The CDC is considering lowering its threshold for elevated childhood blood lead levels by 30 percent, a shift that could help health practitioners identify more children afflicted by the heavy metal.
Since 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sets public health standards for exposure to lead, has used a blood lead threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter for children under age 6.
While no level of lead exposure is safe for children, those who test at or above that level warrant a public health response, the agency says.
Based on new data from a national health survey, the CDC may lower its reference level to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in the coming months, according to six people briefed by the agency.
The measure will come up for discussion at a CDC meeting Jan. 17 in Atlanta.
But the step, which has been under consideration for months, could prove controversial. One concern: Lowering the threshold could drain sparse resources from the public health response to children who need the most help – those with far higher lead levels.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
Exposure to lead — typically in peeling old paint, tainted water or contaminated soil — can cause cognitive impairment and other irreversible health impacts.
The CDC adjusts its threshold periodically as nationwide average levels drop. The threshold value is meant to identify children whose blood lead levels put them among the 2.5 percent of those with the heaviest exposure.
“Lead has no biological function in the body, and so the less there is of it in the body the better,” Bernard M Y Cheung, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies lead data, told Reuters. “The revision in the blood lead reference level is to push local governments to tighten the regulations on lead in the environment.”
The federal agency is talking with state health officials, laboratory operators, medical device makers and public housing authorities about how and when to implement a new threshold.
Since lead was banned in paint and phased out of gasoline nearly 40 years ago, average childhood blood lead levels have fallen more than 90 percent. The average is now around 1 microgram per deciliter.
Yet progress has been uneven, and lead poisoning remains an urgent problem in many U.S. communities.
A Reuters investigation published this month found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates of at least 10 percent, or double those in Flint, Michigan, during that city’s water crisis.
More than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.
In the worst-affected urban areas, up to 50 percent of children tested in recent years had elevated lead levels.
The CDC has estimated that as many as 500,000 U.S. children have lead levels at or above the current threshold. The agency encourages “case management” for these children, which is often carried out by state or local health departments and can involve educating families about lead safety, ordering more blood tests, home inspections or remediation.
Any change in the threshold level carries financial implications. The CDC budget for assisting states with lead safety programs this year was just $17 million, and many state or local health departments are understaffed to treat children who test high.
Another concern: Many lead testing devices or labs currently have trouble identifying blood lead levels in the 3 micrograms per deciliter range. Test results can have margins of error.
“You could get false positives and false negatives,” said Rad Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s just not very sensitive in that range.”
The CDC doesn’t hold regulatory power, leaving states to make their own decisions on how to proceed. Many have yet to adapt their lead poisoning prevention programs to the last reference change, implemented four years ago, when the level dropped from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Other states, including Virginia and Maine, made changes this year.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is close to adopting a rule requiring an environmental inspection — and lead cleanup if hazards are found — in any public housing units where a young child tests at or above the CDC threshold.
If the CDC urges public health action under a new threshold, HUD said it will follow through. “The only thing that will affect our policy is the CDC recommendation for environmental intervention,” said Dr. Warren Friedman, with HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.
To set the reference value, the CDC relies upon data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey. The latest data suggests that a small child with a blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter has higher exposure than 97.5 percent of others in the age group, 1 to 5 years.
But in lead-poisoning hotspots, a far greater portion of children have higher lead levels. Wisconsin data, for instance, shows that around 10 percent of children tested in Milwaukee’s most poisoned census tracts had levels double the current CDC standard.
Some worry a lower threshold could produce the opposite effect sought, by diverting money and attention away from children with the worst exposure.
“A lower reference level may actually do harm by masking reality – that significant levels of lead exposure are still a problem throughout the country,” said Amy Winslow, chief executive of Magellan Diagnostics, whose blood lead testing machines are used in thousands of U.S. clinics.
Almost two weeks into the school year, Melissa Corrigan got an email from the principal and superintendent of her daughters’ elementary school. Water from four West Middleton Elementary School faucets taken Sept. 1, the first day of school, had tested high for levels of lead or copper. As a safety precaution, the school would provide bottled water to students until the issue was resolved.
Corrigan — whose daughters Brooklyn and Carly are in first and fourth grades — thought little of the news, partly because the email told parents of the school west of Madison that it was “highly unlikely” that the water was unsafe to drink.
But West Middleton’s results were high — one faucet had more than six times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion of lead and nearly 19 times the federal action level of 1,300 ppb of copper. Samples from nine of the 10 faucets showed a presence of lead.
Any amount of lead can cause permanent brain damage, including reduced intelligence and behavioral problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.
Fresh evidence of the risk of lead poisoning at school surfaced Friday when Milwaukee Public Schools revealed that testing found dangerous levels of lead in 183 drinking water fountains, including at locations hosting early childhood programs. The months-long testing program involved 3,000 water fountains at 191 school district buildings. The district said it had shut down and plans to replace the fountains that tested at or above the federal action level of 15 ppb, even though “federal and state regulations do not require schools to test drinking water.”
The district failed to respond to repeated questions since mid-November from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about whether water at the schools was being tested for lead, and calls and an email to district spokespeople Friday were not immediately returned. The testing began in June.
Efforts to protect Wisconsin children in schools and day care centers from lead in their water have fallen short on several fronts, the Center has found. Among the problems uncovered by the Center in documents and interviews:
There is a lack of testing for lead in drinking water consumed by children while away from home. Federal regulations enforced by the state of Wisconsin do not require most schools or day care centers to test at all. A 2016 USA Today investigation found that an estimated 90 percent of schools nationally are not required to test their water.
There has been confusion over proper lead testing procedures at some schools, day care centers and public water systems in Wisconsin, as the Center has reported. This year, the state Department of Natural Resources waited nine months to send an official notice to public water system operators that the EPA had updated its testing recommendations in response to flaws uncovered by Flint, Michigan’s lead-in-water crisis.
Lead service lines, a significant source of lead in drinking water, continue to provide water to hundreds of schools and day care centers around Wisconsin. In other communities, officials are not sure how many schools and day cares have lead pipes.
Because of West Middleton’s rural Dane County location, the school has its own well and is among the minority of schools that must comply with some of the same testing requirements as municipal water systems. Lead generally makes its way into water not at the water plant but as it travels through service lines and indoor plumbing, all of which could contain lead.
Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Superintendent George Mavroulis said after learning of the testing results, the school immediately shut off drinking water and consulted with a private testing company and a liaison from the DNR.
Two weeks after the initial test, the K-4 school with 400 students had the same faucets — and three water fountains — tested again. The levels of lead and copper returned to below the action level, and students and staff were again allowed to use the water.
“We tried to do everything in our power to make sure everyone was safe,” Mavroulis said.
The school has since replaced two faucets and plans to replace two more over winter break, he said. Perry Hibner, the district’s spokesman, believed two human errors caused the school’s initial water samples to be high in lead and copper: not flushing the system beforehand, as the DNR suggests after long periods of non-use like summer break, and removing the aerators from the faucets, which allowed a higher than normal water flow.
Subsequent samples were taken after one hour of flushing and six hours of non-use.
The EPA issued new nationwide guidance in February clarifying that public water systems should not remove aerators or flush systems before sampling to avoid masking the level of lead in the water. DNR spokesman Jim Dick said West Middleton was in a “unique situation” because of its failure to previously flush the school’s system after the water had been stagnant for an extended period of time.
