By Michael Brune
Dxecutive Director, Sierra Club
You have to look hard for good news about the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan — but it’s there.
There was last Sunday’s #JusticeForFlint benefit show, which set out to raise $100,000 and netted close to $150,000 with a surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder.
The event, which featured Flint residents as well as celebrities, also reminded us why we need heroes like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who called attention to the rising levels of lead in Flint’s children and refused to be intimidated by the state government. “This is the best medicine for us right here, right now,” said Dr. Hanna-Attisha during the benefit. “You are giving us music, you are giving us laughter, you are giving us hope, you are giving us love.”
Starting today, the City of Flint is also supposed to begin replacing water service lines for residents at highest risk of lead poisoning. And with both political parties holding presidential debates in Michigan this week (the Republicans today in Detroit and the Democrats in Flint itself on Sunday), we can hope that what happened in Flint will get some additional national attention.
Of course, the details of what happened are still unfolding. Not only are we learning more about who knew what and when but we’re also getting a disturbing insight into how public servants in Governor Rick Snyder’s administration thought about the public — or at least some of the public — they were supposed to be serving. Last week, we saw a January 2015 email from Ari Adler, who’s currently the governor’s communications director. Adler wrote: “This is a public relations crisis — because of a real or perceived problem is irrelevant — waiting to explode nationally.” [emphasis added]
That’s right, whether or not people were actually being poisoned was “irrelevant.” What really mattered was how it might affect the image of the Snyder regime. We’re talking about a governor who not so long ago was being encouraged by his advisors to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. Based on what we’ve seen so far, he doesn’t deserve to finish his term.
Weighty books will be written about the myriad ways government failed us in Flint, but the basic facts are already clear. The regulations for testing the drinking water in Flint were too lax and easily subverted. Authoritarian enforcement of “fiscal responsibility” trumped basic humanity. Politicians denied accountability for as long as possible. And in a colossal case of “blame the victim,” an entire city was belittled, bullied, and treated like a nuisance while its children were being poisoned. And what was Flint’s biggest crime in the eyes of the state? Poverty. Which is ironic considering that its citizens were being forced to pay the highest rates for water in the nation.
It’s a mistake, though, to imagine that all of this is unique to Flint. Dark money is corroding our democracy as surely as the Flint River’s brackish water corroded the water pipes of Flint. A significant proportion of Americans from across the political spectrum no longer believe that their leaders can be trusted to do what’s right for the people who elected them. And every time politicians put a polluter’s profits first — by loosening protections, by approving more toxic projects, or simply by obstructing others from doing their jobs — they lose more of our trust.
Anyone following the news knows that these are strange and confusing days in America. But the higher road is still there. We can take back our democracy. We can build a more just and resilient economy based on clean, renewable energy. And we can invest not only in our infrastructure but in our people — people like the proud citizens of Flint whose lives were so brutally devalued.
The presidential candidates debating in Michigan this week will surely have something to say about what happened there and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. In the end, though, Flint is only part of a much bigger problem — one that no U.S. president is likely to solve on his or her own. Instead, it will be ordinary, extraordinary people like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. People who stand up to bullies — be they billionaires or bureaucrats. People of integrity who, above all, care about others. The best news is those people aren’t found only in Flint. In my job, I’m lucky enough to meet them all the time. And as much as I love wind and solar, I have to say that people like that are our single most powerful source of renewable energy.
Michael Brune is the Sierra Club’s executive director. A new edition of his book “Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal” was published by Sierra Club Books in 2010. He lives in California with his wife and three young troublemakers.