I proudly call myself a community activist in my Cleveland neighborhood. I don’t march around with a bullhorn or anything, but I try to help my neighbors when they need it and I try to fight injustice when I see it.
When you live in an urban area, with a population that doesn’t realize it has power, you do a lot of fighting of injustices, large and small. Federal, state, county and city administrations think they can take advantage of the local population’s lack of education, money, knowledge…you name it.
Folks in several Cleveland neighborhoods fought against a plan from the Ohio Department of Transportation, which wanted to destroy a number of residential and business properties across the city – some were properties of historical value – to build a bridge for I-90 and a crazy configuration of on- and off-ramps. My neighborhood fought the board of directors of the Cleveland Public Library to reopen a historic Carnegie library building and maintain its operation as our neighborhood library branch when they really wanted to sell it and open a much-smaller branch in a strip mall. My immediate neighbors and I fought against a nightclub that had a capacity of 800 people – and no parking lot – trying to keep it from opening 15 feet from our residential neighborhood.
Despite what seems like a nearly unending struggle to reach compromises that leave almost everyone a little unhappy (after all, isn’t that the definition of a successful compromise?), I have never felt like my personal health or welfare or that of my neighbors was seen as expendable by agents of our city, state or federal governments. Sure, they make decisions I don’t like, but they’ve never – to my knowledge – deliberately allowed me to be poisoned.
Unlike the people of Flint, Mich.
Flint was facing desperate financial times. An economic downturn and high unemployment forced the city into financial crisis. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to run the city and in 2013, one of the manager’s money-saving recommendations was to begin drawing drinking water from a new, cheaper source: the heavily polluted Flint River. A consultant hired to examine the plan recommended that the highly corrosive water had to be treated before it entered the city’s water system. That recommendation was ignored.
Almost immediately following the switchover in 2014, residents began complaining about the water. It was brown. It tasted bad. It was disgusting. Repeatedly, they were told the water was safe. Turns out it was not safe. The corrosive water caused lead and other metals to leach from the old pipes into the city’s drinking water.
More than a year after residents started to complain, the state issued warnings about the water. It wasn’t until October 2015 that the city switched back to water from Lake Huron that was supplied by the city of Detroit. Then-Mayor Dayne Walling was blamed by residents for the crisis and he lost his re-election bid to Karen Weaver in November 2015.
Walling, however, produced emails he sent to EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman in June 2015, asking about lead in the drinking water. Hedman had written him back, saying: "The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency. When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) – and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the city.”
In other words, don’t call us; we’ll call you.
In light of this information and the resulting media attention, Hedman offered her resignation this week and it was accepted by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
A number of fingers are pointed at Gov. Snyder, who appointed the emergency manager who not only made the water switch but who also made the decision not to treat the water because of the additional cost. Snyder also failed to declare a crisis in Flint for months, despite knowing that lead levels in the water were dangerously high. Congress has begun asking questions and it’s likely Snyder will be “invited” to address one or more congressional committees in the near future to explain how and why a city population was poisoned, why children in Flint have elevated lead levels.
Too often, we hear of companies that poison entire cities. The exposure of residents in Libby, Mont., to asbestos as a result of the vermiculite mining operations of W.R. Grace & Co. (and before them, Zonolite Corp.) comes to mind. Hooker Chemical Co. (now Occidental Petroleum) and the poisonous swamp on which the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was built is another. Erin Brockovich and the lawsuit she helped bring against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the contamination of the drinking water in Hinkley, Calif., with hexavalent chromium is one of the most recent – and most famous cases – in history.
In this case, though, there’s no evil corporation trying to hide nefarious deeds. In the case of Flint, Mich., it’s a bunch of public officials – people who are supposed to work for and on behalf of the residents of Michigan – who turned out to be the bad guys.
As an activist in a neighboring state, in a city that has faced its own economic downturn, I feel the pain of Flint residents. I feel their frustration and their fear.
My city was declared “the best location in the nation” in the 1950s. Between that time and now, we’ve lost nearly 600,000 residents (more than half the population). We’ve been crippled by an economic downturn that took us from the founding of Standard Oil by John D. Rockefeller in 1870 to financial default in 1978. A series of inadequate and short-sighted city governments and a criminally motivated county government haven’t helped. A city department tasked with monitoring the exposure to lead of children living in the city of Cleveland failed to do so, and Cleveland children also are showing dangerous levels of lead exposure (though their exposure is related to lead paint).
Perhaps that’s why I feel a kinship with my neighbors to the north. In a relatively short period of time, Flint – the birthplace of General Motors – has gone from being an important cog in the automobile industry with low unemployment and 200,000 happily employed residents to a troubled city with fewer than half that many residents, 42 percent of whom live in poverty. Residents legitimately are asking themselves and their elected officials: If Flint was predominately white and rich, would this have happened? The answer is, of course, no.
Current Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told her colleagues at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, “Our voices were not heard, and that's part of the problem.”
Their voices weren’t heard because the people who were supposed to be listening discounted them.
Weaver also met with President Barack Obama, who announced that $80 million in federal funds would be made available to Michigan to help the water infrastructure in the state. On Jan. 16, Obama signed an emergency declaration, ordering federal assistance to support state and local response efforts. With the emergency declaration in place, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has now been designated the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating federal government response and recovery efforts. The goal of the federal response will be to help state and local leaders identify the size and scope of the problem, and work with them to make and execute a plan for mitigation of the short- and long-term health effects of lead exposure.
But is this too little too late? After all, EPA, the federal agency tasked with regulating our water and our air, already failed the residents of Flint. And Weaver has said that it could cost as much as $1.5 billion to overhaul the city’s aging water infrastructure, making $80 million a proverbial drop in the bucket.