Going forward, however, the district will need to conduct two rounds of testing in the next year to assure the water is safe — and follow all of the appropriate sampling methods, he said.
After reviewing West Middleton’s test results, Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech University researcher who helped train Flint researchers, said telling parents a health risk was highly unlikely was “a stunningly irresponsible statement, especially after Flint.”
Said Lambrinidou: “There is no safe level of lead in drinking water.”
All licensed day care centers in Wisconsin are required to identify and mitigate dangers from lead paint, but only centers that use private wells are required to eliminate lead hazards in drinking water, according to Joe Scialfa, spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families.
The USA Today investigation found that among schools and day care centers that are required to test, Wisconsin recorded the fourth-highest number of lead exceedances, with 24 between 2012 and 2015.
Lead in small doses dangerous
Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause permanent damage. A 2012 study of nearly 4,000 fourth-graders in Milwaukee showed that those with elevated levels of lead — even below what is considered dangerous — scored significantly lower on reading and math tests than those without elevated blood-lead levels.
The Center reported in February that at least 176,000 homes and businesses in Wisconsin receive water from lead service lines, which can account for 50 to 75 percent of lead contamination in tap water.
Milwaukee says it has removed lead service lines leading to all of its public school buildings. Madison is thought to be the first city in the nation to remove all lead service lines from its water utility service area.
Milwaukee plans to focus $2.6 million from a new $14.5 million DNR program to begin replacing lead service lines leading to 384 licensed day care centers and 12 private schools in the city. In the meantime, the Milwaukee Health Department has advised those centers to reduce lead exposure by flushing water before using it and consider using only filtered or bottled water for preparing formula.
An additional 17 Wisconsin communities ranging from Antigo to Waterloo plan to use money from the program to replace lead service lines leading to their schools and day care centers.
School officials in Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts also have found high lead levels in the drinking water at hundreds of schools.
And day care centers — where infants could be fed baby formula made with tap water or toddlers could eat food cooked in lead-laden water — are of particular concern.
Rep. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, operated a day care business out of her 90-year-old home for several years before running for public office. She recently spent $10,000 to replace corroded pipes throughout her northwest side house, which is served by lead service lines.
Johnson said she used a cooler to provide water to children in her care, but not every day care provider does.
“I’m sure people use sink water,” she said. “It’s right there.”
A ‘regulatory vacuum’
In the Lead Contamination Control Act, the EPA recommends that schools test water at each cold water tap — although no frequency is mentioned — share abnormal results with the public and take action to remediate any problems. But these are not requirements.
News investigations have shown that administrators in Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon and Ithaca, New York knew about lead in water at schools for several months or years before the findings became public. Lambrinidou, the Virginia Tech researcher, and others decried the “regulatory vacuum” surrounding water testing in schools in a 2010 paper titled Failing Our Children.
“If you’re a parent … it’s better to know that they’re not doing much than to have false comfort that the schools are taking care of them,” Lambrinidou said.
School leaders mixed on lead mandate
A Center survey of all 424 Wisconsin school district superintendents revealed a mixture of attitudes toward identifying and mitigating lead hazards. Most chose not to complete the survey at all.
The 47 respondents were split on whether there should be a statewide requirement that all public schools test their water for lead. While some do test — either voluntarily or because they have private wells — others said paying for testing is simply not an option.
A Fox 6 News investigation in May surveyed the 10 largest school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, asking if they had tested their schools for lead. Six answered; all said “No.”
Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said most of his members support water testing. But if it identifies lead hazards that require costly remediation, he said, “We feel like there ought to be some federal support and state support to do that.”
When officials at Riverside Elementary School east of Wausau discovered that lead from pipes in its foundation was leaching into the water, they opted to remove the school’s drinking fountains entirely. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf said the school relies on a filtration system for tap water and has spent about $1,000 a month over the past 10 years on bottled drinking water.
“That’s far less expensive than tearing up the foundation of the school and tearing up the pipes,” he said.
Crystal Wozniak, who lives in Green Bay with her 4-year-old son Casheous, said she tried to avoid lead in drinking water when deciding where he would attend preschool. Casheous was lead poisoned when he was 9 months old, possibly from paint.
“The water at a school may be more harmful because they’re ingesting the water, and the food there is made with the water,” she said. “All the kids aren’t necessarily going around licking the walls, but they’re drinking the water.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Wisconsin schools, day care centers slated for lead service line removal under new DNR program
Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a $14.5 million program to help “disadvantaged municipalities” replace lead service lines. Of the 38 recipients, 18 communities, including Milwaukee, planned to use at least some of the money to replace lead lines leading to schools and day care centers.
Below is a list of the communities and the estimated number of schools or day care centers with lead service lines slated for replacement under this program:
Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state Department of Natural Resources has not yet passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin.
The EPA issued a memo in late February as the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan was exploding into public view. The memo, intended to clear up confusion over testing procedures, declared that flushing water systems before sampling must be avoided because it can conceal high levels of lead in drinking water
Water managers in Shawano and at Riverside Elementary School near Wausau say they were not aware of the change and have continued to use flushing when testing for lead.
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who helped expose the Flint crisis, said that updating the testing procedures is “essential for public health protection.” Any amount of lead can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and behavior problems, according to the EPA. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.
“As we saw in Flint, the old protocols effectively ‘hid’ lead in water problems,” Edwards said.
“Given what we now know, data collected using the outdated protocols cannot be trusted.”
The memo also instructed EPA administrators to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said the agency was notified of the guidance and she confirmed that “pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”
Sereno insisted the agency had responded appropriately. DNR presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March, she said.
Sereno added that the agency “is in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.” The agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, expects to send the letters next week, she said.
A search of the DNR drinking water database Friday showed nearly 6,270 lead compliance sample results from 948 water systems have been reported to the agency since Feb. 29, when the EPA guidance was issued. It was not immediately known how many used the now-discredited procedure of pre-stagnation flushing, in which a water system is flushed for some period of time, water sits unused for six hours, and then samples are collected.
Sampling procedures listed on the DNR’s website indicate the water must be stagnant for six hours but do not address whether or not the tap should be flushed prior to sampling. Sereno said new instructions will be posted online to clarify this.
In July, EPA sent a letter reminding states to post updated protocols to their websites, saying the agency would follow up with each state “to ensure that these protocols and procedures are clearly understood and are being properly implemented to address lead and copper issues at individual drinking water systems.” The EPA did not respond to a question about whether any other states had failed to notify water managers of the updated protocols.
While some municipalities, such as the Green Bay Water Utility and the Milwaukee Water Works, were aware of the EPA memo and updated their testing procedures, others continued using outdated methods that included a flushing step — making it possible dangerous levels of lead could go unnoticed.
Shawano included pre-stagnation flushing in the procedures used for this year’s testing, which was completed over the summer. Patrick Bergner, water manager for the city of nearly 10,000 between Green Bay and Wausau, said although he works closely with a DNR liaison, he was not aware of any EPA guidance against flushing.
“I’d be happy to be informed of any changes in the procedure,” Bergner said. One of Shawano’s 21 compliance samples had a level of lead nearly three times the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion; several more neared the limit.
