By Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo and Kevin Berends
This article first appeared in The Guardian Friday 22 January 2016 07.15 EST
Is it extreme to posit that local and state officials and the Environmental Protection Agency knowingly allowed the poisoning of tens of thousands of Flint residents? Perhaps. But it is irrefutable that they knew that residents – primarily African Americans and the working class – were drinking, bathing and cooking with poisonous water for six monthsbefore authorities warned them of risks.
This story will not end well – lead poisoning is irreversible. There is little hope for Flint’s predominantly black children who have ingested, drunk or absorbed dangerous levels of lead. This is a tragedy laced with criminal negligence. Had Isis poisoned a US water supply it would be decried as an act of terror with a weapon of mass destruction. Why not hold US officials to the same standard?
The government knows that lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin – especially in children. That it chose to ignore scientific evidence and straight up lie to the victims with reassurances that their water was safe is a crime against humanity. Yet it comes as no surprise to those familiar with the EPA’s history of playing fast and loose with the innocent and the lives of people of color.
I felt EPA’s lash after blowing the whistle on a corporation’s poisoning of vanadium miners in Brits, South Africa. I was the EPA representative to the Gore-Mbeki Commission after South Africa gained its independence. I reported the miners’ symptoms of green tongues, bleeding from every orifice and cancers. The agency’s response? Shut up.
When I refused, the agency retaliated, discriminated and created a hostile work environment. When I prevailed in Coleman-Adebayo v Carol Browner, the agency promoted the very managers identified as offenders in my trial.
The EPA has yet to clean up its act. The Detroit News reportsa top official at the Environmental Protection Agency’s midwest office knew about the toxic water. Instead of sounding the alarm, EPA official Susan Hedman “quietly fought” with Michigan’s department of environmental quality (DEQ) for about six months.
The article reveals that “EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, identified potential contamination problems with Flint’s drinking water last February and confirmed the suspicions in April. He authored an internal memo about the problem in June, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech”. The ACLU has accusedHedman, who resigned on Thursday night in connection to the crisis, of downplaying the significance of the Del Toral investigation.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher whose work exposed the lead contamination in Flint, told The Detroit News: “There was no sense of urgency at any of the relevant agencies, with the obvious exception of Miguel Del Toral (an EPA water expert) and he was silenced and discredited”.
Edwards declared that when high-levels of lead are present in drinking water, “you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately”.
The crisis has exposed the EPA’s lack of integrity and its failure to protect the public. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, speaking to reporters after an event at a Washington soup kitchen, defended the Obama administration’s role in the Flint poisoning: “EPA did its job, but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted … We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened”.
That this situation “never should have happened” will be of little comfort to the thousands of already disadvantaged households now facing the extra burden of a lifetime of fighting for their children’s disability benefits.
EPA Region 5 administrator Hedman, invoking “the buck stops over there,” refused to accept responsibility for EPA’s role in the Flint poisoning, saying her “agency did not alert the public to the potential dangers, it followed proper protocol by repeatedly prompting Michigan’s DEQ to implement corrosion controls”.
And EPA administrator McCarthy’s reaction? The EPA administrator convened another EPA taskforce to audit “DEQ’s handling of the situation ‘to make sure whatever improvements need to be made get done quickly’”.
Barack Obama said from Michigan on Wednesday that he would be beside himself if he were a parent and learned that his children had been poisoned. Indeed. But why hasn’t he called for the resignation of EPA administrator McCarthy and recommended her and Hedman to the attorney general for criminal prosecution?
This story of neglect, environmental racism, retaliation against whistleblowers, political cowardice and the failure to embrace the humanity of disadvantaged communities demonstrates that working class people in Flint are without allies in local, state and federal governments.
With three lawsuits pending in the Michigan courts, Flint citizens will need to maintain their advocacy and activism in the streets to achieve any measure of justice.
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