Nothing about the 2020 presidential campaign is typical and the debates are no different. Diane talks with Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, about how they are planning in the middle of a pandemic.
Guest Host: Susan Page
In April 2014, the water supply in Flint, Michigan, was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. Almost immediately, residents reported problems with its smell, taste and appearance. Even a local GM plant stopped using it. Officials insisted the water was safe but then, last fall, a Flint pediatrician found dangerous levels of lead in children had risen since the water switch. Fast forward to today – a state of emergency has been declared and there are growing calls to hold government officials accountable. Guest host Susan Page discusses the latest on the Flint water crisis.
- Todd Spangler Washington, DC correspondent, Detroit Free Press
- Lindsey Smith West Michigan reporter for Michigan Radio; producer of Michigan Radio’s documentary, “Not Safe To Drink.”
- Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha Director of the Pediatric Residency Program, Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan
- Marc Edwards Professor of civil engineering, Virginia Tech; expert on drinking water safety
MS. SUSAN PAGEWell, let's go to our second topic, which is that Flint crisis over its water supply. In his State of the State address last night, the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, apologized for the water crisis in Flint. He promised to fix it. Here in Washington, Flint's mayor held meetings at the White House and with President Obama to discuss the latest on the water crisis.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHere in the studio with me is Todd Spangler of The Detroit Free Press. Joining us from the studios of WGVU in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio and joining us from the studios of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, is Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering and one of the heroes in this story. Thank you all for being with us today.
MR. TODD SPANGLERThank you for having us.
MS. LINDSEY SMITHThank you for having us.
PAGEHey, Todd, let's start with that governor's State of the State address last night. He was pretty contrite.
SPANGLERCertainly, yeah. I mean, he's been apologizing, he's been falling over himself apologizing of late. For a lot of people that's coming way too late. He's also asking the legislature for an emergency funding of about $28 million to do a lot of work in Flint. Already, there are people, congressmen, others who are saying that's far too little. Snyder says that he will ask for more down the road, but for right now, that's all he's asking for.
PAGEThere have been calls for the governor to resign as a result of this crisis, including from Bernie Sanders. Any chance he will?
SPANGLERNo. I can't see the circumstance, unless these emails from the governor, which he says he's going to release on his conversations on this topic from 2014 and 2015 shows something that we don't expect, I can't imagine he would actually resign. It's still a political hit for him, though.
PAGEMeanwhile, the mayor of Flint, Michigan, is here in Washington. What does she want?
SPANGLERShe wants funding. She wants support. The federal agencies, FEMA, EPA, others are trying to help out in Flint with dispensing bottled water, giving water filters. But what she really needs is money to try to replace lead service lines.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to ask Marc Edwards about what happened in this case and how he helped uncover it. We're gonna talk to Lindsey Smith about what's happening in the community there. Can people in Flint, Michigan, safely drink their water now and if now, when could they? And we're going to talk about whether this has larger implications for other cities in our country.
PAGEWe're going to take your calls and read your emails. You can reach our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about that terrible water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Todd Spangler is with me in the studio. He's the Washington correspondent for the Detroit Free Press. Lindsey Smith is the West Michigan reporter for Michigan Radio, and she joins us from the studios of WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had said that was in Kalamazoo. I'm sorry about that, Grand Rapids. And from the studios at Virginia Tech, Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering.
PAGEMarc Edwards, let's start with you. How did you get involved in this story?
MR. MARC EDWARDSWe became involved because of a hero mom who had young twins, and the growth of one of them was being essentially stunted. And she figured out on her own that lead and water was high in her house, she was city sampling, and also figured out that the State Department of Environmental Quality was not following federal law regarding corrosion control or adding a chemical to the water to keep lead on the pipes and out of the water.
MR. MARC EDWARDSAnd so we helped her sample her house, and it was the worst lead and water contamination that we had ever seen, and we also worked with her, and we figured out that the state had lied in writing to the U.S. EPA about this corrosion control issue.
PAGENow you had used the Freedom of Information Act to get data about this to discover what was going on. Is that right?