DNR public water supply specialist Tony Knipfer acknowledged the need for clarification when flushing is appropriate. It is typically recommended as a way for consumers to reduce exposure to lead in their own homes, for example, but should not be done before testing.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion or conflicting information out on the flushing,” he said. “But from a regulatory aspect and a health and safety aspect, we’re looking for representative samples of what’s likely to be consumed.”
Milwaukee Water Works issued a statement in June saying it immediately adopted the instructions not to pre-flush. Those new instructions will be put to use next year when the utility tests 50 homes and buildings for compliance with EPA regulations.
“Prior to February of 2016, MWW did instruct residents to flush their home plumbing prior to the required six-hour stagnation period, before collecting samples for regulatory compliance purposes,” according to the memo from Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis to Mayor Tom Barrett.
“The last testing cycle (for Milwaukee) was the summer of 2014. That cycle did include the pre-stagnation flushing instruction,” Lewis wrote. “The next cycle in the summer of 2017 will not.”
Other procedures that can mask the true level of lead in drinking water include removing or cleaning faucet filters called aerators that can collect lead particles; using narrow-necked bottles that result in a slower flow of water; and sampling in cooler months when lead concentrations are lower. The EPA also urged that those procedures should end.
“While we cannot undo the past harm done from failing to detect water lead risks,” Edwards said, “there should be zero tolerance for future needless harm that arises from a false sense of security created by bad data.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Menasha aldermen have rejected a proposal requiring homeowners to replace lead service lines on their properties at their own expense, saying it’s unacceptable.
Property owners could’ve paid between $800 and $2,500 to replace the lines, even though the city has received a $300,000 state grant to help reimburse property owners for some of the costs, The Post-Crescent reported.
Water utility manager Tim Gosz said the utility plans to pursue more grant funding for 2018.
Menasha Utilities officials estimate there are 1,200 to 1,500 lead service lines on private properties.
Lead service lines have been in the spotlight since scientists found Flint, Michigan, residents were exposed to elevated lead levels when the toxic metal leached into water from lead pipes.
Lead can be dangerous for children and expectant mothers, causing things like brain and kidney damage, increased blood pressure, deficits in attention span and hearing, and learning disabilities.
“I’d be concerned that this body only feels abatement is only important when grant dollars are involved,” said Alderman Marshall Spencer, who voted in favor of the plan. “I called it a good step forward but not a total solution before. The science is not debatable, it’s real.
“Anybody who doesn’t understand that, just spend a little time on Google and you’ll see a whole lot.”
The American Water Works Association said there are an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines across the nation.
A leading lead manufacturer was among a host of corporate leaders who donated to a conservative group that helped Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators fend off recall challenges.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, obtained 1,500 pages of leaked documents from a secret investigation into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. That investigation was halted in 2015 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court under a ruling by right-wing justices who received millions of dollars in donations from the same outside groups that were charged in the case.
The documents show Walker was interested in getting Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of NL Industries, which was a major producer of lead that was used in paint before such practices were banned, to donate to the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. That group, backed by the Koch brothers, worked in coordination with Walker’s campaign to fight a 2012 attempt to recall the governor. Simmons gave the group $750,000 in 2011 and 2012, at the height of recall efforts.
After Simmons’ donations, the Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee tucked language into the 2013–15 state budget granting immunity to lead manufacturers from lead paint poisoning lawsuits. Staff members for three Republicans on that committee who were recalled in 2011 didn’t immediately respond to email messages inquiring about whether the immunity was in return for the Club for Growth donations.
Walker and the state’s majority Republican legislators also used the state budget to loosen the regulation of lead paint. In addition to the producers of lead paint, the real estate and construction industries strongly oppose any regulation on lead, despite its potential deadliness. Like NL Industries, construction and real-estate companies are major donors to Walker and Wisconsin Republicans.
On July 23, 2015, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign issued a press statement shedding light on the great length that Walker and the GOP went to protect manufacturers of lead paint. A last-minute budget amendment by GOP legislators changed the legal definition of lead paint “to increase the amount of lead that must be in liquid or dry paint before state regulations kick in,” according to WDC.
The amendment also prevented state administrative rules from being updated to reflect any future statutory definition of lead paint that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might enact to protect public health.
Lead paint is toxic. It can cause a range of health problems, especially in young children, when it’s absorbed into the body. It causes damage to the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood. Lead may also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and even death.
Corrosion of lead pipes damages water supplies. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently urged everyone living in a home built before 1951 — about 700,000 city residences — to get a filter capable of removing the toxin from water.
The documents leaked by The Guardian also showed that Walker and his fundraisers solicited money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth from hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen, who gave the club $1 million; Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and hedge-fund manager and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Chairman Paul Singer, who gave $250,000.
Such donations are legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said restrictions on corporations’ political spending were unconstitutional.
Prosecutors had alleged Walker and his fundraising team asked potential contributors to donate to Wisconsin Club for Growth and other groups so they could run ads supporting him in the recalls. But the right-wing majority on the state’s high court said Walker had done nothing illegal, because coordination between candidates and outside groups on so-called issue advertising — ads that don’t expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat — is permissible.
The justices, however, did not say that campaigns and outside groups could coordinate fundraising activities. Prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them re-start the investigation, and justices will consider that request on Sept. 26.
Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness issued a statement Wednesday calling the investigation “baseless.”
Club For Growth attorney David Rivkin said in an email that prosecutors made up crimes that don’t exist and called their appeal “legally frivolous and just another publicity stunt intended to tarnish their targets’ reputations and salvage their own.”
Previously released documents show iron mining company Gogebic Taconite gave the club $700,000. Walker later signed a bill easing regulations to help clear the path for the company’s mine near Lake Superior. The company ultimately gave up plans for the mine, however.
Minority Democrats said during a news conference that the documents raise more questions about what other legislation Republicans may have passed in exchange for donations to outside groups.
‘It appears we have more payback than policy,” Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire said.
Spokeswomen for Republican Senate and Assembly leaders didn’t immediately respond to email messages.
Two state regulators and a Flint employee were charged this week with evidence tampering and several other felony and misdemeanor counts related to the Michigan city’s lead-tainted water crisis.
The charges — the first levied in a probe that is expected to broaden — were filed against a pair of state Department of Environmental Quality officials and a local water treatment plant supervisor and stem from an investigation by the Michigan attorney general’s office.
Michael Prysby, a DEQ district engineer, and Stephen Busch, who is a supervisor with the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water, were both charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence and violations of water treatment and monitoring laws.
Flint utilities administrator Michael Glasgow was charged with tampering with evidence for changing lead water-testing results and willful neglect of duty as a public servant.
Busch is on paid leave after being suspended earlier. Prysby recently took another job in the agency. Glasgow testified at a legislative hearing that Prysby told him phosphate was not needed to prevent lead corrosion from pipes until after a year of testing.
For nearly 18 months after Flint’s water source was switched while the city was under state financial management, residents drank and bathed with improperly treated water that coursed through aging pipes and fixtures, releasing toxic lead. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder announced in October that the city would return from the Flint River to its earlier source of treated water, the Detroit municipal system. But by that time, dangerously high levels of the toxic metal had been detected in the blood of some residents, including children, for whom it can cause lower IQs and behavioral problems.
