How the Flint Drinking Water Crisis Became a Political Punching Bag
Policy + Politics

How the Flint Drinking Water Crisis Became a Political Punching Bag

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Hillary Rodham Clinton will be in Flint, Mich., on Sunday for another “fact-finding” trip to highlight that city’s tragic drinking water crisis.

More than 100,000 residents of the majority black and largely impoverished city have been forced to rely on bottled water since disclosure last year of a state government management scandal that resulted in the leaching of deadly lead into Flint’s water system.

Related: Flint’s Drinking Water Crisis Just Got More Toxic with Legionnaire’s Disease

Amid growing fears of widespread lead poisoning of children, Clinton took part in a recent town hall gathering in Flint, Jan. 27. Then she arranged with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her rival for the Democratic nomination, to hold a presidential debate in Flint on March 6.

The fact that she is breaking away from campaigning today to visit Flint again, just two days before the crucial New Hampshire Democratic primary, underscores the political as well as human dimensions of the Flint drinking water crisis. Clinton is trailing Sanders in the New Hampshire polls and is almost certain to finish second, but she is trying to narrow Sanders’ current 20-point lead to beat expectations. Her appearance in Flint today is certain to draw widespread media attention in New Hampshire and throughout the country.

“I absolutely believe that what is being done [in Flint] is not sufficient,” Clinton said Thursday night at a Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire sponsored by MSNBC. “We need to be absolutely clear about everything that should be done from today to tomorrow, into the future to try to remedy the terrible burden that the people of Flint are barring.”

“That includes fixing their pipes, it includes guaranteeing whatever healthcare and educational embellishments they may need going forward,” she added. “If Michigan won’t do it, there have to be ways that we can begin to move, and then make them pay for it.”

Related: Michigan governor to request federal aid in Flint water crisis

Sanders has gone further, calling for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a two-term Republican, who many blame for a slow response or even a cover-up of the problem.

Snyder has been a big proponent of placing financially troubled cities under the management of a state appointed overseer, as he did in helping Detroit get through bankruptcy. However, the state overseer of Flint forced the city to switch its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money, only to have ancient pipes in the Flint River leach lead into the water supply.

“The idea that there has not been a dramatic response is beyond comprehension,” Sanders said at the Democratic debate.  “One wonders if this were a white suburban community what kind of response there would have been.”

Flint’s environmental and public health disaster may eventually bring down Snyder, and many others in his administration as investigators and federal and state government officials try to find the underlying cause of the scandal. Just last week, members of the Senate and House oversight committees summoned state and local officials to Washington to testify on what went wrong and who to blame.

Related: Federal officials probe lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan

Everyone from Michigan environmental and public health officials to the federal Environmental Protection Agency were on the hot seat and sharply questioned – although Snyder was not summoned by the Republican leadership to testify.

“I don’t care whether it’s the EPA, whether it’s local, whether it’s the state,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to The New York Times. “I want everybody who’s responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable.”

Amid widespread media reports about desperate Flint residents unable to sell their homes and struggling to come to grips with the possibility that their young children may have been brain damaged by exposure to lead in their drinking water, lawmakers insist that they are trying to address the crisis without politicizing the process.

Yet Democrats including campaign advisers to Clinton and Sanders likely would find it hard not to view the Flint saga as a political bonanza for their party  -- or, as The Washington Post described it -- a “potent symbol of the perils of Republican governance” that is likely to be invoked many time throughout the 2016 campaign.

Related: How Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Both Won the Iowa Caucuses

And they have plenty of material to work with.

Last year, Michigan state officials brushed off warnings of higher rates of lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease, according to media reports. Those officials told Flint residents that their water was safe despite widespread complaints that it looked and tasted bad.

Flint residents first began complaining in April 2014 after the emergency financial manager appointed by Snyder ordered a switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River as the source of the city’s drinking water.

When the highly acidic Flint River water wasn’t properly treated, it resulted in the corrosion of old underwater pipes that began leaching lead into the water system. By last March – with residents up in arms – the city government voted to switch back to the old source of water used by the city of Detroit, but by then it was too late.

Clinton and Sanders are framing the Flint scandal not only as a terrible public health crisis but also as racial injustice to a predominantly black, economically depressed community that saw its once vibrant auto industry all but disappear.

Related: Why Trump and Sanders Share a Mandate for Universal Health Care

Clinton first raised her concerns during a Democratic presidential debate Jan. 17 in South Carolina, a state with a large number of black voters who will likely tip the scales of the primary election in Clinton’s favor later this month. The Flint saga is also certain to resonate in Nevada, with its large percentage of Hispanic voters who also are likely to give Clinton an edge over Sanders.

Gov. Snyder has repeatedly apologized to the residents of Flint and is leading an aggressive effort to remedy the situation. However, newly revealed emails show that an aide to Snyder learned nine months ago about an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease connected to Flint’s water supply.

Ten people died from the bacterial infection, tragic news that the governor made public in mid-January, according to The Atlantic. Snyder insists that he only became aware of the outbreak a couple days earlier, but the emails suggest that he should have known or could have known before then.

While members of both parties have voiced outrage over the Flint situation, it became clear from maneuvering on Capitol Hill last week that the debate was suddenly taking on a partisan sheen. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chair of the House oversight committee, and some of his fellow Republicans attempted to blame the Obama administration’s EPA, while Democrats focused on the emergency manger appointed by Snyder.

Related: Plaintiffs' lawyers wary of taking on Flint water scandal

As it turns out, there was plenty of blame to go around. A report in The Detroit News explained that the EPA knew as early as last April that there were no corrosion controls in the Flint Water supply, which meant lead could leach into the water. The EPA stayed mum to the public but pressured the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to act, which kept delaying.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who won last Monday’s Iowa caucuses, insisted that the lead poisoning of the water was strictly the fault of Democratic city officials. “You’ve got your own government poisoning your citizens,” Cruz said during a campaign stop in Goffstown, N.H.

Finally, the Flint controversy triggered another partisan impasse late last week. Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan proposed to add $600 million of emergency aid to a major energy bill awaiting action. Most of the money would be used to replace the old lead pipes in the Flint River.

But Republicans have blocked the amendment for now, arguing that the federal government shouldn’t be funding work that is clearly the responsibility of the state.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas accused the Democrats of grandstanding and being more concerned about scoring political points than working out a solution, according to the New York Times.