Misrepresentation in data findings and contentions about underused state resources still plague a Michigan city four years after its water crisis.
New findings have uncovered that Flint and state officials, including the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) spearheaded by director, Nick Lyon, underreported the amount of victims in the Flint water crisis.
An investigation by PBS Frontline determined that 119 people have died from Legionnaires disease, a waterborne illness, rather than the 12 fatalities and 90 illness documented by the department.
A day after conclusions about healthcare during the crisis emerged, the MDEQ sent an email to the city’s CFO, Hughey Newsome, contending that Flint had not fully utilized the millions of dollars in state and federal funds given to them.
The two major issues stymie the recovery of the city.
Rare Legionnaires disease linked to pneumonia deaths
Frontline alleges that an intentional delay in correspondence between officials and the public may have resulted in the loss of more lives during the legionella outbreak in 2014.
From 2014-2015, Genesee County health officials discovered an onslaught of Legionnaires’ disease cases, but only said a dozen deaths and 90 illnesses resulted in the public health crisis. A May 2018 report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human services (MDHHS) found– almost 4 years post-discovery– that legionella bacteria exposure was common to Mclaren hospital in Flint.
Yet, based on extensive reviews of death records and interviews with experts, an updated investigation by PBS Frontline “…has found 119 deaths from pneumonia during that time, some of which scientists say could actually have been caused by legionella.”
Legionella is a bacterium commonly found in water or soil that causes Pontiac fever or the rare Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia. The illness is contracted when a person consumes contaminated water. The ailment may cause irreversible effects on the physical and mental development in victims.
As divulged, a team of analysts and scientists, including epidemiologists as well as infectious disease experts, reviewed six years of patients’ health records. In their assessment, they noticed a rise in pneumonia diagnosis amongst Flint residents during the water crisis—an indicator that the exposure to contaminated water with legionella bacteria was highly likely.
It took officials 15 months after the announcement of the crisis to notify communities of the legionella outbreak.
Now, state prosecutors are bringing involuntary manslaughter charges against Lyon. Other state officials and some city executives face criminal charges too, in regards to their response to the public health issue.
Special prosecutor Todd Flood said about the case, “There was a clear, willful and wanton disregard… [of] knowing that someone was going to get sick, someone was going to die.” He further explains, “And they sat on the information, and that being specifically Director Nick Lyon.”
The tug of war between Flint and the state Administration boiled over after a letter from the MDEQ to the city’s CFO, Newsome, detailing the following:
“The city has drawn 27.2 million or 17% of the available 167 million of funds. Now, at 18 months after the authorization of the WIIN [Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation] funds, the MMDEQ continues to remain concerned by the slow rate of reimbursement requests.”
Additionally, the state claims to have given the city a $5 million advance in October 2016, with little over $1 million remaining unaccounted for. Citing a “difficult[y] for the MDEQ to enter into additional grant agreements with the City while such a large amount of available funding remains unrequested by the City. The MDEQ remains committed to bi-monthly payment of funds upon receipt of proper reimbursement documentation. To date, no reimbursement requests for work completed this year have been received.”
The money allotted to Flint is earmarked to replace its water systems, an endeavor that will cost over a billion dollars once fully complete.
Newsome responded to MDEQ’s allegations, stating that the ten city employees are overwhelmed with their workload because the office is understaffed. A back-and-forth match to determine accountability ensued. When Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, said that her office asked for help to process reimbursements, the MDEQ retorted, saying that they offered aid, but Newsome declined. Newsome explained that he preferred that his office handle the requests.
Genesee County fiscal findings and lawsuits
The DEQ’s allegations differ from a September 2016 Genesee county Comprehensive Annual Financial (CAF) report, in which the board of commissioners found that an approximate $23 million USD was allotted by the federal government.
Of those funds, 21 percent, or almost $4 million, went toward the Genesee County Health Fund.
Almost two years post-crisis, the CAF explains, “The County Health Fund saw an increase in fund balance in  of approximately $725,000. This increase relates to increased activity surrounding grants related to the Flint water crisis.”
As of now, there are twelve class actions lawsuits against the state of Michigan, including its departments of health, and environmental quality, the city of Flint, Genesee county, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as other institutions related to the water crisis.
