FLINT, Mich. — “Systemic racism” going back decades is at the core of problems that caused a lead-contaminated water crisis in the majority black city of Flint, according to a Michigan Civil Rights Commission report issued Friday.
The report says the commission did not unearth any civil rights law violations and that nobody “intended to poison Flint.” But the 130-page report based on the testimony of more than 100 residents, experts and government and community leaders at public hearings and other meetings last year concludes that decisions would have been different had they concerned the state’s wealthier, predominantly white communities.
“We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists … (but the) disparate response is the result of systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry and suburban area,” the report says. “Would the Flint water crisis have been allowed to happen in Birmingham, Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids? We believe the answer is no, and that the vestiges of segregation and discrimination found in Flint made it a unique target. The lack of political clout left the residents with nowhere to turn, no way to have their voices heard.”
To save money while under state control, the impoverished city with a 57 percent black population used water from the Flint River for 18 months without treating it to prevent pipe corrosion. As a result, the water caused lead to leach from old pipes and into homes.
Elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin, were detected in children, and 12 people died in a Legionnaires’ outbreak that has been linked to the improperly treated water. Flint’s overall lead level no longer exceeds the federal limit but authorities still require residents to use faucet filters provided by the state.
Michigan has allocated roughly $250 million toward resolving the disaster. Thirteen current or former government officials have been criminally charged in the crisis, including two emergency managers who were appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to run Flint.
The commission’s report notes the local, state and federal action to help Flint that began in late 2015 but criticized the timing, noting that by that time residents “had been reporting heavily discolored and bad tasting water for well over a year.”
“Even after some tests showed there was a problem, decision makers questioned the tests, not the water,” the report said.
The commission’s findings build on a report released last year by a bipartisan task force created by Snyder that determined the crisis was a case of “environmental injustice.” This week, Snyder announced the members of a new Environmental Justice Work Group aimed at improving state guidelines and policy regarding environmental and health hazards.
Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the governor “takes the reporting of each of these panels very seriously, and appreciates the public input that was shared.”
The commission recommends replacing or amending the state’s emergency manager law to analyze the root causes of a community’s financial problems and allow for more local representation and oversight. The bipartisan task force and others also recommended changes to the law in the wake of the water crisis, but none has been made.
Flint resident Claire McClinton said she’s grateful for the efforts but finds the report “underwhelming.” She said the emergency manager law needs to be abolished, the Army Corps of Engineers should replace the old pipes, and Medicare needs to be made available to “all impacted residents.”
“It didn’t match the severity of the situation we’re in,” said McClinton, who attended the previous public hearings as well as Friday’s meeting where commissioners presented the report. “I think they talked themselves into being timid.”
The commission, created by the Michigan Constitution, is directed to investigate allegations of discrimination. If it finds violations, it can order the violator to stop and take corrective action. That order can be appealed to circuit court. The commission pledges “to be more resolute” in its role in “giving greater voice” to residents to prevent such crises from happening again.
Commission Co-chairman Agustin Arbulu said he seeks stronger civil rights laws that deal with “disparate impacts” on communities like Flint. He encouraged residents to file claims with the commission as well as federal agencies.
The commission first conducted hearings in Flint 50 years ago to investigate problems associated with urban renewal, particularly access to decent housing. The 1966 probe found a “rigidly segregated” city with people living in “squalid conditions.”