FLINT

This is a portion of an email I sent to Charlie LeDuff requesting permission to reprint a portion of his book Sh*t Show.

Dear Mr. LeDuff,

I just finished reading your book, Sh*t Show.  It shows the sad state of affairs in many of our US cities and the plight of reporters like you who cover it. Your chapter – Yellow Water – on Flint, Michigan highlighted an important water quality issue that the citizens of Greeley, Colorado are trying to avoid.

I know that Greeley’s situation is not as dire as the situation that Flint experienced, and the detrimental effects of uranium may not show up for many years, but it is an unnecessary risk that the City will be taking with our health and our pocketbook.  There are so many similarities between what happened in Flint and what is about to happen in Greeley, that I think it would be helpful for our City Officials to read your chapter on Flint and ponder if this could happen to Greeley.  The part of your chapter about putting business financial managers in charge of the Water & Sewer Department, when engineers used to be in charge, is just what has happened here.  The buying and selling of water involves tremendously large commissions with the opportunity to veer from ethical considerations.  There is a lot more to this story that could be told, and it continues to develop.

I am requesting  your permission to reproduce the chapter on Flint, Michigan – Yellow Water – to send it to Greeley’s Mayor, City Council and Water Board Members.  I would also like to publish it on a website that we are preparing for Greeley citizens and other Greeley water customers to access.  I will attribute the chapter to you and your book so that those interested may purchase it.

Thank you for considering my request.  Under the veil of COVID, citizens are not allowed to gather to share information, nor do the City Councils and Boards meet in public so, it is very difficult to get information to the public.  I think this information would go a long way toward helping our City Officials rethink their position on this deal.  It would also help Greeley water customers understand what is at stake, and that they must fight to keep their clean mountain drinking water.

Mr. Leduff granted his permission, so here it is:

FLINT, MICHIGAN (WINTER)

The Kirkwood mobile home park was now a ghost town. The trailer homes were blown out. The windows and door of unit 1521 were wide open, a curtain billowing in the wind. In front of unit 1500 was a moldering heap of the previous tenant’s belongings and a dead dog in a plastic bag. Unit 1420 had had its aluminum siding stripped for scrap, its exposed studs and insulation giving it the look of a gigantic hay bale. A feral cat skulked beneath it. The trailer park had been foreclosed on for back taxes and shuttered, the people pushed to the wind. When a last-chance trailer park closes down, you know the end of times is upon you.

Forbidden to travel the country, to poke Don the Orange, to kick Mike the White, I returned to Flint to find the red-toothed people who a year and a half ago were mixing the tap water with Kool-Aid and white sugar to make it go down. The government at all levels had assured them that despite the smell and “cosmetic” flaws in the water then being drawn from the Flint River, it was safe to drink.

Now it turned out to be a damnable lie.  The government  had known for some time and now the governor was forced to admit it: Flint and its babies had been poisoned. Happy New Year, Vehicle City. Where had you gone, Dee Johnson?

The untreated river water had caused an estimated fifteen to twenty thousand service lines to corrode, leaching toxic lead into the tap water. The issue of yellow water had been brewing for two years. The state and local government were covering up tests that showed lead poisoning. The studies began to leak out. A local doctor found lead in the children as well. It took cable television to get the nation to give a damn.  So count one for TV.

The lead wasn’t even the worst of it. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease linked to the tainted water had killed at least a dozen people in the county and infected nearly a hundred more. Turned out the state knew that too. The city knew. The county knew. The federal government knew. But the public was never told. Why?

This was big money. And if you need to know what happens to a whistleblower who inserts his principles between money and politics, all you had to do was look at the demolition scam going down in Detroit and the fate of Darry Ellentuck. Whistleblowers get crushed. Bureaucrats with tight lips stay employed.

In Flint, to make matters worse, the Legionella bacteria may have still been in pipes and the hot-water heaters, waiting for warm weather to begin breeding like reptiles in the sewer. People were frightened in this hardscrabble town of ninety-nine thousand. about an hour’s drive north of Detroit. And still the government told them nothing.

I was ashamed. And so was Matt. We were aware of the water problems in Flint. We saw it in the Kool-Aid-stained teeth of the children. We did nothing about it. No follow-up. No stories. Instead. we drank beer and ate calamari and ran around the country doing segments on the plights of others, ignoring the suffering of our own neighbors. And now that we had come back to the trailer park to find them, they were gone.

