Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were in Flint, Michigan, for the Democratic debates. Flint, of course, has long been a prime example of corporate and government neglect; it was the storied subject of native son Michael Moore’s film Roger and me, now more than three decades old.
It’s been almost two years now since Flint, Michigan was shifted to temporarily sourcing its water from the Flint River by a state-appointed manager. It’s also been five months since that decision was reversed and Flint was reconnected to the Great Lakes in order to protect the health of the city’s residents. But the problems caused by the decision to use Flint River water caused remain largely active and unresolved; the health risks remain in the city’s pipes, and the politics of Michigan remain toxic. What has changed over the last five months is the loud outrage focused on the problem.
Michael Moore is in the mix, publishing “10 Things They Won’t Tell You about the Flint Water Tragedy” and laying into Hillary and the Democrats in general last night for their lack of action on Flint in the past.
The effect of using Flint River water and not treating it properly was to make the more than 8,300 lead pipes connecting homes to the city’s water system into significant health threats. The EPA says that water having a lead concentration of more than 15 ppb is a health threat, and water in hundreds of Flint homes tested out well above that. Bottled water that has been made available solves the problem temporarily; only replacing the lead pipes still in place will remove the health risk permanently. And on that front, there has been little progress even after the national headlines and broad concern that Flint’s plight has received.
Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver has proposed a $55 million program that would totally replace the lead pipes over the next year. But there are no funds to pay that bill. Funds that have been committed by the State to Flint have been focused on the costs of immediate healthcare needs, water testing, bottled water, and unpaid water bills for Flint River water that was not able to be safely used and cannot be used for a capital project.
The State’s Republican Governor and legislative leaders have resisted making a special allocation for the needed infrastructure work, insisting that the proposals be considered in the regular budget process. Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal includes significant funding for Flint, including $25 million to begin the removal of lead pipes. Their timetable is leisurely; in the due course of business, this funding will be approved sometime in June!
An attempt by Michigan’s two Democratic senators to have the federal government make an emergency allocation of $100 million was stopped by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who said, “Michigan has an enormous budget surplus this year and a large rainy-day fund. Relief and repair efforts are already in the works. The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem. […] The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding.”
Even attempts by private citizens to replace pipes have been stopped, as reported by the Detroit News: “Police alerted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and people then came out and made [them] stop digging, temporarily, to check and make sure we had the right permits…tensions rose, and construction was halted”
The same political divide that resulted in Flint’s water being poisoned now keeps Flint’s water from being properly and permanently fixed. While the headlines were loud enough to cause the governor to apologize and a few state officials to resign, the basic dynamics that resulted in a state government not caring enough about the health and welfare of some of its citizens seems not to have changed. It’s still okay for us to take our time before we do the right thing. Maybe the governor’s mansion and the state legislative offices should be connected to the Flint River for as long as they think it will take to fix the problem they caused.—Martin Levine