerable attention has focused on former emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was managing the city when the decision was made to switch from water supplied by the Detroit water system to water sourced in the Flint River, which corroded water pipes and service lines throughout the city.
Information being offered by officials about Flint in general has sometimes been inaccurate. The city has had decades of challenges that were precipitated by the pull-out of much of the General Motors factories. This caused outmigration, a drop in city and county revenues, unemployment, decaying infrastructure. Also, Flint has for decades had a succession of emergency managers and temporary managers who have tried to get a handle on the city’s finances and personnel issues. Former Mayor Dayne Walling (D) was in office at the time of the switch to Flint River water, as were most of the members of the current city council, all of whom are also Democrats. So far, they have avoided any repercussions.
Newly-elected Mayor Karen Weaver is a political tyro who has pledged that the city, with the help of Michigan and the federal government, can overcome the crisis. She has met with President Barack Obama, who in turn offered millions in federal aid to the stricken city, and has been successful in getting attention focused on Flint’s water crisis and the means to fix the damage.
However, Weaver also added to confusion and misinformation by claiming in an interview with CNN last week that there are no grocery stores in the city of Flint. And on Maddow’s show, Dr. Hanna-Attisha repeated the disputed claim. Spero News found several grocery stores located within the Flint city limits. Additionally, there are grocery stores found close to the city limits in adjacent jurisdictions such as Burton, Mount Morris, Flushing, and Flint Township. See Spero News coverage here.