FLINT, MICHIGAN — Hours before the Democratic presidential candidates descended on Flint for a debate Sunday, the president of the NAACP and other national and local advocates spoke about the importance of the water crisis — not just for the Michigan city, but for the entire country. The lead-contaminated water that continues to poison Flint residents has served as a wake up call about the country’s crumbling infrastructure, they said.
“The loudest infrastructure discussion thus far has not been about the poisoned pipes going into our homes, but rather about a Trumped up wall on the Mexican border,” NAACP president Cornell William Brooks told ThinkProgress. “We’re trying to shift the focus to these poisoned pipes going into people’s homes.”
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vowed on Sunday they would not forget about the city after Tuesday’s primary day, despite residents’ concerns that they are politicizing the issue to win the vital midwestern state’s delegates. But the national spotlight also makes residents hopeful that Flint’s suffering will not go in vain.
Outside Flint’s City Hall, the polling location for three of the city’s precincts, voters told ThinkProgress that they’ve lost trust in politicians, but they know that politicians are the only people who can lead the charge in fixing the country’s water system, power grid, roads, and bridges.
“I don’t like that it’s politicized,” said Gary Edwards Sr., a 59-year-old Flint resident. “I just want them to get something done.”
Edwards has suffered from severe stomach issues because of lead poisoning, and said he is struggling financially because of the exorbitant costs of the poisoned water. He said he voted on Tuesday because his demands from government are pretty simple.
“I have a parable for you,” he said. “There were three guys and they asked them: what would make you the most happy? One of them said all of the money in the world, another said all of the oil in the world, and the third said all the water in the world. Of course, if you have all the water in the world, you can have all the money and oil in the world. That’s how important water has become. You don’t miss it until it’s gone.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Taking the bullet
Almost two years ago, an emergency manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit River to the highly corrosive Flint River, causing lead to leach from aging pipes into the city’s water supply. Residents began feeling the effects almost immediately, and began calling for change. The city switched the water supply back to Detroit in October, and two months later, the governor of Michigan declared a state of emergency.
It’s been an extremely hard two years on the people of Flint. The number of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled, and residents have reported health effects from skin rashes and hearing loss to developmental delays and behavioral problems in children.
But many residents are already able to step back, and recognize that some good may come out of Flint’s crisis.
“It’s sad that we had to have this happen in order to get the national attention, but whatever it takes to get the word out so that it doesn’t happen ever again to any other city on the planet,” Pastor Bobby Jackson told ThinkProgress. Jackson runs Mission of Hope, a day shelter where he hands out bottled water to his homeless and low-income neighbors.
“We have to be grateful that we took the bullet so that nobody else has to take it,” he continued. “Somebody had to take the bullet. That’s my wish, that our bullet wasn’t in vain and that it’ll never happen anywhere else on planet earth.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
The news out of Flint is alarming, but it’s a chance for politicians to recognize how pipes across the country could potentially leach poison into people’s bodies.
“I think it’s a wake up call that so many people are like, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ — that type of mentality,” Jackson said. “They’ve been talking about the infrastructure of the bridges, because that’s above ground. But out of sight, out of mind.”
The crisis in Flint has alerted the country to the number of cities that likely have issues with contaminated water. Already, reports of contaminated water in other U.S. cities including Sebring, Ohio have surfaced.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said that the water sources utilities use to provide water to a third of the U.S. population are not yet covered by clean-water laws that limit levels of toxic pollutants.
In Jackson, Mississippi — a place that is also holding a primary on Tuesday — almost a quarter of water samples taken from city residents’ homes in June contained excessive lead levels. Residents were notified last month, and lawmakers are just now beginning to respond.
Pastor Kim Yarber, a Flint resident, also said the crisis could be a good thing for Flint because the city will be one of the first to get new infrastructure.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
“We don’t really know when we’re riding down the highway how unsafe it is, especially as we’re going across bridges,” he said. “We had to have unclean water and all these problems for somebody to pay attention. But I promise you this. This is not the last place this is going to happen. It’s going to happen in every other industrialized city in America.”
He also noted that the crisis could be an opportunity to create jobs in a city crippled by high rates of unemployment.
“Hopefully some of the young people who need jobs in this community will be able to get some work out of this, and that’s the upside,” he said. “I’m glad the mayor has some shovels in the ground and we’re beginning to work on this, but people need training on how to do this. We need to be able to fix it ourselves, so that we can go to other places and help other people when they need it.”
The candidates’ responses
As Brooks noted, much of the infrastructure discussion so far this election cycle has focused on the wall Trump has vowed to build along the Mexican border. Leaving aside the impracticality of the wall and the border security that already exists, Flint residents said there are many more important infrastructure issues which deserve attention.
“The way things are going here, they’ll be running away from us instead of toward us,” Jackson said. “You won’t have to worry about building a wall.”
Both Clinton and Sanders have made expanding infrastructure part of their campaign platforms. Clinton has proposed a $250 billion plan, and Sanders has said he would commit $1 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. a D+ grade on our roads, bridges, waterways, electrical grids, and other infrastructure, and says the country needs to spend an additional $1.6 trillion by 2020 to get it all up to par.
The Democratic candidates have used Flint to highlight that message. They have both traveled to the city and have talked about the crisis as an example of the disastrous effects of the country’s inadequate infrastructure system.
“I’m happy that the candidates are talking about it,” Yarber said. “As much noise as can be made about it, that’s great. Something is much needed.”
Other voters expressed more skepticism about the role of elected officials. “If they plan on doing something about it, then I’m all for it. But they talk the talk and don’t walk the walk,” said DuJuan Houston, who told ThinkProgress he has suffered rashes from the water and is on dialysis, so the situation is especially hard.
As Houston spoke outside his polling place, he was interrupted by Lee-Anne Walters, a Flint resident who has become a vocal advocate and celebrity after she was one of the first people to question the water supply. Walters explained to Houston how complicated it is to replace the city’s pipes, and the risk of waste water going into people’s homes.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
During Sunday night’s debate, Walters asked the Democratic candidates if they will require all public water systems to remove all lead-contaminated lines during their first 100 days in office. Sanders vowed that the EPA will make sure every water system is tested and fixed, and Clinton promised to replace the country’s pipes within five years. Walters said the answers, especially Clinton’s, weren’t sufficient, and it’s not enough that they are just talking about the problem.
“They’re not talking about infrastructure,” she said. “Telling me five years is no different than telling me two years on the Flint River. You’re not making it a priority. If it was a priority and they were actually talking infrastructure, it would have been: ‘Yes, we will get that done. Yes, we will make sure that’s a top priority.'”
“Instead, Hillary said five years,” she continued. “Guess what? In five years you won’t be in office. So how can you tell me five years?”
The Republican candidates have only briefly addressed the crisis. In their debate Thursday in Detroit, they spent less than two minutes on the issue, despite it’s importance in the state. Marco Rubio criticized Democrats for “politicizing” the crisis and praised Gov. Flint for taking responsibility.
Flint voter Keri Webber said she is sick of both parties talking about the issues, but not genuinely trying to help her community. “You’ve got the Democrats who are using this and the Republicans couldn’t find Flint on a map if they tried,” she said. “And I’m sick of both. I am waging a write-in campaign for Ramsey II, the family dog. I’m voting my dog.”
But Van Jones, a CNN commentator and co-founder of the non-profit Green for All, said a Trump presidency would be disastrous for the country’s infrastructure.
“Snyder is a business guy with a business mentality, and you saw what happened,” he told ThinkProgress. “If America wants for the whole country to go down the same road as Flint, elect Donald Trump.”