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JUSTICE for the People of Flint

(Reprinted with permission from the DailyKos)

The people of Flint, Michigan have been forgotten. Only local activists and lawyers care about what is happening now.

Aware of their great needs, activists like JUSTICE state leader, Eboni Wiseman, helped organize Flint water relief volunteers to deliver a truck load of bottled water in May of this year to ailing residents of Flint, doing what they could to help. She knew then that the need was great and the country needed to know just what was happening to the people of Flint now.

JUSTICE stands for “Just Us Standing Together in Cities Everywhere.” It is a national network of community stakeholders organized to create thriving, safe, educated, and engaged communities, with the help of leaders like Eboni. The circumstances in Flint demanded the attention of JUSTICE, therefore lead Wiseman to alert the group’s national leaders. The effort her team was undertaking was becoming a state-wide call to action.

At that point, JUSTICE National President Jedidiah Brown rallied volunteers from around the country to respond in support of their Michigan chapter. He and other leaders began working to support the project during what would become a pivotal moment in the ongoing Flint Crisis story.

JUSTICE members from across the country planned further action with two objectives in mind: to raise awareness across the country that families in Flint are still in trouble, and to let those families and local activists know that they have not been forgotten. Their ambitious plan was to deliver another truckload of water with no funding and few resources on hand. They reached out to local advocates to lend support and used an abundance of enthusiasm to raise $7,500 from family, friends, and social media networks.

JUSTICE volunteers arrived in Flint just last week, on August 18, from Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois—even as far as California. Through their coordinated efforts, the people of Flint received not one, but three more truckloads of water, delivered to their doorstep whereas Nestlé, a multinational corporation, with billions of dollars at their disposal, donated less than half that amount per week over sixteen weeks which represents less than 1% of their annual $7.9 billion bottled water sales.  Residents across the state have been critical of the role Nestlé has played, as this year, the company was once again awarded the right to pump 400 gallons per minute of Michigan’s pristine aquifer for private sale. The company pays the state just $200  for an entire year while the people of Flint must now pay for their own bottled water.

RELATED: Water Crisis Timeline from CNN

The above permit was awarded to Nestlé by Evart city officials, in part, because Evart relies on revenue generated through municipal water sales to generate operational revenue. Much like Detroit and Flint, these sales are the life blood of local government, and Nestlé committed to purchasing a new 1,000-gpm deep groundwater well for the city. The company also employs 765 people across the state.

JUSTICE member Latora Green, who lives near the Nestlé plant in California, reached out to the company for contributions to the Flint community, only to be disappointed when the company declined, citing efforts they have already made on behalf of Flint.

In a public statement, Nestlé said, “We’ve helped keep over 10,000 public school students hydrated, pledging up to 1.5 million bottles of water. We contributed $20,000 at the beginning of 2018 to help the schools purchase bottled water and other products and services — including water testing and water filters — to help ensure their students continue to have access to safe, clean drinking water.”

When JUSTICE volunteers arrived, they connected with local activists like Ariana Hawk, a woman who lost her partner and children’s father to Legionaries Disease several years ago because of the contaminated water. The JUSTICE team deferred to her guidance and the direction of local members to coordinate effective action over three days. The two-part mission included curb-side delivery of water to elderly, disabled, and poor communities who struggled with picking up water from collection points, themselves. The second part of the mission was to join the community in holding elected and civic leaders accountable for gross negligence in managing the health risk.

Mismanagement and Deception

In April 2014, city managers decided to stop purchasing water from Detroit, to start using the Flint River as the primary source of water. Detroit water supplies are treated with a corrosion inhibitor to prevent lead from pipes from leaching into the water supply. The water used from the Flint River is not.  This distinction would come to light in the months that followed. It would also become clear that government officials were ignoring warnings in favor of saving money, including openly dismissing complaints and health claims before, during and after the switch was made.

In October 2015, the EPA petitioned the National Resources Defense Council for emergency action under the Safe Drinking Water Act to assist the city and residents with remediation. That petition was denied as the city had begun receiving water from Detroit through Great Lakes Water Authority in October 2015. By November of the same year, the EPA announced that it would begin testing the water for lead and copper, total coliform, nitrates in a study that would take several months to conclude.