EDWARDSYes, so one of the ironies here is that the public health crisis was largely abated in October of this year, when the governor responded to the state of emergency, and people got filters and bottled water, and the Legionnaire's outbreak that might have been associated with this time period was also passed. But what has been happening since October is we've been releasing Freedom of Information Act requests that have shown exactly who knew what and when, and it portrays a horrifying picture not only at the State Department of Environmental Quality but also, even worse, at the U.S. EPA, where it's now acknowledged that they knew about this since April of 2015, that Flint was breaking the law and sat silent as the state claimed the water was safe to drink, fought against outside people trying to bring this law-breaking to people's attention.
EDWARDSAnd it's really a miracle that kids are not drinking Flint water to this day because this unlikely coalition of outsiders came together to expose this problem, again led by heroic Flint residents. So -- but what's really happened since then is just a complete crisis of confidence in government that has horrifying repercussions of its own.
PAGEYou know, the Freedom of Information Act is something that a lot of journalists use, but it's got other purposes that bring government to account. Well, Lindsey Smith, let's just back up a step because not everybody in our listening audience maybe have followed the story as closely as you have. Why did Flint, Michigan, switch its water supply in the first place?
SMITHThe short answer is they have, for around a decade at least, been trying to find a way to save money on their water source. They buy water from the City of Detroit, which is not uncommon in Southeast Michigan. Lots of municipalities buy water from Detroit. And they saw costs go up and up and up over the years. So they had been studying their options for a while. at the time that they decided to make a switch in water sources, the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. This is someone that the governor appoints to cities and school districts that are basically in danger of going bankrupt.
SMITHSo the city did vote a symbolic vote in favor of switching to this new water system that has not been built yet. It's not complete now. It probably won't be finished until this summer. Once they made that vote, Detroit, I will mentioned legally, found a legal clause in their long-term contract with the City of Flint, gave them a year, basically, left on their long-term contract and said look, if you want to keep buying water from us in these two-year period, in the short term, until the new water system is completed, you're going to have to pay more money for the water.
SMITHAnd do the emergency manager at the time sort of looked at the options and decided to go with the Flint River as a sort of temporary permanent source, you know, temporary over a two-year period, not like an emergency, backup water source.
PAGENow here's an email we've gotten from Jason, who writes us from Kalamazoo. He writes, I read in the comments section of an article that switching the water supply would've saved the city $100 a day. Now what I think I read was that $100 a day was the cost of making sure the water was safer. But here's what Jason writes. He says, can this possibly true, the misery of citizens not being able to use their water for cooking and bathing, not to mention the long-term damage of lead poisoning, to save $100 a day? If true, penny wise, pound foolish. So tell us about what this $100-a-day figure refers to.
EDWARDSThe $100 a day would have been the minimum cost required to meet federal law associated with corrosion control, and indeed if they merrily continued to do the addition of corrosion inhibiter that they had been doing for a decade, all of the leaks, the lead and quite possibly the Legionnaire's disease, would not have occurred. I don't think it was done to save money. I think initially they just forgot to follow the law, and then step by step it turned into something that I believe constitutes an environmental crime.
PAGESo just to be clear, they're taking water out of the Flint River, which is a polluted river, but that's not the most -- the biggest problem, right? It's that it goes through pipes that then leech lead?
EDWARDSIt was a combination of the two factors. Had the inhibitor been used for this $8,200 a day, it might very well today have been viewed a huge success to use the Flint River water source. But the Flint River is more corrosive. So the one-two combination of having more corrosive water and no inhibiter unleashed this perfect storm of corrosion that caused all the problem that Flint residents were -- experienced.
PAGESo who's -- Lindsey, who's responsible for this? It sounds like such an outrage.
SMITHWell, there's a lot of, you know, there's a lot of probable chances that you could've, you know, avoided this mess, but Dr. Edwards hits on a good point, and, you know, our station, Michigan radio, produced a documentary on this whole water crisis a month ago, and, you know, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who made what decision when, especially with the emergency manager situation and everything else.
SMITHBut ultimately, you know, I came to the conclusion that Dr. Edwards just spoke to, which is essentially that the state's environmental regulators really dropped the ball when they didn't make the city or inform them correctly on how to treat the Flint River if, you know, there's a lot -- you know, the lead and copper rule under the federal regulations, it's pretty complicated. And so I think when they misinterpreted that or misled the city, that's really where we chose to focus a lot of that documentary because that's really -- you know, who made the decision to switch to the river?