In an email to CNN, Michael L. Pitt, one of a dozen attorneys representing a slew of Flint residents, alleges a violation of the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment in the proceedings; avowing that Black residents were treated with racial animus.
He states “Our lawsuit alleges race discrimination in how and why the predominantly African-American population was exposed to contaminated river water while the surrounding predominantly white population continued to receive clean Detroit water.”
In addition, the official are facing criminal charges associated with a failure to alert the public about legionella, until after the outbreak subsided.
Immediately succeeding the PBS information, Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for the governor, shared with CNN, “We have been and continue working to build strong relationships between state government and every community we serve, and adding accountability measures to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never happens again in Michigan.”
After a year-long investigation into the water contamination in the city–touring Flint neighborhoods and interviewing 150 Flint constituents via three different hearings in 2016– the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released a report in February 2017.
They concluded, “We must come to terms with the ongoing effects of ‘systemic racism’ that repeatedly led to disparate racial outcomes as exemplified by the Flint Water Crisis. This can no longer be ignored…We urge those with authority to carefully consider and act upon these recommendations.”
On July 11, district judge Judith Levy presided hearing to dismiss the charges against the defendants.
Richard Kauhl is the attorney representing Rick Synder, the governor of Michigan. He argues that a “failure to act does not create a constitutional violation,” followed by a reminder that the governor is entitled to qualified immunity. “The facts are different today than they were two years ago,” Kauhl said. “Flint’s water has been in compliance for two years.”
The director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Keith Creagh, said in a January DEQ news release, “For 18 months, data has shown that Flint’s water quality is restored and testing is the same or better than many cities across the state and country,”
Afterwards, Pitt stated, “The hearing brought home what this case is about – government officials poisoning children and the people of Flint and keeping it a secret,” he said, following the hearing. “They lied about it until they were caught. We’re asking the court that someone be held accountable for this situation.”
Something’s in the Water
In 2011, the mayor of flint, Dayne Wallings, decided to cut water costs by ending a nearly 50 year contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). The goal was to connect the city’s pipeline to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).
However, the Walling administration along with a state-appointed emergency manager decided on the temporary use of the polluted Flint River as the city’s water source without water treatment or testing until the KWA plan was executed. Residents were not confident in the move.
To quell initial concerns about the river’s water quality, the city assured residents via a press release that “[e]ven with a proven track record of providing perfectly good water for Flint, there still remains lingering uncertainty about the quality of the water…'[The Flint river is] regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard.”
The mayor even infamously drank a glass of Flint tap water on television in attempts to prove its safety.
The republican governor, has even sent out similar reassurances, but UM says he, “fail[ed] to ensure a rigorous investigation by state agencies and [did] not declar[e] an emergency sooner.” In April, his administration recalled free bottled water to Flint residents after preliminary testing found a decrease of lead in the water.
Since, residents of the majority Black, impoverished city have been exposed to high levels of lead and other pollutants in their water. Making daily activity, such as bathing or cooking, potentially dangerous.
Environmental and systemic racism
Since 2014, there has been massive push back from civil rights groups, human rights organizations, community members and advocates.
Snyder, along with other state officials, were accused of environmental and systemic racism as well as a lack of attention or resources because a majority of Flint residents are poor and Black.
NAACP President and CEO, Cornell Wm. Brooks, tweeted:
— Rev. Cornell Wm. Brooks, Esq. (@CornellWBrooks) January 24, 2016
According to the 2017 US census, the city has seen a population decrease of about six percent in the last decade. As per the same data, the racial demographics in Flint, Michigan are as follows: 54.3% are Black, 37.8% are white, and 3.9% being Latino, with approximately 41.9% of people living in poverty with a median household income of $25,650.
“We must hold accountable Michigan’s public officials who chose to balance the city’s budget at the expense of the health of the citizens they serve,” asserted the national chapter of the NAACP in a statement. “The National NAACP leadership also supports the Michigan State Conference and local Flint Branch of the NAACP in calling for a return to democracy for the residents of Flint who have been under an imposed Emergency Manager system that is not representative of those under its governance.”
“Even as children were showing up sick in doctor’s offices with rashes and cases of hair loss, state environmental officials and elected leaders refused to see the warning signs. Would more have been done, and at a much faster pace, if nearly 40 percent of Flint residents were not living below the poverty line? The answer is unequivocally yes.”