They were gone and the officials responsible for their well-being were hiding beneath their desks .

The city’s pipe inspector at the water plant wouldn’t answer his phone.

The county health director wouldn’t come to his door.

The new mayor, finding fame in the public health calamity, could not speak to the local press because she was busy in a meeting with, yet another Hollywood star come to play humanitarian savior for a day.

The storefront office of the firm that was paid millions of dollars to make sure the water was safe was now empty, the only sign of former life a browning fern hanging from the ceiling.

To his credit, Republican governor Rick Snyder granted me a moist-eyed interview, accepting blame while assuring citizens that the water was now safe for washing and that he would indeed bathe his own grandchildren in it. To his discredit, the governor failed to acknowledge that he had no grandchildren. He also promised to drink the filtered tap water himself for thirty days, but after just five, our fearless leader got on a jet and flew off to Germany.

The irony was not lost on Tia Simpson, a thirty-one-year-old machinist who had to send away her twelve-year-old daughter, Anyja, to live with relatives when they started suffering with mysterious rashes and numbness in their extremities.

State health inspectors instructed Flint’s bars and restaurants not to serve ice cubes or rinse lettuce with city water. Children and grandchildren, on the other hand?  Well, go right ahead and rinse them off, the governor declared.

It’s like being a leper, Simpson told me in her home, showing the brown water gurgling from her bathroom faucet. Nobody wants to touch you because they think you’re contagious, because you’re from Flint. And we might be. Who knows? Nobody gives a damn about us because we’re poor.

For eighteen months, people drank the unfiltered water, and bathed in it and died. Nobody said anything. State employees would not drink it, having bottled water quietly ferried in. Rashes and skin lesions were apparently figments of people’s imaginations. When a memo leaked from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency citing dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s water, a state spokesman denied it, telling the citizens to “relax.” He has since found work with a lobbying firm in the state capital.

Finally, with the email and memo leaks, and cable television and Flint’s mayor making it the news of the week, the governor was forced to declare a state of emergency in Flint.

The first of millions of bottles of clean water began arriving from the state. People were lined up in cars, their tailpipes steaming in the bitter arctic air, in front of the fire department, which was serving as a distribution center.

Yo, man!  lt’s a joke, a middle-aged black man called to me from his car. Do the math.

So I did: One million bottles of water equaled a forty-second shower for every living soul in Flint or a two-gallon pot of soup for every household. It was a calamity beyond proportion, and here was the government, like a little boy trying to stick his finger in the dike. The malignancy of greed had metastasized into something approaching murder. Flint was now one gigantic crime scene.

It was easy–too simple, really–to blame Governor Snyder for this man-made catastrophe, though he did deserve much of the blame. Flint was the consequence of his bookish managerial style, his insistence that we could remake government with a collective focus on “relentless positive action” borrowed from his time in corporate America .

And it was Snyder who stripped Flint’s mayor and city council members of power and replaced them with a string of emergency managers who had absolute authority over the city’s finances and political decisions. It was Snyder’s emergency manager who, in a cost-saving measure, decided to go off the Detroit water system and pipe in water from the notoriously polluted Flint River instead.

Snyder knew early on that the water was ugly. Everybody knew the water was ugly. E. coli and methane and boil notices and mysterious rashes. Michigan officials began quietly trucking in that purified water for a state building in Flint. After six months, General Motors, noticing rusted parts, switched its plant back to using Detroit water.

The Flint city council soon voted to do the same, but the vote was ceremonial. The city council had no real influence anymore. The city was being managed by a revolving door of operators, some­thing like a municipal bus line. Jerry Ambrose–Flint’s fourth emergency manager in three years–vetoed the resolution, calling it financially “incomprehensible.”

In fairness, Flint has a long history of the financially incomprehensible. Back in 2002, hollowed out by three decades of industrial decline, the city had a $30 million operating deficit. The mayor was recalled, and then-governor Jennifer Granholm installed–you guessed it–an emergency financial manager. The books were eventually balanced and power returned to elected officials. But those elected officials turned around and blew a new $10 million hole in the budget. The new mayor, accused of bribery and lying about the city’s finances, resigned for “health reasons.” Enter Snyder and his band of bean counters. 