The city has been under a state of emergency for more than four months, and people there are using filters and bottled water.
In January, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette opened an investigation and appointed a special counsel to lead the probe because his office also is defending Snyder and others in lawsuits filed over the water crisis. The state investigation team has more than 20 outside attorneys and investigators and a budget of $1.5 million.
Schuette, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, special counsel Todd Flood and other investigators scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon in Flint to make a “significant” announcement, according to an advisory distributed to the media. A spokesman for Schuette’s office declined comment Tuesday night.
In addition to the lead contamination, outside experts also have suggested a link between the Flint River and a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. There were at least 91 cases, including 12 deaths, across Genesee County, which contains Flint, during a 17-month period. That represents a five-fold increase over what the county averaged before.
The failure to deploy lead corrosion controls after the city’s switch to the Flint River is considered a catastrophic mistake. The DEQ has acknowledged misreading federal regulations and wrongly telling the city that the chemicals were not needed.
State officials were slow to respond to experts’ and residents’ concerns. After the crisis broke open, DEQ Director Dan Wyant and the department’s communications director Brad Wurfel resigned. Snyder announced the firing of Liane Shekter Smith, the former chief of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.
Susan Hedman, the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chicago-based Midwest office, also resigned.
Some inmates, staff and visitors at two Wisconsin prisons say the water there is unsafe to use because of lead and copper contamination.
At Fox Lake Correctional Institution, about a dozen inmates told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that the water at the 56-year-old prison is routinely yellow or brown with dark sediment and an unpleasant flavor.
At Waupun Correctional Institution, one longtime officer said he and other staff were not aware of high lead levels in the prison’s water in 2014, although officials insist legally required notifications were made that year when the facility violated the federal lead rule.
Prisoner advocate Peg Swan said she has been hearing from Waupun inmates for about a year about high lead levels in the water at the 150-year-old prison.
Fox Lake has been working to meet terms of a 2014 consent order from the state Department of Natural Resources to lower levels of lead and copper in its water, which have been detected on and off for at least seven years.
Lead and copper contamination is caused by corrosion from aging plumbing.
Spokespeople for the state Department of Corrections said the agency has employed several strategies, including closing one well and fixing three others at Fox Lake. Fox Lake will soon begin water treatment to prevent corrosion and regular monitoring for metals, said Jeff Grothman, the DOC’s legislative affairs director.
At Waupun, water treatment also is being used. Compliance testing at Fox Lake Correctional is scheduled to begin this month.
Fox Lake also has excessive levels of naturally occurring manganese, a metal that is not considered dangerous to adults except in high doses, but it can turn water brown and give it a bad taste and smell.
The prisons have not supplied either staff or inmates with an alternative water source, although inmates are allowed to purchase bottled water and staff can bring in water. Officials said both prison water systems now meet federal drinking water standards.
However, those standards do not always protect public health when lead or copper is present in a water system.
Water troubles at Fox Lake
Since 2008, 18 water samples at Fox Lake have exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 1.3 milligrams per liter for copper and six samples exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, according to the DNR database.
Although they insist the water is now safe, Fox Lake officials have told inmates, staff and visitors about the high lead and copper levels and advised them to run the water for 15 to 30 seconds before using it for drinking or cooking, or when a faucet has been unused for more than six hours. The state DNR recommends running the water for two to three minutes under those conditions.
Several Fox Lake inmates and the family of an inmate said the water remains yellow or brown even after prolonged flushing.
Beverly Walker, whose husband, Baron, is serving time at Fox Lake, told a Madison gathering organized by the faith-based advocacy group Wisdom in February that she has heard “horror stories” from inmates about the water.
“Recently I was informed by my husband that the water was so dirty, they couldn’t wash dishes so they were giving the inmates paper plates to eat their food off of,” said Walker, of Milwaukee.
One of the 13 inmates who wrote to the center about water problems said he buys cases of 24 16-ounce bottles of water for $7.60 from the prison canteen — the only alternative water source. Similar cases of water can be purchased for roughly half that amount at Woodman’s Markets.
Inmates who cannot afford bottled water, Walker told the group, “would fill cups up and it would be dirty, dingy and metal pieces floating in the water. Now this is after they have let the water run for about an hour.”
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab said she could not confirm the story about the paper plates. A DNR spokesman, George Althoff, could not identify the sediment but said whatever it is would show up in water tests.
Inmate lawsuit alleges harm
Inmate Ryan Rozak insists the water at Fox Lake Correctional is making him sick. He is suing corrections officials in federal court, claiming they are violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Rozak blames the drinking water at the prison for diarrhea and other health problems. The water, he said, “messes up my body, bones, mind.”
Rozak recently got two court-appointed lawyers to represent him in his 2015 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, with Judge James D. Peterson noting the case presented “complex scientific public health issues.”
High levels of copper in drinking water have been linked in adults to nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Exposure to very high levels can cause kidney and liver damage.
Another Fox Lake inmate told the center in a letter that he is concerned about using the prison’s water for cooking. Heating water can concentrate the harmful effects of lead, which in adults can include lowered immunity, kidney failure, gout, high blood pressure and nerve damage.
“Many times we need to let all the faucets run for hours trying to clear the water from brown to clear,” according to the inmate, who said he works in Fox Lake’s kitchen. “I worry about the pasta and rice we cook, as this must be cooked in our dirty water.”
Other Fox Lake inmates reported skin rashes, which they blame on water from the prison. Residents of Flint, Michigan, also reported skin rashes after that city switched to a highly corrosive water source that sent spikes of lead from pipes and fixtures into residents’ drinking water. Michigan officials are studying whether the rashes and water problems are linked.
Lead, copper in water at Waupun
Drinking water samples from Waupun Correctional have exceeded the federal standard 10 times for lead and four times for copper since 2008, according to the DNR drinking water quality database.
Utilities — including the Fox Lake and Waupun prisons, which operate their own water systems — can have up to 10 percent of water samples test above maximum levels without violating the federal Lead and Copper Rule.
Althoff said the “vast majority” of the 140 water samples taken since 2008 at Waupun have tested below the federal limits. The prison hit the 10 percent threshold in 2014, he said.
That year, Waupun was required to notify water consumers of the high lead levels, and the DOC provided a notice that it said was posted at the prison for inmates and emailed to staff in November 2014. The prison added phosphate to the water to prevent corrosion.
Brian Cunningham, who has worked as a correctional officer at Waupun for 22 years, said he has no recollection of being notified of excessive lead levels in 2014.
In September, high concentrations were again detected at Waupun, including one sample that registered at 120 ppb — eight times the federal limit. Despite the high value, Althoff said the prison remains in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.
Cunningham, president of the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, said the prison did notify staff of the high lead level last fall. He added that “inmates have complained about the taste and the color of Waupun water since I’ve started working there.”
Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Gilman Halsted contributed to this report. Failure at the Faucet is the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing investigation of risks to Wisconsin’s drinking water. The nonprofit center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
How did an American city’s water end up being poisoned with lead?
This month’s hearing in Congress about the crisis in Flint, Michigan, shed more heat than light on the decisions that poisoned the water more than 100,000 residents rely on to drink and bathe, including nearly 30,000 children and teens. Democrats focused their ire on Gov. Rick Snyder, while Republicans predictably tried to deflect blame onto the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their long-standing campaign to eliminate the agency responsible for regulating polluters.