Worsening Health Events

None of these actions would be enough to adequately protect Flint’s residents during multiple health risk events, including lead in the water, rashes and skin lesions appearing on people from across the community. Women continued to show up to community meetings with bags of their own hair they say fell out after bathing in Flint’s water while others reported an increase in uterine problems and an increase in hysterectomy procedures.

None of these issues were enough to make headlines by themselves, even as residents continued to get sicker. What followed became the third largest outbreak of Legionnaires Disease in U.S. history, with at least 87 people infected and another 12 who would die, as a result of contact with contaminated water.

It was not until February 2017 that the Center for Disease Control announced their findings definitively showing a link between the Legionaries Disease contamination and Flint municipal water. Among the activities that had contributed to the deadly outbreak was the Michigan Department of Heath’s assertion that bathing in Flint’s water was safe based on lead level testing. But it was not just lead in the water that threated residents. Only later would the full scope of the water crisis begin to be understood.

RELATED: (Link) Fetal deaths surged 60% and fertility rate dipped 12% during lead-infected water crisis

JUSTICE volunteers met Flint residents this past week, who displayed their scars and rash marks from attempting to use Flint’s municipal water, despite the EPA and state agency’s reporting that water supplies now meet the federal standards. Lead concentrations were not the only concerns for health risks. Families are still reporting skin rashes and lesions after using the water provided by the city.

The thought of drinking and bathing with Flint water still has many on edge. Latora Green recalled one such couple she met while distributing water, “I was able to record video of an older couple, and the husband showed me his back, and the damage, the reaction he had from using Flint water to shower.”

She paused and said. “Above all, the people we met were so grateful that we were there, that they had not been forgotten. They feel like everyone has moved on and forgotten them.”

The Financial Burden

Flint, like many Midwestern cities, has not recovered from losing General Motors jobs to cheaper labor in Mexico. The community struggled, as many residents fell into poverty, struggling to survive. Before the crisis became known, Flint residents were paying a high price for their water supply. Like those in Detroit, their monthly bills topped $75 or more, achieving the dubious distinction of having the highest rate in the entire country.

A grant from the United Way allows residents to apply for assistance in paying their water bills, but to qualify, the applicant must be below 150% of the Federal poverty level. At that rate, a single individual collecting disability or social security benefits of $1,200 per month would not qualify. The median income in Flint hovers around $39,000, an income which excludes a family of four from the grant program.

In 2016 Politico detailed the fear parents in Flint expressed, worried that having their water shut off would also mean losing custody of their children. This very real concern continues today, even as water safety remains a struggle and families must buy water or wait for hours at a food pantry that will distribute Nestlé water until Labor Day this year.

In May 2016, President Obama visited Flint to assure residents a full seven months after officials had begun to acknowledge a problem with Flint’s water, nearly two years after residents had reported concerns and filed complaints.

President Obama vowed, “I will not rest, and I’m going to make sure that the leaders at every level of government don’t rest until every drop of water that flows to your home is safe to drink and safe to cook with and safe to bathe in, because that’s part of the basic responsibilities of a government in the United States of America.”

At the same time, The Department of Health and Human Services announced a $10 million dollar grant for health services in Michigan, including $1 million for a health center in Flint that is treating those affected by the water. White House officials at the time said the federal government had already provided nine million liters of water and 55,000 water filters.

The plan for remediation included a change to polyvinyl chloride pipes, which is planned for completion by 2020. The work continues, but in April of this year, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ended the free bottled water program for the people of Flint. Residents must now pay for a high monthly water bill from the city and find the funds necessary to buy their own bottled water for bathing, cooking and drinking.

Just last week a city councilman proposed using $2 million of the $16 million collected from residents to continue providing bottled was for residents. That proposal was denied, citing EPA standards having already been met for lead concentration levels, and chlorine concentrations continuing to be monitored.

Advocate Jackie Filson had been watching the water studies in Flint closely as a member of Food and Water Watch. She issued a rebuttal to the EPA’s ‘all clear’ announcement on Flint’s water, following a study released by Virginia Tech College engineers in 2017.

Filson noted what the agency called acceptable lead concentration levels, “While the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s finding of decreased lead levels in the water in Flint, Michigan seems encouraging, it does not mean the water crisis is over. Flint water still contains ‘an average lead reading…of 8.3 parts per billion’ and we know that any level of lead is not safe.”