All the while, it appeared that Detroit’s water utility was fleecing Flint, charging one of the poorest cities in the United States the highest water rates in the country, in a state surrounded by the world’s largest pool of fresh water.

So in 2013, Flint’s civic leaders pushed for the construction of their own separate $300 million water system running parallel to Detroit’s. It wasn’t necessary; Detroit’s water was perfectly fine, if overpriced. But think of the jobs! Think of the money! Think of the political contributions! There were millions to be made off the backs of the ghetto. Think of Detroit’s half-finished county jail or its demolition program.

The Chamber of Commerce wanted it. The trade unions wanted it. The local contractors wanted it. The city council rubber-stamped it. So did the mayor. And the governor’s people signed off on the new multimillion-dollar water system even though Vehicle City was broke.

Who ultimately made the decision? To date, nobody in any position of power has stood up and categorically accepted responsibility, the vampire’s cloak of bureaucracy shrouding every bloodsucker from the light.

I went to see one of the architects of the plan, Jeff Wright, the county drain commissioner. A wiry guy with slicked hair and a thin mustache, Wright had been an informant for the FBI during the Kilpatrick administration’s Detroit water scandal in the previous decade. According to documents I had pulled, the commissioner had also raised nearly a million dollars in campaign contributions over that time while running virtually unopposed for his job. Many of those contributions came from the contractors who had been awarded work on the new water system, among them the nowhere-to-be-found firm with the dying plant hanging from the ceiling and an engineering company that also designed the now abandoned Wayne County Jail.

I told Wright it all looked suspiciously cozy. He pointed out that all contracts were competitively bid. Just like Detroit, he said. All of this was perfectly legal, out of his control, and in the long run, the project would still save the people money, he insisted.

His answer didn’t instill much confidence. Flint was poisoned. He was an FBI snitch. Detroit contracts were competitively bid, yet the mayor was in prison. Add to that the fact that Wright was drinking bottled water.

So how was the city of Flint to pay for redundant and unnecessary infrastructure when it had no money? Simple, this is America. Borrow the money. Then raise people’s water bills–charging even more for the contaminated water from the Flint River than it did for the clean Detroit water. The savings to the city would be funneled back into upgrading Flint’s mothballed water treatment plant.

Just one little problem here–the necessary upgrades weren’t made to the old water treatment plant before people were served water from a river known as a dumping ground for corpses and car batteries. It was like flying a jet without an engine.

To review: Flint decided in 2013 to build its own parallel water system because the cost from Detroit was too high. In the meantime, while the new system was being built, the city would draw water from the Flint River and treat it. When the new system was finished in 2016, they would switch over to that new system. It was going to be perfect, until the people were poisoned.

After eighteen months of denials from Snyder’s bureaucrats, and to the dismay of the architects of Flint’s parallel system, Flint was finally forced back onto Detroit’s water system. Tia Simpson was still being charged for water she could not drink. Of course, she was.

Flint’s water crisis is a symbol that resonated across America but a symbol of what? Of working-class decline? Disregard for a majority black population? (Flint is roughly 60 percent black, 40 percent white.) Bloated government? The push to cut and privatize public services? Scratch-my-back-development deals done with the people’s money?

Was Flint an outlier or the epicenter of a Mad Max American future of crumbling roads, joblessness, and toxic water? One thing was for sure: The rage felt by the residents of Flint was little different from the rage felt in other quarters of America; the feeling that people were losing ground, that the deck was stacked against them, that the folks on top didn’t care.

You know goddamn well they poisoned us and lined their own pockets while they were doing it; Simpson said. They squeezed what pennies were left out of Flint and don’t care that we’re sick, that we can’t sell our houses. They don’t care because they don’t have to care. That’s what it’s like to be poor.

Back at the trailer park now. Standing in the hostile winter of a contaminated and dying town. Staring down at the carcass of a dead hound in an abandoned trailer park stripped of anything of value. Across the road, a brownfield where one of the world’s largest factories once stood. I stood there wondering where we had lost it. wondering where the people had gone.[1]


[1]  Sh*t Show, The Country’s Collapsing…and the Ratings Are Great, by Charlie LeDuff pages 219 to 226.

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