SMITHYes, of course it matters, but if they wouldn't -- if they would've treated the water correctly, we may not even be in this situation today.
PAGEMarc Edwards, who would you hold accountable for that?
EDWARDSWithout question, the main responsibility lies with the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and a distant second, though, and it's just horrifying to think about, is the U.S. EPA. The EPA could've and should've been the heroes here because of the efforts of one employee, who put his career on the line to expose this problem in late June. And his boss, who's a political appointee, who headed the region, stood by and apologized for what he did, allowed him to be discredited and completely covered this up.
EDWARDSAnd she knew the imminent peril that Flint's children were in, and she chose to remain silent because as she told a reporter recently, she was seeing if the EPA had the authority to enforce the federal law over a period of about seven months. And, you know, to me it's just outrageous because, you know, what about her moral obligation as a human being to get these children out of harm's way. So EPA is clearly the second most responsible here.
SPANGLERYeah, it's clear from the emails that Marc (word?) and from the other reporting that EPA almost was entering into some kind of strange almost negotiation with Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, to try to get corrosion control instead of just telling them outright or taking other steps to make sure it happened. DEQ was trying to say we don't think it's necessary. It's at some point saying we have it when they don't. It's clear that the EPA dropped the ball on this and didn't move as strongly as they should have.
SPANGLERAnd DEQ, absolutely it seems from everything, deserves the bulk of the responsibility here, but EPA didn't move as strongly as they should have from a regulatory standpoint, and the question is if they're not doing it in Flint, are they not doing it in other places, as well?
PAGEYou know, Marc, that's a question that I have, is this is a terrible story in Flint. Could this happen other places? In fact is it possible it is happening in other places, and there just haven't been the disclosures that there have been in Flint?
EDWARDSIt is happening to a lesser extent. There is no other city in Flint -- I mean in the U.S. that I'm aware of that isn't at least given the minimal protection offered by federal law. It's indisputable Flint was the only city in the United States who had no plan to control corrosion for this 18 months time period. However, the existing law is full of loopholes. There are significant lead problems all around the United States. And one of the really terrifying things about Flint is the miracle that it took to expose what occurred.
EDWARDSAnd yes, indeed, you know, I sit here today, and I wonder how many other Flints are out there, and moms aren't figuring out their kids are lead poisoned and lying to the EPA about corrosion control and all these other outside people coming in and exposing the problem. So it shows how people's faith in government, including my own, from 13 hours away, has been completely shaken by this horrifying episode.
PAGELindsey Smith, do you think there are other Flint, Michigans out there?
SMITHYou know, when I talked to the EPA about this in November, I talked to some of their top experts on the lead and copper rule, and he gave me the impression that it's really uncommon to do what Flint did, to go from getting Detroit water, which is essentially ready to go, like they don't have to treat it, really, in any major way, they just buy it, and they put it in their pipes essentially, to going to a source where they then have to take river water, and it's completely different type of water, the Detroit water comes from Lake Huron, it's pretty -- the same all the time.
SMITHSo it's kind of unusual, it's a really unusual situation is what they told me. And he also brought up a point that, you know, there's 10 million lead service lines, the EPA estimates, in the country. So if you don't treat the problem, you know, the water properly, it can definitely be a problem, but for the most part, you know, the EPA will say 99 percent of water systems in the country are able to meet the obligations under the lead and copper rule.
SMITHBut Edwards points out there are loopholes in the way you can test for the lead and copper rule, and those are under long-term revisions right now, so...
SPANGLERYeah, the question I have is, and again Marc's -- Marc has pointed this out to great effect, is that in Flint you had instances where test sites, where samples were being taken from areas where there was lower lead instead of higher lead properties, where it should've been taken, and you've got to wonder how many other places in the country maybe is there something like that going on that's being missed.
PAGEI want to thank Marc Edwards for joining us on this show, and we also thank you for your work in uncovering this story and helping to make the water in Flint safer. Thanks so much for being with us.
EDWARDSThank you for having me.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we're joined now from Flint, Michigan, by Dr. Mona Attisha, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHAThanks for having me.
PAGEYou know, we were talking about Marc Edwards as a hero of this story. You are another hero of this Flint, Michigan, story. Tell us what it is that you did.