But two Members of Congress honed in on the real culprit in the debacle: Snyder’s “emergency manager” law that stripped Flint of any local democratic control and put its fate in the hands of unaccountable executives hand-picked by Snyder.
“Did that emergency management system fail under your leadership in this matter?” asked Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., demanding a yes or no response from Snyder.
“That would be a fair conclusion,” Snyder eventually conceded.
“This is a failure of a philosophy of governance you advocated,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “A city in America … is on its knees because of your emergency manager’s decision to save $4 million. And now it’s going to cost a lot more to clean up.”
Is this really happening in the world’s leading republic?
Funding the war on local democracy
Snyder’s controversial emergency manager law is a cornerstone of the right wing’s war on labor and local democracy in Michigan, which has been orchestrated by a network of “think tanks” and committees backed by the billionaire DeVos family, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Kochs and other right wing politicos.
Thanks to record spending by outside groups in 2010 and $6 million of Snyder’s own fortune, the Republican Party in Michigan joined 11 other states in capturing the governor’s mansion from the Democrats and flipped the Michigan House, giving the party a lock on political power for the first time since 2002.
The Republican Governors Association Michigan 2010 PAC dominated the playing field to become the “largest political action committee in the history of Michigan politics,” according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Through an elaborate shell game, 98 percent of the $8.4 million raised and spent by the RGA MI 2010 PAC came from outside Michigan, while Michigan donors gave the national Republican Governors Association (RGA) $8.6 million, including $5.4 million from the state Chamber of Commerce.
The RGA MI 2010 PAC then contributed $5.3 million to the state Republican Party, and sent off $3 million to back Rick Perry’s bid for a third term as governor of Texas, while the national RGA spent $3.6 million on sham issue ads attacking Snyder’s Democratic opponent. Still with me?
All in all, the RGA raised and redistributed $114 million to PACs in at least 15 states, helping to elect a slate of right-wing governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who moved quickly to attack public sector unions.
Right-wing billionaires and their corporations played a big role in raising all that money. Records on Open Secrets show that the DeVos family, Amway, and its parent company, Alticor, pumped $1.9 million into the RGA’s 2010 political operation.
David Koch personally gave $1 million, while his brother William chipped in $100,000 and Koch Industries another $50,000. The Kochs have since become RGA’s #1 source of cash, bankrolling the RGA to the tune of $5.3 million during the 2014 election cycle.
Paul Singer also ponied up $1.4 million. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave a million that year, and News America, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. that owns the pro-Republican outlet Fox News, sprung another $1.3 million.
DeVos dynasty targets Michigan
Although Snyder — a business executive and venture capitalist — campaigned as a moderate Republican who promised to run the state like a business and create jobs, the deep pockets driving the Republican surge had more ambitious ideas.
Their goals: break the unions, scrap public sector labor contracts, and privatize government services.
Dick DeVos, son of billionaire businessman and Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, took a first crack at this agenda when he spent $35 million of the family fortune to run for governor in 2006. He lost badly, but he didn’t let up.
In 2009, DeVos helped his close ally, Ron Weiser, get elected as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, where he was able to coordinate the party’s 2010 landslide victory. By 2014, political observers were calling the DeVos family Michigan’s “most potent interest group,” and their spending on in-state candidates and political committees had increased to $4.9 million.
After Snyder’s election, DeVos-backed groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy were poised to help move his legislative agenda forward.
Launched in 1987, the Mackinac Center is one of the nation’s largest state-based, right-wing pressure groups promoting “free market,” pro-business policies. It is an active member of the State Policy Network (SPN) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two important cogs in the Koch machine.
Mackinac has long been one of the key groups leading the Michigan charge for the big ticket items on DeVos’ right-wing wish list, including breaking the back of organized labor.
Ronald Reagan may have once said, “(W)here free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost,” but that’s just crazy-liberal talk as far as the Mackinac Center is concerned.
As a Mackinac staffer told a state legislator in 2011: “Our goal is (to) outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan.”
Mackinac’s activities have been fueled by DeVos as well as money from the Koch network of billionaires. Between 2010 and 2012, the Mackinac Center received $1.5 million from the DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, preferred investment vehicles of the Koch donor network, and four DeVos foundations kicked in another $560,000 between 1998 and 2011.
However, those totals public do not reveal how much billionaire cash Mackinac has received through checks from personal trust accounts or from corporations, which are not publicly reported.
Mackinac at the root of sweeping emergency manager powers
Once sworn in, Snyder wasted no time in making one of the most audacious power grabs in the country.
On March 16, 2011, while thousands protested outside, he signed Public Act 4 into law, giving him the ability to take near-total control over financially struggling municipalities through appointed “emergency managers.”
Few could have been more pleased than the DeVos family and their confederates at the Mackinac Center.
The provision for emergency financial managers dates back to a 1988 Michigan law, but those managers wielded limited power.
Mackinac’s Louis Schimmel called for loosening limits and expanding managers’ powers as early as 2005, and the group reprinted his article in January 2011. They argued that: “The state’s policy prescription for fiscally floundering cities should be to appoint far more powerful emergency financial managers than they have in the past.”
Mackinac pressed for sweeping authority for emergency managers to assume the powers of elected city councils and mayors, break union contracts, and revise municipal charters, while getting legal immunity from any liability for the results of their actions.
Snyder’s emergency manager law included all four of those changes, and the Mackinac bunch patted themselves on the back while singing the law’s praises.
Concerned citizens and critics, however, denounced it as “financial martial law.”
Other cities around the country have had emergency managers, including New York City in the 1970s, but their powers were limited to financial matters.
The Snyder-Mackinac approach to the law was dramatically, exponentially different. It gave unelected and unaccountable managers chosen by the governor near total control over all city decisions — including things like where a city gets its water.
Snyder’s first emergency “tyrant”? A Mackinac guy
Snyder chose the architect of the expanded emergency powers — Mackinac’s Louis Schimmel — to be the first person he appointed as an emergency manager, installing him as the potentate for Pontiac, Schimmel’s home town.
Within months, Schimmel had fired key city officials and privatized the entire public works department. The Pontiac City Council still held their weekly meetings, packed with angry citizens, but they had no authority to make any decisions.
When asked by a local radio station if the emergency manager law made him a dictator, Schimmel replied: “I guess I’m the tyrant in Pontiac then, if that’s the way it is.”
Schimmel didn’t get any argument from state court judge Rae Lee Chabot, who reversed the manager’s action to cut Pontiac’s pension board in half, a decision that ignored the legal requirements of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
“[I]t looks like a dictatorship,” Chabot said.
State-controlled Pontiac outsources water to indicted corporation
Shortly before Schimmel took control of Pontiac using the law he helped create, his predecessor as emergency manager of Pontiac, Michael Stampfler, flexed his muscles under Snyder’s new law and outsourced the city’s water treatment to United Water Services.
Watchdog Chris Savage broke the story on Eclectablog.
“This is big news,” he wrote, because the giant for-profit water company had just been indicted by a federal grand jury in 2010 on 26 felony counts of conspiracy and Clean Water Act violations for its mishandling of water services in Gary, Indiana. (The company’s workers have since been acquitted of criminal charges in the Gary case, but United Water paid $645,000 in civil fines under a consent agreement in 2014.)
