Dozens march to Flint city hall as the water crisis turns 10 years old

(Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance)

By Michigan Advance

April 26, 2024

BY KEN COLEMAN, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Chanting “Clean water is what we demand,” “Water is a right” and “No justice, no peace,” dozens of people marched to Flint City Hall on Thursday to demand “justice and accountability” as the Flint water crisis turns 10 years old.

“This march is not just about remembering the past; it’s about shaping our future,” said Claire McClinton of Flint. “We must stand together to ensure that no community ever suffers the same fate as Flint.”

Residents, activists and researchers have described the Flint water crisis as one of the most egregious cases of environmental racism the state and country have ever faced.

In 2011, former Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed an emergency manager to oversee Flint, which was facing a financial crisis. On April 25, 2014, then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and other officials praised the switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River, part of a cost-cutting move that was estimated to save the cash-strapped city about $5 million in less than two years.

However, ​​officials from the former Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to follow federal regulations put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that required corrosion control chemicals in water. That water then passed through aging pipes and lead service lines, causing them to leak lead into the city’s drinking water supply.

The ensuing water crisis left at least 12 people dead and thousands of people, including children, with lead-contaminated drinking water and was also tied to an outbreak of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ Disease in 2014 and 2015.

A 2016 study by pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found that elevated blood levels doubled after the water switch, affecting 4.9% of children. Some neighborhoods saw an increase of as high as 6.6%, according to Hanna-Attisha’s research.

In 2016, the then-President Barack Obama administration declared a federal emergency in Flint and freed up millions in water infrastructure aid. Obama visited the city in 2016 and drank a glass of water.

“I want all of you to know I am confident that Flint will come back,” Obama said at the time. “I will not rest, and I’m going to make sure that the leaders, at every level of government, don’t rest until every drop of water that flows to your homes is safe to drink and safe to cook with, and safe to bathe in — because that’s part of the basic responsibilities of a government in the United States of America.”

Flint has been in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act for seven and 1/2 years, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) announced in December. The city’s water system has tested below action levels for both lead and copper since July 2016, over 15 consecutive testing periods.

However, many of those gathered on Thursday said they are still waiting for justice, which has not come from the court system.

Snyder, a Republican who left office in 2019, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty in January 2021, to which he pleaded not guilty. But in 2022, a Genesee County judge dismissed two criminal charges against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in the Flint water crisis, saying the charges “were not properly brought.”

And a mistrial was declared in August 2022 in a federal lawsuit against two companies that consulted with the city of Flint during its water crisis, Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN).

The crisis did result in the largest civil settlement in Michigan history.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced in March 2023 the Flint water settlement totaling about $626.25 million had been formally approved by Genesee County Circuit Court Chief Judge David J. Newblatt. The state has been ordered to pay $600 million, the city of Flint will pay $20 million, the McLaren Regional Medical Center will pay $5 million and $1.25 million will come from Rowe Professional Services.

But many residents on Thursday said that the process was dragging on too slowly.

“When are they going to issue it out?” said Gail Morton of Mount Morris. “People have been waiting. What are they waiting on?”

Nessel spokesperson Danny Wimmer told the Advance on Thursday that “the continued delay in settlement dollars reaching claimants is understandably a frustration.

“We are hopeful that the claims review process is soon finalized so that compensation will reach the claimants in Flint as soon as possible,” Wimmer said. “Though the state is not involved in making any payments under the settlement agreement and is not directly involved in the claims review process, we look forward to the settlement being fully implemented.”

Wimmer referred the Advance to court-appointed Special Master Deborah Greenspan, who is overseeing the claims process. Greenspan did not respond to a request for comment.

Flint-area leaders also commemorated the somber anniversary.

“In the richest country in the world, access to clean drinking water should be a right, not a privilege. Yet, access to clean water has been a decade-long struggle for Flint families,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) who pointed out that he supported a bipartisan $170 million aid package for Flint. “Flint is resilient. But there is more work to be done to deliver justice to families. Justice will come in many forms, including holding those who poisoned our water accountable, giving residents relief from high water bills, connecting families with health care services and investing in our public schools. America cannot forget what happened in Flint.”

State Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint) said the Flint water crisis “exposed deep-rooted systemic injustice steeped in racism and elitism, which contributed to it going unchecked for as long as it did.”

He noted his support for “filter first” legislation, universal lead testing and the Rx Kids program, under which every pregnant person in Flint receives a one-time payment of $1,500 followed by $500 payments per month for the first year of their child’s life.

“In doing this, I hope we can continue to pave the way to a more inclusive and equitable society, recognizing that environmental injustice is a pressing issue that concerns all of us,” he said.

The state offers advice on how to reduce lead exposure at michigan.gov/mileadsafe. Testing results for Flint’s water system can be found at michigan.gov/flintwater.

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

READ MORE: Children of Flint water crisis make change as young environmental and health activists

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