HANNA-ATTISHAWell, when we started hearing about elevated levels of lead in the water, as a pediatrician, that's, you know, when you get mobilized. So we wanted to see if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of children. So we did the research to see what was going on with children's blood lead levels.
PAGENow you're -- you say we. You're a pediatrician in Flint.
PAGESo you're talking about your patients.
HANNA-ATTISHAYeah, my kids. My clinic sees the most Flint kids in the county. We see most of the children that have been impacted from this crisis.
PAGEHow did you just hear -- how did this come up? What sparked you to think we better look at lead levels?
HANNA-ATTISHAYeah, so it actually started at a dinner party. A girlfriend of mine from high school, who used to work at the EPA, in D.C., when D.C. had a similar lead and water issue, she was over for dinner, we were having a glass of wine, and she's, like, Mona, you know, I hear that Flint is not using corrosion control. This is unheard of. For sure they have lead plumbing. You're in charge up there. What's going on with the blood lead levels of children? And that's kind of what started our crusade to find out what was happening to children's blood.
PAGEWell, what did you think when she -- when your girlfriend said this? Did you think that can't possibly be true?
HANNA-ATTISHAYeah, I was thinking -- this is at that time, 2015, we are in the middle of the Great Lakes. We have the most access to safe drinking water. How can it be this government agency whose job it is to protect, you know, children, to ensure that your water is safe, to trend children's lead levels? So, you know, I was -- I was naïve, and I didn't at first believe it.
PAGESo you started what, you just started testing the lead levels for the kids who come to your clinic?
HANNA-ATTISHAActually we routine screen children for lead at the ages of one and the ages of two. So all we did was go back and look at the levels that we already had. It was the easiest research project that I've ever done. Kind of the total time it took was about two weeks. But there was a sense of urgency. We did not sleep. When you -- there is a concern about lead, it is an emergency.
PAGEAnd testing for lead, that's not hard, right, with kids?
HANNA-ATTISHANo, it's just a blood test.
PAGESo you're doing these blood tests, you get these results. You're quite alarmed. You release them.
PAGEWhat happens then?
HANNA-ATTISHAWe were attacked. So I was called an unfortunate researcher that I was causing near hysteria and that the state's data was not consistent with my data. So just as the moms were attacked, the pastors were attacked, just as Dr. Edwards was attacked, I was attacked, as well.
PAGEWho was attacking you?
HANNA-ATTISHAPrimarily the State Department of Environmental Quality. The state said that, you know, this can't be, you know, our numbers don't agree with this. So for a good week and a half, two weeks, we were disputed, and then finally some great minds at the state, another physician with a public health background, reached out to me. I shared how we did our research, and then they re-looked at their numbers and did realize that actually there is a problem.
PAGESo tell me, have the people who attacked you apologized to you now?
HANNA-ATTISHAYes, absolutely, and now I am working with the state to try to fix this problem and try to move forward.
PAGEIs it safe now for kids and adults in Flint to drink water, to drink the city water?
HANNA-ATTISHANo. Yeah, no. So in mid-October we switched back to the Detroit water system, the fresh Great Lakes water. However, the 18 months that we had this corrosive water, that did not have corrosion control, it significantly damaged our infrastructure. So you kind of think about if these children had been drinking through this lead-painted straw and those lead chips, this lead scale inside those pipes, and the damage to the infrastructure has lost that protective seal. So you never know when that piece of scale is going to come off, go into your tap water and into the body of children.
PAGESo we're going to need to take a short break, and when we come back we're going to continue our conversation with you, with Lindsey Smith, with Todd Spangler, and we're going to take calls from our listeners, 1-800-433-8850 is our toll-free number, or you can send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. This is a story you couldn't make up. You wouldn't believe it if it was a work of fiction. It's the Flint water crisis. We're talking about it this hour with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She's director of the Pediatric Residency Center at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan. And joining us from Grand Rapids is Lindsey Smith. She's the west Michigan reporter for Michigan Radio. She was the producer of Michigan Radio's documentary "Not Safe to Drink."
PAGEHere with me in the studio is Todd Spangler, the Washington Correspondent for the Detroit Free Press. But first, I want to go to a caller from Flint, Michigan. John is calling us from Flint. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHow are you doing, Susan?
PAGEGood. Tell us what you'd like to talk about with this crisis in your city.
