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Residents Say Flint River Was Contaminated with Dead Bodies, Shopping Carts, but City Still Used It as a Water Source

 A Flint, Michigan, resident demanding clean water (Eduardo García)

A Flint, Michigan, resident demanding clean water (Eduardo García)

When Rick Snyder was elected governor of Michigan in 2011, he came into office with a reputation as a successful venture capitalist who was going to use business principles to tackle government inefficiency. But five years later, Snyder is being held responsible for an environmental disaster in Flint, Michigan and facing calls for his arrest.

Snyder is being blamed for the actions of his emergency managers, who decided to switch Flint from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The switch to the new water source was supposed to save Flint millions of dollars but left residents with brown, foul-smelling water and rashes.

Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the Michigan ACLU, was the first writer to break the story. He was hired to look into the effects of emergency managers, executives appointed by the governor to take over poor-performing school districts and municipalities. According to Guyette, emergency managers have an inordinate amount of power. Once they are appointed to oversee a school or a town, democracy is effectively suspended. The locals lose control over their cities.

However, Guyette said the emergency manager law is being unequally enforced. Most of the cities assigned emergency managers were predominately Black like Flint, which is 60 percent Black.

“Black people are losing access to democracy,” Guyette said.

Democracy Now! reported that 52 percent of Black Michigan residents lived in areas overseen by emergency managers from 2013-14. Only 2 percent of white residents lived under emergency managers.

The ACLU also produced a short YouTube video titled “Hard to Swallow,” warning residents about the potential effects of using the notorious Flint River as a water source. According to the ACLU video, at least two dead bodies and shopping carts were found in the Flint River. Guyette said Flint residents reacted with incredulity when the city announced it was using the river as a water source.

“Some people thought it was a joke,” he said.

The Flint River water was also highly corrosive. The water was so bad, the local GM plant refused to use it because it corroded their engines. The water damaged the city’s pipes, which eventually led to widespread lead poisoning.

LeeAnne Walters has lived in Flint for about five years and witnessed the health effects of her family using the contaminated water.

“We all started breaking out in rashes, experiencing hair loss. At one point I had lost most of my eyelashes,” Walters said. “The twins were not gaining weight properly. Gavin, one of the twins, has a compromised immune system so his height and weight is affected more, and every time he came into contact with the water he would break out in a horrible rash. It was so bad he had to have Benadryl before he could even have a bath. My 14-year-old son, JD, was out of school for almost a month. He was having terrible pains, dizziness, nausea and had a hard time walking up steps.”

The Walters family developed rashes that were so odd, the dermatologist couldn’t even identify them, she said.

Walters said the situation got so bad, they eventually stopped drinking tap water and started buying bottled water. She said there is still a lot of finger-pointing over the contamination.

“No one will admit whose decision it was to go to the Flint River. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else,” Walters said. “City Council members say they voted for the KWA (Karegnondi Water Authority) but had no knowledge that the water would switch to the river. The emergency managers say that City Council made the decision and he had nothing to do with it.”

Guyette lays the blame squarely at the feet of Snyder and the emergency managers.

“Flint was under the control of the emergency manager when the decision was made,” Guyette said. “It’s totally on their banks.”

According to The Associated Press, Flint was set to save about $4 million annually by switching from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. But the fallout of the water contamination will end up costing the city dearly. Walters said residents have filed lawsuits. The city will have to pay for special education classes and psychological counseling to help children who were affected by lead poisoning. Flint will also have to replace its plumbing system, and property values have plummeted because of the environmental disaster.

The situation is currently being investigated by the Department of Justice and could eventually lead to criminal charges. When Department of Environmental Quality worker Miguel Del Toral warned of high levels of lead in the Flint water, his report was dismissed as the “work of a rogue employee” by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel. Wurfel and MDEQ Director Dan Wyant have both resigned. A state investigation criticized Wyant for overlooking Flint residents’ complaints.

“They not only poisoned an entire community, they tried to hide it, they lied about it, they dismissed, tried to discredit and publicly attacked the people who were trying to prove what they were doing,” Walters said. “They falsified documents, they made jokes about it and still do not admit what they did is wrong. Instead of firing people and arresting people, they are reassigning people and allowing people to walk away with resignation with severance packages. That is not justice for what they have done to my family and every other citizen in Flint. People deserve to go to jail for their actions.”

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