Less than one month after the attacks of Sept. 11, a senior FBI official, Ronald Dick, told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, “Due to the vital importance of water to all life forms … the FBI considers all threats to attack the water supply as serious threats.” In 2003, a UPI article reported that an al-Qaida operative “(does not rule out) using Sarin gas and poisoning drinking water in U.S. and Western cities.’” Where the terrorists have failed to mount any attack on a water supply, the Michigan state government has succeeded. In the city of Flint, lead-poisoned water has been piped into homes and offices since 2014, causing widespread illness and potentially permanent brain damage among its youngest residents.
Michigan has one of the most severe “emergency manager” laws in the country, allowing the governor to appoint an unelected agent to take over local governments when those locales or institutions have been deemed to be in a “financial emergency.” Republican Gov. Rick Snyder pushed for and obtained two bills that strengthened the law, and has used it aggressively to impose his version of fiscal austerity on cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor, several large school districts and, now most notoriously, on Flint. In every case but one, the emergency manager has taken over cities that are majority African-American. The emergency manager is granted sweeping powers to override local, democratically elected governments and to make cuts to budgets, sell public property, cancel or renegotiate labor contracts and essentially govern like a dictator.
In April 2014, Darnell Earley, the fourth of five Flint emergency managers appointed by Snyder, unilaterally decided to switch Flint’s water source from Detroit’s water system, with water from Lake Huron that they had been using for 50 years, to the long-contaminated Flint River. Flint residents immediately noticed discoloration and bad smells from the water, and experienced an array of health impacts, like rashes and hair loss. In October 2014, General Motors decided it would no longer use Flint city water in its plants, as it was corroding metal car parts. Later, trihalomethanes, a toxic byproduct of water treatment, were found in the water. Despite that, the water was declared safe by officials. At the same time, as revealed in an email later obtained by Progress Michigan, the state began shipping coolers of clean, potable water to the state office building in Flint. This was more than a year before Gov. Snyder would admit that the water was contaminated.
Ongoing activism by Flint residents whose children were sick attracted the involvement of water researchers from Virginia Tech, who found that 10,000 residents had been exposed to elevated lead levels. It took out-of-state researchers from Virginia to travel all the way to Michigan to conduct the comprehensive tests needed. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha then got involved. She is the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University. She discovered an alarming connection between rising blood lead levels in Flint’s children with the switch to the Flint River as a water source.
“The percentage of children with elevated lead levels doubled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods, it tripled,” she told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “And it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest.”
Rather than going after the problem she identified, the state went after her. “We were attacked,” she recalled. “I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist … when the state, with a team of 50 epidemiologists, tells you you’re wrong, you second-guess yourself.” Within weeks, state authorities were forced to admit she was right. Soon after, she was standing at the governor’s side, and has just been appointed to run a new public health initiative to help those exposed to the contamination.
A chorus of Flint residents and allies are demanding immediate action to ensure safe, clean water to the people of Flint. Many are calling for Gov. Snyder to resign, or even to be arrested. The FBI and the Justice Department are now investigating to see if any laws were broken. This week, the House held a hearing on the crisis, during which Houston Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee compared the poisoning of Flint residents to the 1978 mass suicide and murder in Jonestown, Guyana. There, cult leader Jim Jones ordered his 900 followers, 300 of them children, to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Those victims died instantly. In Flint, the tragedy will unfold over decades.