JOHNWell, there's a lot of stuff, but I just wanted to compliment the state police and the Jameson County Sheriff's Department. As I was listening to the show, I just passed them. And they were handing out bottled water door to door in the city. A big caravan of them.
PAGEWell, that sounds good. Now, the -- how does the water look now when you turn on the tap at your house?
JOHNMaybe not at my house, but at my workplace, it's brown. It's not exactly as brown as a tree, but it's very dark tinged when it comes out of the faucet to wash your hands. Now John, have you been, before we knew about the lead in the water, were you drinking it?
JOHNOh, absolutely. I've always been a huge proponent of tap water, since I've never had a cavity. I like fluoride and it seemed silly to purchase water when it's coming out of your tap free and it's perfectly healthy.
PAGEAnd John, one last thing, are you now concerned about health consequences for yourself or for your family?
JOHNOh, absolutely. My child and my grandchild were coming over to my house and they were drinking my water and they don't live in the city and I do.
PAGEAll right. Well John, thanks so much for your call. We hope your kids and you turn out to be okay. Let's go to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and ask her about some of the health consequences we should be looking for. Let me read you an email we've gotten from Susan Attis, who identifies herself as -- who is a former Commissioner of Health in Connecticut. She says, I'm afraid the Governor doesn't get it, for those especially children, who have been drinking the water.
PAGEHe can't fix it. Lead poisoning has permanent effects on the body, a drop in mental capacity, behavioral changes. The children who have been poisoned will not be the adults they might have been. Is that right, Dr. Hanna-Attisha? What are the consequences for these kids?
HANNA-ATTISHAYes. That's spot on. Lead is a forever problem and that is why there is no safe level of lead in a child. Even a little bit of lead, low levels, cause this irreversible neurotoxicity. It impacts your cognition. It drops your IQ. It impacts your behavior, causes attention deficit, hyperactivity, conduct disorders. It's even been linked to criminality. And we also have evidence of multi-generational ethno-genetic or DNA changes. Lead is, if you could think of something to put in a population to keep them down now and forever, it is lead. It is the most damning thing you could do.
HANNA-ATTISHAAnd that is why this is an emergency. And it's been an emergency for almost two years. We've just, you know, exposed an entire population to this neurotoxin and what is going to be that impact in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years? What's going to be the impact to our education system, our mental health system, our criminal justice system? So, we need to intervene now so that we don't see those impacts in decades and generations to come.
PAGEAnd is there anything that you can do for your patients now to try to modify or ameliorate the effect of the lead?
HANNA-ATTISHAYeah. So, that's the problem. There's no lead pill, there's no lead antidote. So, right now, I'm sitting in clinic, and when I see a mom with that fear and that anguish and that panic and that trauma in her eyes, what we do best as pediatricians a lot is reassurance. Not every kid is going to get all of these problems. And there are steps that families can take right now. Nutrition plays a great mitigating role. Diets high in iron and calcium, Vitamin C help decrease that absorption of lead. Stimulating that child, reading to the kid, loving the kid, putting them in pre-school, early literacy programs.
HANNA-ATTISHAMental health services, infant support services. So, there's a lot of things that can be done right now to lessen the impact. And these are interventions that are evidence based that work for all children who are at risk for developmental issues.
PAGETodd Spangler, I know you're going to have to leave to cover the Mayor of Flint who's at a news conference at the Conference of Mayors. But tell us, what is the federal government doing to address this?
SPANGLERWell, not as much as the state would like. And not as much as Mayor Weaver would like. The Governor in his request for a major disaster declaration was hoping for some sort of designation that would free up 95, 100 million dollars, a large portion of which could have been used for infrastructure fixes in Flint that could have gotten rid of some of these lead service lines. He's not going to get that. It's almost certain that the emergency designation, which only brings about five million dollars will be there to help hand out filters, hand out water cartridges, pass out bottled water.
SPANGLERBut won't be there for that. The Feds are coordinating an effort through the Department of Health and Human Services to try to make sure they're getting to vulnerable populations, making sure people are getting tested. Handing out water and whatnot. But those major infrastructure changes are going to have to either come from the state or revolving loan funds here at the Feds. That may present some challenges as well. Right now, it's very difficult to see how the larger problems in Flint are going to be addressed.
