Who’s to blame for the water that poisoned the residents of Flint? Was it Environmental Protection Agency officials whose political squabbling with state and local leaders delayed getting word to residents? Was it the governor and his appointed emergency manager who, with eyes on the bottom line, made critical life decisions for a worried city?
A hearing on Wednesday that was supposed to get to the bottom of the scandal became mired in politics, and arguments over who was and was not asked to testify, over who showed up and who had something better to do. Our elected representatives parsed the details and made some speeches, complete with howls of indignation and finger pointing, doling out Democratic or Republican percentages of blame. No doubt they were sincerely concerned, though that concern might have seemed to come a little late. Meanwhile, senators can’t agree on securing $600 million in federal funding that would help Flint address the problem of its poisoned water.
It is the people of Flint who paid and will continue to pay the price – even water bills for a product they can’t drink. For months and months they bathed in it. They brushed their teeth with it. They used it to mix baby formula.
In a sad timeline that stretches more than a year, they howled, too, wanting answers and some sort of relief. They offered all kinds of evidence, from tests by a concerned doctor and university researchers to brown-colored, smelly water that gave the people of the city rashes, nightmares and – perhaps – damage that could last for the rest of their lives. It’s water that General Motors stopped using months ago, after it damaged engine parts.
An email trail and string of apologies made it clear that few in power were listening; those who were didn’t do much of anything.
That’s a great American disgrace: In a political season and a divided country, nothing -- not even the poisoning of children – seems to rise above partisanship.
The residents of Flint knew something was wrong. When they insisted their pleas were ignored or ridiculed, they were unfortunately right. Was it because Flint fit the profile of a working-class and poor city?
Speaking to the chairman, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., challenged an absent Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who was not called: "If Governor Snyder was here, I'd sure like to ask him if the water was toxic in Grosse Pointe instead of Flint, would you have denied it for a year? And would you have stood by and stonewalled while those children were poisoned with neurotoxins?"
Timeline: Six Major Events in the Flint Disaster It's a point repeated by a congressman who represents the Flint area. "While it might not be intentional, there's this implicit bias against older cities -- particularly older cities with poverty (and) majority-minority communities," Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee told CNN . "It's hard for me to imagine the indifference that we've seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community," he said.
And anyone who’s being honest knows he is right. U.S. Census figures say Flint is 57 percent black, 37 percent white, 4 percent Latino and 4 percent mixed race; more than 41 percent of its residents live below the poverty level.
These are not the economic high rollers, the citizens courted and admired by all -- this despite universal values we share. Parents care about their children and want to give them a good start on a great life that’s better than their own.
On Wednesday, many made the trip to Washington, D.C., on a charter bus, to give members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform a look at the people who struggle and work and whose homes are now worth nothing.
LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four, spoke eloquently for them in the committee room. Her careful record-keeping of complaints and relentless public statements helped bring Flint into the spotlight. She happens to be white, which may help some Americans see the beleaguered city as worthy of consideration.
It’s a cynical view, to be sure, but one couldn’t blame Flint for wanting to use every angle to make Americans feel empathy, a quality in short supply when many seem to look for an “other” to blame when something goes wrong.
After all, that’s an example set by those we elect to lead.
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