FLINT, Michigan (AP) — Ever since the full extent of the water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan, emerged, one question has persisted: Would this have happened in a wealthier, whiter community?
Residents in the former auto-making hub — a poor, largely minority city — say their complaints about lead-tainted water flowing through their taps have been slighted by the government or ignored. For many, it echoes the lackluster federal response to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Our voices were not heard, and that’s part of the problem,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said this week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., where she also met with President Barack Obama to make her case for federal help.
High levels of lead have been detected in the impoverished city’s water since officials began drawing from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure in 2014. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.
The frustration has mostly been directed at Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who had appointed an emergency manager to run Flint. That manager approved a plan in 2013 to begin drawing drinking water from the Flint River, but officials failed to treat the corrosive water properly to prevent metal leaching from old pipes.
Snyder, a Republican, was blasted by Hillary Clinton in her remarks after the recent Democratic presidential debate.
“We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care,” Clinton said.
Clinton added, “I’ll tell you what: If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”
Flint residents complained loudly and often about the water quality immediately after the switch but were repeatedly told it was safe. They didn’t learn the water was tainted until the state issued warnings a year and a half later. Now families fear for their health and especially for the future of their children.
Snyder, who has apologized for the mishandling of the situation, declined a request by The Associated Press for an interview Thursday. But in response to Clinton’s remarks, he said the former secretary of state should not make Flint a political issue.
When asked Friday on MSNBC whether the Flint disaster was a case of environmental racism, Snyder said: “Absolutely not. Flint is a place I’ve been devoted to helping. … I’ve made a focused effort since before I started in office to say we need to work hard to help people who have the greatest need.”
Flint is the birthplace of General Motors and once had 200,000 residents. Fewer than 8,000 GM jobs remain, and the city’s population has dropped to just below 100,000, with a corresponding rise in property abandonment.
The city is 57 percent black, and 42 percent of its people live in poverty.
Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has studied environmental burdens and their disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities since the late 1990s.
He said Flint is a classic case of minority and low-income residents confronting an environmental issue and that “it may be one of the biggest environmental justice disasters we’ve seen in a long time.”
Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who lost his re-election bid in November amid the water crisis, said newly released emails by Snyder showed that the governor’s staffers disregarded Flint’s plight because of the city’s demographics.
At a weekend protest outside City Hall, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore called for the governor’s ouster and arrest.
“Let’s call this what it is,” Moore said. “It’s not just a water crisis. It’s a racial crisis. It’s a poverty crisis. That’s what this is, and that’s what created this.”
Roger Schneider reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Jesse Holland in Washington and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, also contributed.
Follow Roger Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rogschneider .
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