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The water is still not safe in Flint. Powerful community forum discusses road ahead.

Dec 2, 2015

Last night I moderated perhaps the most significant Issues and Ale panel Michigan Radio has ever done.

It was on Flint’s water crisis, and took place in an excellent restaurant called the Redwood Steakhouse and Brewery. 

I thought I knew about the water crisis before last night, and intellectually I largely did.

But I found myself powerfully affected by the enormity of what has been done to the people of Flint, mostly by the State of Michigan.

Hundreds of babies and small children have been poisoned, with effects we won’t be able to measure for years.

Last night I learned, to my surprise, that the water is still not safe to drink, that it may not be for some time, and that there is no guarantee it will be safe when Flint does finally switch to the new Karegnondi Water Authority.

My fellow panelists were Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody, who has done a masterful job covering this story; Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat who represents Flint in Lansing; Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, a civil engineer who is a national expert on water quality, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who directs the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center.

When you are a journalist, you learn that scientists and physicians are generally very cautious in what they will say. This was anything but true last night.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha made no attempt to hide her anger as someone who knows how many small children have brain damage that is irreversible.

Professor Edwards, who analyzed the data proving the state was not telling the truth about Flint water, was outraged.

Essentially, he said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, did this to Flint’s citizens, all in the name of saving money. What is most appalling is that the risks were known. Federal standards require corrosion controls, but they were not followed.

There was a lot of eye-opening information presented last night, to a crowd of more than a hundred people who packed into the restaurant’s Sequoia Lounge.

I have to say I was perhaps most impressed by the eloquent and well-mannered audience, though they were anything but disengaged.

The voice of at least one teacher quavered as she talked about what had been done to the children. At the end of the evening I was frankly puzzled that these folks were there and not marching on Lansing.

Except for belatedly helping Flint reconnect to Detroit’s water, the state has done amazingly little to respond to a huge health crisis for which the MDEQ and the governor’s appointed emergency manager are clearly responsible.

Neither the agency head, nor the PR spokesman who misled reporters and the public has been fired. One mid-level bureaucrat was “reassigned” to different duties.

Senator Ananich essentially said there was no political will in Lansing to spend the money to do what needed to be done.

Everybody agreed that if this was an affluent area, things would be very different.

And this has been allowed to happen in our highly industrial state in the high tech twenty-first century. I am mystified as to why Flint native Michael Moore wasn’t there making a movie.

It would be both farce and tragedy, and a film which seems to have no end.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.