Schimmel completed the outsourcing process in November 2011 by firing key public works employees and turning full control over to United Water.
Before long, consumer complaints over water quality, outages, and sewer backups started piling up. It took nearly three years before Oakland County, where Pontiac is situated, announced that it was taking over operations.
All the warning signs were there for Flint.
Savage summed up the problem well:
“Emergency Financial Managers are generally good at what they do. They are typically trained as accountants and business optimizers. They know how to trim and cut and lean out organizations to squeeze every last drop of profits out of them. Unfortunately for the residents of Michigan, things like parks, public safety and the protection of natural resources don’t produce profits and generally are presented as ‘costs’…When we begin to put a price tag on the very things that make our cities, society and state good, safe, livable and lovable, while putting CPA-like EFMs in charge, you can expect that these things will suffer in order to save money, even if it puts our citizens at risk.”
Democracy? What democracy?
Citizens and public employees in Michigan were not having it.
Following extensive protests, opponents sprang into action and quickly gathered more than 200,000 signatures to qualify a voter initiative, Proposal 1, for the November 2012 ballot to repeal Snyder’s expanded emergency manager law.
Stand Up for Democracy, the ballot committee backing Proposal 1, received 91 percent of its funding from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Michigan Council 25, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Opposition to Proposal 1 was led by Bob LaBrant, Senior Counsel at the Sterling Corporation, a leading Republican PR firm, and the former director of political and legal campaigns at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for 34 years. LaBrant’s ballot committee, called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, focused its strategy on a court fight to bump Proposal 1 off the ballot. That effort ultimately failed, and the group spent little on campaigning against the measure.
On November 6, 2012, 53 percent of Michigan’s voters cast ballots to repeal Snyder’s emergency manager law. But that didn’t stop Governor Snyder and his backers.
Barely one month later, Snyder pushed a slightly revised bill through the lame duck legislature and restored the sweeping powers of his emergency managers.
Only this time, he added an appropriation which, under Michigan law, prevents it from being subject to referendum. Check and mate.
Kevyn Orr, who later became emergency manager for Detroit, sent an email to the Detroit Free Press saying, “Michigan’s EM law is a clear end-around the prior initiative that was rejected by the voters in November. …[A]though the new law provides the thin veneer of a revision it is essentially a redo of the prior rejected law.”
The new law did contain what critics call a “choose your poison” provision, allowing municipalities to choose between an emergency manager, bankruptcy, arbitration, or a consent agreement.
Not on the table for cash-strapped cities reeling from the collapse of the auto industry and the impact of free trade agreements: any state largesse like the 86 percent corporate income tax cut that Snyder handed Michigan businesses in 2011, worth an estimated $1.7 billion per year.
The resurrection of Snyder’s emergency manager law wasn’t even the most dramatic thing to happen in the 2012 lame duck session.
According to Mother Jones, DeVos and his close allies — who led a $23.2 million campaign to defeat another voter initiative, Proposal 2, aimed at enshrining collective bargaining in the state constitution — had devised a plan to ram through “right-to-work” legislation before anyone knew what hit them.
They pitched the plan to legislative leaders and a Snyder aide on Nov. 20, and by early December unleashed an ad campaign using a new group, the Michigan Freedom Fund, closely tied to Dick DeVos.
Snyder surprised the public by calling the measure to a vote on December 6, and five days later the birthplace of modern industrial unions became a “right-to-work” state.
The following May, at the State Policy Network’s annual meeting in Oklahoma City, Dick DeVos and the Mackinac Center were recognized for their leadership in the legislative fight to win passage of the “right-to-work” law in Michigan. As reported by PR Watch, Dick’s wife Betsy DeVos personally presented SPN’s highest award to Mackinac’s president, Joseph Lehman.
Mackinac’s blog noted that it had been pushing for “right-to-work” since 1990 and had posted more than 500 “articles, blog posts, special essays and news [clips] generated by Mackinac Center analysts” backing the legislation.
The victory didn’t come cheap.
The big players of Michigan’s right wing had spent millions to defeat Proposal 2, an attempt to protect union rights in the state.
That funding included $9.2 million from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, $5.5 million from the Michigan Alliance for Business Growth, $2 million from the DeVos family, and $2 million from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
The Michigan Freedom Fund spent another $1 million on the post-election ad campaign leading up to legislature’s adoption of the “right-to-work” law.
The Mackinac Center had an annual budget of $4.4 million as of 2012. Aside from checks to groups that do not disclose their major donors, the DeVos family spent more than $44 million in publicly reported funding on the Republican Party, party committees, and candidates in Michigan between 1997 and 2013.
Expanded emergency management comes to Flint
Plagued by the loss of 90 percent of its industrial workforce, disinvestment, and depopulation, Flint was facing a severe financial crisis by the time Gov. Snyder took office.
Since then, Snyder has appointed four emergency managers to seize control of the city’s assets and run Flint’s local affairs.
Flint voters elected a new mayor on November 8, 2011, but a state review panel declared a “local government financial emergency” the same day, and Snyder had installed his first emergency manager, Michael Brown, by December 1.
The next day, Brown dismissed more than half a dozen key city administrators and Flint’s elected officials had their pay and benefits removed.
In January 2012, angry Flint residents joined a protest near Gov, Snyder’s home. AFSCME filed suit and managed to get a restraining order on Brown, but Brown was back by April in time to unveil his budget, which included cuts in nearly every department and a tax hike.
Jack McHugh at Mackinac claimed in a March 2012 column that municipal budget problems were a “cancerous fiscal malpractice,” and he argued that Snyder’s emergency manager expansion provided the “rigorous ‘chemotherapy'” needed “to sustain the necessary functions of tapped-out school districts and local governments.”
In Flint’s case, the cure turned out to be worse than the disease.
Frustrated with expensive water service from Detroit and frequent rate increases, Flint and surrounding Genesee County had joined nearby cities in 2010 to form the new Karegnondi Water Authority. The plan was to obtain water directly from Lake Huron once a new pipeline was complete. (That is now projected to be June 2016.)
The Flint City Council voted for the new water source in March 2013, albeit symbolically as it had no power, and the emergency manager and state treasurer approved a plan to switch water supplies a few weeks later.
That’s when the trouble started.
“Flint residents can taste history”
In April 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) notified Flint that its contract would be up in a year and offered to negotiate a short-term contract while the city waited for the new pipeline.
However, Flint’s second emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, hired a private engineering firm to develop a plan to switch to the polluted Flint River for the interim period instead, in order to save money.
Come March 2014, Darnell Earley, now Snyder’s third emergency manager for Flint, wrote to DWSD that “there will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014,” despite DWSD’s renewed offers. Why Earley couldn’t work out an agreement with DWSD remains a mystery, as Detroit was also under the complete control of another emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.
Governor Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave its blessing to the change on April 9. The changeover was expected to save Flint $5 million over two years.
On April 25, 2014, Flint officially made the fateful switch to the Flint River for its water in a ceremony attended by local and state officials. “This is indeed the best choice for the city of Flint going forward,” Emergency Manager Earley said.
“It will take two days before Flint residents can taste history,” reported the press, M-Live.com.
