Truth And Consequences in Flint, And Beyond

Terrance Heath

On Tuesday night, our neighborhood in Montgomery County, Md., had no water. It had been temporarily turned off between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, as workers worked to replace the decades-old water mains that run beneath the busy street at the end of our cul-de-sac. At some point each winter, the pipes rupture at the end of our street, spewing water that eventually freezes into a large, hazardous patch of ice on the street and sidewalk.

Our Maryland suburb is home to some of the most troublesome water pipes in the country. Broken water mains are an almost weekly occurrence. A few years ago, an exploding water main around the corner from our home shot water 30 feet into the air, and opened up a 50-foot crater, leaving our area on water restrictions for a week to replenish the 60 million gallons of water lost. Whether the water would be safe for things like drinking and brushing teeth was anybody’s guess.

On Tuesday night, as we collected water in pitchers to tide us over until the water was turned back on, I was reminded how much we take for granted that water would be available from our household taps and that it would be safe to use.

I was reminded of Flint, Mich., where the Republican-dominated government, “run like a business,” left the citizens disenfranchised and dealing with discolored, foul-smelling water, contaminated with E. coli, other coliform bacteria, Legionnaires’ disease bacteria — and lead. This month marks two years since a decision made in the name of “fiscal responsibility” ultimately led to Flint’s lead-contaminated water, when the city’s water source was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. When the city council heeded citizens’ concerns and voted to switch back to the Detroit water system, the city’s state-appointed “emergency manager” simply vetoed the decision. For 18 months, governor Rick Snyder’s administration dismissed the residents’ complaints, while supplying state workers with bottled water.

The next day I would attend the 13th annual Ridenhour Awards, named for reporter Ron Ridenhour, who in 1969 wrote a letter to Congress and the Pentagon describing the horrific events at My Lai and exposing the Vietnam War massacre to the world. This year, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha received The Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. Dr. Hanna-Attisha exposed Flint’s water crisis upon discovering that the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had doubled — even tripled in some neighborhoods — after the switch to the Flint River.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who is donating her prize money to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, called our attention to the latest news concerning Flint’s water crisis, which just happened to break on the day she received an award for exposing the crisis. “Today is an incredible day,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “Criminal charges were filed for the first time against city and state employees whose only job was to make sure when we turned on our tap that the water was safe. That was their only job.”

On Wednesday, a judge in Flint authorized charges against three officials involved in the water crisis. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal changes against state officials Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, and city employee Michael Glasgow. Busch and Prysby work for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Glasgow is Flint’s water quality supervisor. All three are charged with tampering with evidence, as well as misconduct, neglect of duty and violating Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

Conspicuously absent from the criminally charged, in the minds of some, were Flint’s emergency managers Ed Kurtz, who signed the agreement to switch water systems; Darnell Early, who rejected the city council’s vote to return to Detroit’s water system; and governor Rick Snyder, who claims to have been entirely unaware of the disaster unfolding on his watch.

Flint resident Nakia Wakes, who believes Flint’s contaminated water cased her to have two miscarriages, called the charges “only a start.” She told CNN, “I won’t rest until the governor is charged.”

Flint resident Laura MacIntyre, who fears for her three children, said it would be a “miscarriage of justice” if Snyder isn’t charged and “just two to three people … take the fall for actions that have included many, many more people.”

Schuette declared that Wednesday’s criminal charges “are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” he said. “So many things went terribly and tragically wrong, in Flint.”

Much in Flint is still terribly and tragically wrong. Rick Snyder has pledged to drink filtered water from Flint for 30 days, but his political stunt doesn’t change the reality that Flint’s water still contains too much lead. One reason is that residents are not heeding officials’ call to “let the water run” in their homes to allow water additives to “re-scale” corroded pipes and prevent more lead from leaching into the water. They are unwilling to pay for contaminated water they can’t use, and are justifiably mistrustful of state and local government officials. Residents are still using bottled water as a temporary source of drinking water, but lack safe water for bathing and showering, or even washing fruit and vegetables.

I asked Dr. Hanna-Attisha if she thinks there will be further criminal charges in Flint’s water crisis, and she said there probably would be, but she stayed focused on the future for the children of Flint. When I suggested that far more criminal charges should be filed, given what was taken from the children of Flint, Dr. Hanna-Attisha answered with the same commitment and determination that led her to expose the crisis in Flint. Hope for the future of Flint’s children has been lost, and, she said, “We are working on getting some of that back.”

For the children of Flint, the crisis is far from over. As Dr. Hanna-Attisha wrote in The New York Times last month, the state and federal agencies responsible for protecting the families and children of Flint failed miserably. As a result, more than 8,000 children under the age of six who drank Flint’s lead-contaminated water are now at increased risk for a set of life-altering consequences: damage to cognition, behavior disorders, poor employment prospects, lower IQs, poor impulse control, and decreased lifetime earnings.

There is still much truth to be told and much to answer for in Flint; truths that, as a nation of Flints, we can’t afford not to heed, and consequences we ignore at our peril. The next Flint may happen in my front yard, lurking in the pipes deep underground, just steps from my front door — or yours.

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