SPANGLEROne other thing I wanted to mention that the doctor was talking about. There's been some recent pushback in Michigan about that's trying to somewhat, I think, downplay some of what's going on in Flint. Saying that only 50 people or so have tested for high lead levels. In fact, that's only since October.
SPANGLERExactly. There's much more, many more than that who have tested positive or tested for high lead levels in the last year and a half. And that's even from a pretty small sample of people who have been tested anyway. So, you may hear more people try to say, oh, it's just a few dozen people, and out of that, sure, it's mostly kids, but really, we don't know yet the extent of who has high lead levels and, as the doctor says, that can lead to a lifetime of problems.
PAGETodd Spangler, thanks for joining us. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, tell us, risks also for adults like our caller who have been drinking this water?
SPANGLERRight. So, I'm not an adult expert. I'm a pediatrician, but yeah, lead impacts everybody. For adults, it can cause kidney problems and mood problems. However, we worry more about children, because of the damage to their nervous system and because of the lifelong consequences of that.
PAGEAll right, let's go to Fort Meyers, Florida and talk to Richard. Richard, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RICHARDYes, I grew up in Indianapolis and I was -- I grew up in the same house for like 50 years. It was the house that I grew up in. And one day, the water into the house, the line from the main line broke and so I dug it out and I replaced it with copper tubing. But when I dug it out, it was lead. I mean, the lead -- they used lead pipe to pipe the water in to the houses. And this is like throughout the city. So, Indianapolis is basically lead pipe as far as water delivery goes. And so, Flint would be the same way, if not, you know, and the water -- the pipe was corroded.
RICHARDBut I mean, it was calcified. But still, I would think that lead would be leeched out of the lead pipe going into the house. So, I can't image anyone saying that we don't need to either add the chemical to the water or you're exaggerating the problem or whatever. If you're getting brown water out of the spigot like the one guy said, then the water is leeching the pipes and so the water was corrosive to the pipes.
PAGEYeah, Richard, thanks so much for your call. Lindsey, you must be hearing from other places, asking about the consequences or the possible lessons for their own communities from the situation people are facing in Flint.
SMITHYeah, you know, Richard makes a good point. This is not -- you know, having lead pipes, water mains or service lines, especially, the pipe that takes the water from the water main to your home, especially homes built before the 1960s, older cities that haven't spent a bunch of money replacing those lines, that's something that those lead pipes are still there. Even lead solder was acceptable with copper pipes until I think the mid-80s.
SMITHYeah. Right. So, you now, so, but the thing about, you know, I keep going back to the water in Flint wasn't treated properly, so yes, if you have a lead service line to your house, you have a higher chance of maybe getting exposed to lead through your water. But if your city is properly treating its water, you know, generally speaking, it's known as being acceptable that, you know, you're going, you know, that, not seeing levels that we have seen in Flint. Hazardous levels in that one woman's home, for sure.
PAGEYou know, I asked Marc Edwards who he thought should be held accountable for this. Let me ask you, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who do you think should be held accountable for this?
HANNA-ATTISHAI don't know. There seems to be failure at almost every level of government. And I look forward to the investigation and there are people whose job it is to investigate. My job is these kids and to make sure that they still can have the brightest future possible.
PAGELet me note that we asked the EPA to have a representative speak on the show today. They declined. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, has this affected your own view and trust in government?
HANNA-ATTISHAAbsolutely. And, you know, I didn't think I was naive to start with, but this has shattered my faith in government. You know, your only job is to make sure that the water is safe. That's your job. And, you know, and it didn't happen. So, it's unbelievable that two independent researchers did the work that government agencies were supposed to be doing.
PAGELindsey Smith, tell us about the investigations, the lawsuits that are going on in this case. First, on the federal level, what's happening?
SMITHThe US Department of Justice has announced, earlier this month, that they will be investigating what went on in Flint. They're working with the Environmental Protection Agency, which is also doing a full audit of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality. The State Environmental Regulators Program, to make sure that they're taking enforcement actions when necessary in other Michigan cities to make sure that, like Edward talked about earlier this hour, that Michigan cities are testing the correct homes and testing properly so that we're not missing anything major.