Flint’s otherwise powerless mayor pressed the button to switch the water feed, and officials raised glasses of treated water in a toast.
Unfortunately, Flint residents tasted history pretty quickly.
Complaints started flooding in about the water’s taste, smell, and color by June, and people said it was making them sick. Residents endured two “boil” advisories due to high coliform bacteria levels and faced unsafe levels of a carcinogenic chlorine byproduct before the University of Michigan-Flint was the first to find high lead levels in its water on January 9, 2015.
Flint’s City Council voted to return to Detroit water in March 2015, but Emergency Manager Earley said no. In fact, a $7 million emergency loan from Governor Snyder’s state government in April 2015 was conditioned on Flint not rejoining the DTWS.
Even as the findings of lead contamination piled up over the ensuing months, the state insisted there was no problem.
The Rachel Maddow Show and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now were the only two major national television news outlets to sound the alarm and persistently cover the disaster unfolding in Flint, while Snyder and others said there was no story, no crisis to tell—despite the pleas from Flint residents.
It took more than nine months after the state university found high lead in the water before Gov. Snyder finally conceded, on September 30, 2015, that “mistakes were made.”
The next day, Genesee County declared a public health emergency for Flint.
Emails since released by the governor’s office show that “nearly every person in the governor’s inner circle was aware of alarming concerns about the city’s water” as early as October 2014. And a task force appointed by Snyder found that individuals and scientists who sounded the alarm about Flint’s water were met with “aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit [their] efforts.”
A week later, Governor Snyder announced that Flint would switch back to Detroit water at a cost of $12 million. But by then the damage was done.
The children of Flint face permanent damage.
And, after a closed-door meeting with Snyder, Flint’s mayor said that the cost of replacing pipes corroded by Flint River water could reach $1.5 billion.
Snyder’s role in the Flint scandal led native son Michael Moore to call for his arrest, and the Board of State Canvassers has approved two petitions to put a voter recall of Snyder on the ballot.
Poisoned by hubris
Flint’s water disaster serves as an urgent warning of the dangers communities face when they lose their democracy.
Flint’s City Council never voted to use the Flint River while it waited for the Karegnondi pipeline to be completed. That decision was made by Snyder’s hand-picked managers with the power to override all elected officials, local contracts, and even the city’s charter, with no way for local citizens to hold them accountable.
Howard Croft, former director of Flint’s public works, told the ACLU of Michigan that the decision to use the Flint River “went up through the state … all the way to the governor’s office.”
The decision to use Flint River, in turn, was signed off on by Snyder’s pick for director of the DEQ, Dan Wyant, who had helped business owners grow their companies and had managed the Department of Agriculture, but who had zero environmental experience.
Wyant resigned in December 2015 after a state task force blamed DEQ for failing to ensure that Flint residents had safe drinking water.
What happened to the other communities in the same position as Flint but living under actual local democracies?
Flint Township and Genesee County are also leaving Detroit water for the new Karegnondi pipeline, but they negotiated interim contracts with the DTWS and kept clean water for their residents.
Only the powerless residents of Flint were poisoned.
The racial implications of Snyder’s emergency manager law and the Flint scandal are hard to overlook.
While Snyder’s law is neutral on its face, it has had a dramatically disparate impact on blacks.
By 2013, half of Michigan’s black population had been placed under emergency managers or consent agreements, and no longer had any meaningful right to vote or redress their grievances at the local level.
Only 2 percent of white Michigan residents were subjected to rule by emergency managers.
Flint has a majority black population, while the rest of Genesee County is majority white and considerably wealthier.
When the mostly white communities of Handy Township and Livingston County experienced a financial crisis, their Republican state representatives went to bat for them and fought for a state bailout. State Rep. Cindy Denby (who is white) was quoted as saying the emergency manager law was “not intended for places like Livingston County.”
One of the top black elected officials in the state, U.S. Congressman John Conyers, asked the Justice Department to review the emergency manager law for violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
A coalition of civil rights groups also filed a federal lawsuit, Phillips v. Snyder, arguing that the law violates multiple state and federal constitutional rights.
In December 2014, U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh ruled that part of the case can move forward on the grounds that the emergency manager law disproportionately impacts African Americans, saying that the law gives “enormous discretion to state decision makers and creates a significant potential for discriminatory decisions.” The plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the 6th Circuit challenging the judge’s decision to dismiss the rest of their constitutional claims.
It’s not just Flint
The same emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who mishandled Flint’s water situation went on to become Snyder’s pick as emergency manager for Detroit’s school system in January 2015. The results have been pretty comparable.
Darnell’s tenure has been marked by widespread news reports of deteriorating and unhealthy conditions in the schools, including leaking roofs, mold, broken windows, and bullet holes in classroom walls. Detroit teacher protested those conditions with a series of “sickouts” in January 2016.
After earning a $221,000 salary for his appointment to oversee Detroit’s schools, Earley resigned his Detroit position under fire in February. But he walked away with an $83,000 consulting contract and signed an agreement holding the Snyder Administration harmless from any claims relating to his actions as emergency manager. One school board member called it “hush money.”
Critics point out that, after 16 years of state control, the Detroit school system is in much worse shape now than it was before, with a significantly larger deficit.
That’s interesting, given that when an earlier emergency manager for the school system, Roy Roberts, resigned in 2013, he said his initial instructions were to “blow up the district and dismantle it,” but that he spent the first few months on the job convincing state officials it was worth saving.
The International Business Times recently reported that the Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating Snyder administration officials for alleged corruption—receiving bribes from contractors—in the Education Achievement Authority and Detroit Public Schools agencies created by Snyder.
Even some early supporters of Snyder’s law have had a change of heart.
Former emergency financial manager Michael Stampfler, the guy who outsourced Pontiac’s water, eventually concluded that Snyder’s expanded emergency manager (EM) law doesn’t work:
“I do not believe EMs can be successful—they abrogate the civic structure of the community for a period of years then return it virtually dismantled for the community to attempt to somehow make a go of it. The program provides no structure for long term recovery, and that is why most communities slide back into trouble, if they experience any relief at all—a vicious cycle. The Public Act is not sufficient and the state bureaucracy isn’t up to a performance offering any significant success—as can be noted from the communities repeating.”
Snyder’s law is not just anti-democratic, it is producing poor results.
Michigan residents were promised increased efficiency from “running government like a business” and an end to corruption. The emergency manager law has failed on both counts.
“We still have incredibly bad decisions being made,” says Chris Savage, one of Snyder’s most vocal critics. “[A]nd we very clearly still have corruption and criminal activity going on.”
“The emergency manager law is just one in a long line of failed government experiments imposed on the people of Michigan,” said Senator David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights). “Cities and schools are left in worse shape than they were before the emergency managers came to town, and now taxpayers are left footing the bill for Earley’s payout. For shame.”
Mackinac remains unapologetic
The Flint debacle and troubles in Detroit and Pontiac haven’t fazed anyone back at the Mackinac Center, the special interest pressure group that scripted Snyder’s emergency manager law.
Despite its deep involvement in pushing for “enhanced” powers for managers, Mackinac has declined to admit even the possibility that the policies it pushed for played any role in the Flint water crisis.