Foreclosures and a Landgrab

Residents who fell behind on paying water bills may find a tax lien placed on their homes. A lien like this becomes a tax obligation that, if not satisfied, can result in a forfeiture and foreclosure. New laws to manage blight have accelerated the foreclosure process from several years to just 18 months in some cases.

By April 2017, over 8,000 homeowners received a foreclosure warning notice for past due water bills. The Washington Post detailed community outrage while the city itself explained that it relies on those payments for operational revenue. In response to the outcry, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver issued a statement, affirming that no liens for overdue water bills would be turned over to the county for foreclosure.

Genesee County Treasurer, Deb Cherry echoed that policy with her own statement, “As long as the city is in a state of emergency and the water is not safe, we will not be approving water liens for Flint residents,” just two months later the Federal declaration of emergency for the city was ended.

This happened just as the EPA issued press release, supporting the state’s plan to forgive $20.7 million in past Drinking Water State Revolving Fund debt, owed by the City of Flint.

While the water wars continued, Genesee County Land Bank (GCLBA) reached a ten-year milestone. This is an organization created to manage properties abandoned after regional depression and the Great Recession struck the area hard. GCLBA is the largest property owner in Flint, with a reported portfolio of 12,000 properties in 2016.

According to their annual report, GCLBA received a total of $684,213 in from the City of Flint for FY 2016/17 to demolish six blighted commercial structures and three blighted houses while earning $3.4 million in gross revenue. As of 2016, U.S. Census data shows just 64% of all housing units in Flint are owner occupied homes.

Issues arose with the GCLBA in 2016, after employee, Phil Stair, was caught on tape, using racial slurs to describe Flint residents, blaming them for the water crisis. Former A/P Reporter and activist Chelsea Lyons recorded the conversation with Stair and later released the tapes to independent media, Truth Against the Machine.

Video: https://youtu.be/4qATnd3y1Rk (Phil Stair, May 2016)

“Flint has the same problems as Detroit … fucking niggers don’t pay their bills; believe me, I deal with them,” Stair said. He went on to describe a process of targeting specific neighborhoods within the city saying “fucking deadbeats” are “destroying” neighborhoods.

Lyons was in Flint to assist with water relief efforts and says there were rumors circulating around about the city’s relationship with GCLBA. That is why she followed up on a tip that Stair was at a local bar that night. To Lyons, the comments were important because tax foreclosures had put so much property into the Land Bank’s possession, which owns about 13,000 properties in the county, the majority of which are in Flint.

“The Land Bank is taking up all of the properties in Flint… They are pushing people out of the neighborhood,” Ms. Lyons told Michigan Live.

Justice Comes to the People of Flint

While volunteering in Flint, JUSTICE members attended the final court hearing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director, Nick Lyons, who was charged with two felony counts of negligence, for his role in covering up evidence that may have contributed to the deaths of Flint residents, due to water contamination. The judge allowed the case to proceed, ending the longest pretrial hearing in state history, paving the way for potentially more charges against higher ranking officials.

Ariana Hawk was there to witness the final ruling and spoke to reporters outside city hall. ABC news quoted her as saying, “If this case had been dismissed, that would have been like a slap in the face to the residents, and everybody who lost their lives during this water crisis to the legionella bacteria.”

Fourteen current or former state and local officials have been charged with crimes related to the Legionnaires outbreak, lead in the water, or actively attempting to cover up the public health risk. Their trials are also pending, in process, and four have submitted guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges.

JUSTICE members in and around Flint will continue to support residents and are already planning a return trip on behalf of the state and national organization. The long-term goal is to support the efforts for accountability and ensure residents’ needs are being met on a day-to-day basis.

This action will again rely on the generous support of volunteers and contributors around the country to let the families in Flint know they have not been forgotten, and their neighbors are willing to fight for them.

It has now been more than four years and Flint still does not have safe water.

You can help the people of flint. Support JUSTICE with a contribution or become a volunteer yourself. Send contributions via Pay Pal to justiceff@gmail.com or by using the Cash App with $ffjb as the designee. The group is also asking for volunteers on the ground for those who can travel during the day of action. If interested, volunteers are asked to send an email to mailto:justiceff@gmail.com for more information.

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