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Congress held its first hearing today on lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River.
Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at today’s hearing despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. On Tuesday, Earley announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. One person that will be testifying is Snyder’s handpicked appointee to run the state Department of Environmental Quality, Keith Creagh. According to the Detroit Free Press, Creagh is expected to fault the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for contributing to the Flint crisis, saying it “did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded.”
Watch here as Amy Goodman and Juan González interview Thomas Stephens, communications coordinator for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, and Tawanna Simpson, elected member of the Detroit Board of Education
Here’s the transcript of the interview:
Juan Gonzalez: Congress is holding its first hearing today on lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River. Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at today’s hearing despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. On Tuesday, Earley announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.
One person that will be testifying is Snyder’s handpicked appointee to run the state Department of Environmental Quality, Keith Creagh. According to the Detroit Free Press, Creagh is expected to fault the federal Environmental Protection Agency for contributing to the Flint crisis, saying it, quote, “did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded.”
Amy Goodman: While many Michigan residents have called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over the crisis, he was not asked to testify at today’s hearing. Newly discovered emails show Michigan officials began trucking clean water to a state building in the city of Flint last January, long before admitting to residents the water was poisoned. Progress Michigan, which obtained the emails, told Mother Jones they “blow a hole in the governor’s timeline for when they knew or started to have concerns about Flint water.” On Tuesday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver called for Flint’s lead-contaminated pipes to be replaced.
To talk more about Flint and also the resignation of the Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who was the emergency manager for Flint as the water got contaminated, we’re joined by two guests. Thomas Stephens is with us, member of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, an attorney who has long been involved in the environmental justice movement, also a member of the National Lawyers Guild. And we’re joined by Tawanna Simpson, an elected member of the Detroit Board of Education.
Before we talk about Darnell Earley, the emergency manager who has just left his position as head of the Detroit Public Schools, we are going to turn to Thomas Stephens to talk about these latest developments around Flint: a congressional hearing, Darnell Earley refusing to testify—he was subpoenaed late yesterday—and this news of the Michigan state building getting water more than a year ago—this was well before Gov. Snyder says they knew that there was a problem with the Flint water. Talk about the significance of all of this.
Thomas Stephens: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having us on.
Yes, this story just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more and more shocking. You mentioned a couple of the points. And the question, I think, on everybody’s mind is: How could they do this? How could they—once the water started flowing in April of 2014 and it was brown and yellow and tasted bad and smelled bad and gave people chemical burns, how could they possibly allow it to continue for 18 months and take no action? And then, even then, even since then, since October of 2015, their action has been perhaps the clumsiest cover-up that I’ve ever seen in my life. And I think that it’s reached the stage where the governor’s supporters are trying to narrow the question to: Well, who was responsible for the decision to withdraw water from the Flint River? And who was responsible for the failure to include anticorrosive chemicals in that water?
And I think it’s really important for people, as these congressional hearings begin and the finger-pointing between the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the state officials and the emergency managers and the local officials in Flint gains momentum, for people to realize that there’s a broader historical significance, in that in the 1990s, when for a brief period of time it seemed like there might be some relief in the offing from the environmental authorities for environmental racism, that there was a presidential order in the Clinton administration, early in the Clinton administration, on environmental justice and there was a draft guidance by the EPA—I think it was in the late ’80s—that began the process of responding to this disproportionate and adverse environmental risk and contamination that low-income, people of color communities, in particular, are exposed to. And it was in Flint, where, with the Republican governor, the previous Republican governor, John Engler and his DEQ director, Russell Harding, leading the charge, the EPA and the DEQ and the state of Michigan decided, no, we’re not going to provide the kind of protection these communities need to have the kind of environment and public health that are enjoyed in white communities. And in particular, in what’s known as the infamous Select Steel decision, the EPA, under enormous political pressure from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress threatening to cut their funding, determined that they weren’t going to even apply a civil rights analysis.
It’s kind of a long and complicated story and it requires an understanding of how civil rights and environmental regulation and public health intersect. But the important thing for people to realize is that this is not—the reason why the good explanation for what the Snyder administration did is unbelievable incompetence is because, actually, this was the policy they put in place 25 years ago.
Juan Gonzalez: And in terms of policy, this whole issue of water supplies, privatizing water supplies, the decision to switch from the water supply by the Detroit water system, talk about the privatization efforts that have been occurring.
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