SMITHSo that's the federal level investigations that are going on. There are at least two, I believe three civil action cases, federal class action lawsuits. There's several other lawsuits that are in lower level courts, besides the federal courts. One of the hot topics is really should people have to pay for these water bills, like, water, like I said in the beginning, part of the problem looking for a new source was because Flint's water was so expensive. And you know, people on average pay like, I think the average for a family of four is like 140, 150 a month for their water bill.
SMITHSo should they have to pay for it if they're not allowed to drink it, and they haven't been able to, you know, like arguably, it's not been safe to drink for a while now. People have gotten water shut off notices. So there's been calls at the state level to, you know, maybe not force people to have to pay their water bills. And somebody's going to have to pay for that, too.
PAGEYeah, forcing you to pay a water bill for water you can't drink and that is poisoning your kids, that is a tough sell.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, this came up in the Democratic Presidential debate that was held Sunday night. At the very end of the debate, the moderator asked the Democratic candidates if there was some issue they wanted to raise they hadn't had a chance to talk about. Hillary Clinton raised the issue of the Flint water crisis and she said, I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action. She said this was not just an environmental issue. It was a civil rights issue.
PAGEI wonder, do the two of you see it that way? Dr. Hanna-Attisha, do you think it would have been handled differently if this had been a rich suburb of Detroit?
HANNA-ATTISHAAbsolutely. Because right when this water switch happened in April, 2014, people were complaining. They were going to town hall meetings with jugs of brown water. But their voices fell on deaf ears. Everybody was voicing their concerns. But this community was ignored. They were just not listened to and maybe because of lack of political capital. Maybe because of, you know, that we're a Democratic city under control of a Republican leadership. I don't know why, but there is a sense of an environmental injustice. And almost an environmental racism that happened here.
PAGEWhat do you think, Lindsey Smith? You've been covering this story for Michigan Radio.
SMITHWell, I think that the strongest point that Hanna-Attisha makes is the political capital thing. Right? Like, if you are under, if you're in a city that's under the control of an emergency manager who is not elected, who is appointed by the Governor, I mean, you can bring all your jugs of bottled water that you want. I mean, at some point, there was calls to switch back to Detroit and the emergency manager at the time, there was a few of these. There was like four different guys that ran the city. And he told them, look, we can't afford to go back to Detroit.
SMITHAnd so, the other thing that's notable about that is Flint isn't a rich suburb of Detroit, you know? It is a hard hit city that hasn't had, you know, been flushed with cash for an extend period of time, so they haven't had time, or money to really invest in their infrastructure. They've been putting out fires, like crime, dealing with those kinds of like basic city level problems that they haven't really had the, you know, ability to replace, you know, long term infrastructure under their roads.
PAGEHey Lindsey, has anybody lost their job because of this?
SMITHYeah, a couple people have lost their jobs. The Director of the Department of Environmental Quality at the state level has resigned. The top communications person had also, of that same department, has also resigned. The two other people that lost, I mean, they resigned. You know, it's not like they got fired necessarily. The Department of Public Works for the city of Flint, which was appoint -- he was a guy who was appointed by the emergency manager, when they first came in. And another person that resigned was the spokesperson for the city of Flint who is another emergency manager hire.
PAGEDr. Hanna-Attisha, I'm sorry, go ahead.
HANNA-ATTISHAThe Mayor of Flint also lost his re-election, primarily because of the water.
SMITHThat's true. That's true. The former Mayor of Flint lost pretty handedly to the current Mayor, Karen Weaver, because of this water crisis.
PAGEDr. Hanna-Attisha, do you think that the -- have there been calls for the Governor to resign because of this? Do you think he should?
HANNA-ATTISHAI can't say. I look forward to the investigation. But I'm working with the Governor's office now, and I probably have to work with the next five Governors because of the long term consequences of this.
PAGEHow long do you think Flint will be dealing with this crisis?
HANNA-ATTISHAForever. It's a forever problem.
PAGEDr. -- on that sad note, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, we thank you for joining us and we thank you for your role in uncovering this situation, protecting your patients.
HANNA-ATTISHAThank you. Thanks for having me.
PAGEDr. Hanna-Attisha, she's Director of Pediatric Residency Program at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan. We've also been joined this hour by Lindsey Smith, the west Michigan Reporter for -- she's the producer of Michigan Radio's documentary, "Not Safe to Drink." Lindsey, thanks so much for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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