Without a hint of irony, Mackinac’s Michigan Capitol Confidential recently posted an article lauding the ACLU and Michigan Radio for their work exposing how Michigan state officials attempted to ignore or cover up Flint’s water crisis, folding Flint’s problems into Mackinac’s constant narrative of supposed government incompetence and corruption.
But perhaps worst of all, Mackinac’s spin could be seen as discouraging people from looking at the root causes of the Flint crisis. “Which Is Better: Finding Fault or Providing Help?,” asked communications director Dan Armstrong in a December blog post, as if the two were mutually incompatible. Armstrong’s article didn’t even mention emergency managers.
Snyder to local democracy: drop dead
Snyder’s emergency manager law stands as a testament the corporate right’s disrespect for local democracy, both in terms of how it strips away all local democratic powers of self governance, and because the voters of Michigan went to the polls and voted it down, only to have Snyder bring it right back. It embodies the idea that a state “CEO” knows better than the people what works best for their communities.
A task force appointed by Snyder released its report on March 23, 2016, concluding that the emergency manager law contributed to the Flint crisis by removing the checks and balances at the heart of American democracy, and calling for a review of the law and a search for alternatives.
But the emergency manager law wasn’t the right’s last shot at local democracy in Michigan. In June 2015, Snyder signed into law legislation barring municipalities from passing ordinances to improve the lives of workers by raising the minimum wage or requiring family leave.
Such “preemption” laws are an increasingly popular tool being promoted by ALEC and other Koch-funded organizations, and something the Mackinac Center had lobbied for as far back as 2003.
In January 2016, Snyder signed another bill into law prohibiting local governments from providing voters with factual information about ballot measures, including local tax increases. Republican legislators had crammed that (and many other) provisions into a non-controversial campaign finance measure without notice or public hearing, and sent it to Snyder’s desk.
DeVos’ Michigan Freedom Fund praised Snyder for signing the bill.
Gov. Snyder may have conceded to Congress that his dictatorial emergency manager law failed the people of Flint, but he continues to push a right-wing “philosophy of governance,” as Rep. Connolly put it, that is profoundly undemocratic.
Snyder says he wants to run government like a business, but a corporation is not a democracy and, at this rate, Michigan may not be one much longer either.
— CMD’s Jessica Mason, Sari Williams, and Lisa Graves contributed to this article.
A lawsuit stemming from lead-contaminated water in Flint was filed this week on behalf of the city’s residents against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as well as other current and former government officials and corporations.
The federal lawsuit — which is seeking class-action status — alleges that tens of thousands of residents have suffered physical and economic injuries and damages. It argues officials failed to take action over “dangerous levels of lead” in drinking water and “downplayed the severity of the contamination” in the financially struggling city.
Governor responds to Flint suit
Snyder’s spokesman Ari Adler said the administration doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but is “staying focused on solutions for the people of Flint.”
Numerous lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Flint residents since a public health emergency was declared last year. The latest lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages, was filed on behalf of seven residents.
A second recall petition filed by a Flint activist and naming Snyder while referencing the water crisis was approved by the Board of State Canvassers, the Detroit Free Press reported.
An earlier Snyder recall petition by a Detroit pastor over the water crisis was approved last month.
Flint, with a population of about 100,000, had switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as a way to save money until a new pipeline to Lake Huron was ready. But during those 18 months, the corrosive water leached lead from the city’s old plumbing because certain treatments weren’t added to the water.
Snyder, whose administration repeatedly downplayed the lead threat, now calls it a “disaster.”
A report by the state auditor general released Friday found that state environmental regulators made crucial errors as Flint began using the new drinking water source that would become contaminated with lead. It says staffers in the Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water office failed to order the city to treat its water with anti-corrosion chemicals as it switched to the river in April 2014, but also said the rules they failed to heed may not be strong enough to protect the public.
The report came as crews in the city started to dig up old pipes connecting water mains to homes.
No level of lead in the human body is considered safe, especially in children. The river water also may have been a source of Legionnaires’ disease, which killed at least nine people in the region.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced Sunday that Union Labor Life Insurance Co. committed to bring $25 million in low-cost loans to help remove lead pipes and improve water quality. She said the loans will help her Fast Start initiative that’s designed to replace all lead service lines in the city.
Two Democratic lawmakers from Madison and Milwaukee are proposing a bill that would require the state to conduct tap water testing when a child is lead poisoned. The measure also would lower the level at which the state would be required to investigate the source of lead in a child’s blood.
Current law requires the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to investigate paint, dust and soil as sources of lead and then only when the blood lead level of a child is 15 or 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher, depending on the testing method, according to the bill draft.
Madison Rep. Chris Taylor and Milwaukee Rep. LaTonya Johnson began circulating a draft of the bill Friday. It would lower the level requiring an investigation to 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, which is the definition of lead poisoning used by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, nearly 4,000 Wisconsin children registered at those levels.
The measure also calls for an additional $500,000 for lead investigations. One hurdle to passage could be the $20 million limit that Gov. Scott Walker has proposed on additional spending this session.
The public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, has demonstrated the dangers of lead-tainted drinking water. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage, including lowered intelligence and criminality in adulthood. A study of Milwaukee schoolchildren tied behavior problems in school to high blood lead levels.
“These levels are in rural, suburban, urban. They’re in Republican communities. They’re in Democratic communities,” Taylor said. “We really need to address this issue all over the state.”
Taylor said her proposal comes in response to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Failure at the Faucet series, which found that tap water is rarely investigated as a source of lead poisoning despite the well-known risks of drinking water from plumbing containing lead. The lawmaker said she discovered that Wisconsin’s approach was out of date with federal CDC standards.
“We require three times the poisoning of children before there’s a requirement that the environment be looked at by DHS,” she said. “That’s just way too high. That’s serious, serious lead contamination.
“What our bill does is to try to get it (standard) updated, it but it also says you have to test for lead in the paint and the water.”
Taylor said she is not sure how many investigations are currently conducted by DHS, and agency spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley was out of the office Friday afternoon.
The Center also found that Wisconsin has at least 176,000 lead service lines leading to homes and buildings. In addition, many older homes have internal plumbing containing lead, including faucets, solder and pipe connections.
Milwaukee has about 70,000 lead service lines. Nearly 2,200 children in Milwaukee — or 8.6 percent of those tested — had elevated blood lead levels in 2014, according to the most recent figures available. Statewide, the percentage was 4.5 percent. Madison is thought to be the first major city in the nation to replace all of its lead service lines with copper.
The crisis in Flint was sparked in part by a doubling of the percentage of lead poisoned children to 4.9 percent of those tested, an increase tied to lead that leached from pipes after the city’s new water source was not treated with anti-corrosives.
Last month, Milwaukee informed state agencies that it planned to halt replacement of water mains in portions of that city because such work has been shown to dislodge lead from service lines, causing dangerous spikes in drinking water.
In a statement announcing circulation of the bill, Johnson said she had witnessed the devastation that lead can cause for children under the age of 6 whose developing brains are most susceptible.
“I ran a child care for some of Milwaukee’s poorest families for 10 years, and have seen firsthand the heartbreaking damage that lead wreaks upon a young child,” Johnson said. “Wisconsin needs to take Flint’s crisis as a wake-up call.”
She said unless the state steps in, children will be “poisoned and have their lives forever diminished.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.