The case of Flint, Michigan, and its lead-poisoned water supply has exposed a U.S political disgrace, treating poor and minority communities with shocking disregard and showing little interest in punishing the officials responsible, as Marsha Coleman-Adebayo told Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
As a teacher in the mid-1970s, my middle-school students in Far Rockaway, Queens, one of the poorest communities of New York City, were celebrating Mayday, the international workers holiday. Marilyn, the proud-queen of the Mayday show, was dressed in a redesigned wedding gown, surrounded by the girls in the class who were admiring her classy attire.
When it came time to kick off the Mayday festivities, Marilyn rose to take her place at the Maypole, but she never made it to a full standing position. She grew extremely dizzy, fell back into her chair and was taken to the emergency room. I then learned that places where my students lived, played and studied were laced with lead-based products and their minds were being dulled and poisoned, even as I tried to expand them.
Now, four decades later, there is the case of Flint, Michigan, where an entire city has had its water systems poisoned by lead. Many in the community and environmental activists around the country are outraged at what was allowed to happen to Flint and the slow reaction of state and federal officials. And the more the people of Flint find out about what their politicians and officials knew and didn’t do the angrier the citizens are getting.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Lead is a neurotoxic substance that has been shown in numerous research studies to affect brain function and development. Children who have been exposed to elevated levels of lead are at increased risk for cognitive and behavioral problems during development. Exposure to lead can result in a variety of effects upon neuropsychological functioning including deficits in general intellectual functioning, ability to sustain attention on tasks, organization of thinking and behavior, speech articulation, language comprehension and production, learning and memory efficiency, fine motor skills, high activity level, reduced problem solving flexibility, and poor behavioral self-control.”
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, an Environmental Protection Agency whistleblower, worked at the EPA for some 18 years and is the author of No Fear: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. Her lawsuit led to the “No Fear Act,” passed to protect government whistleblowers from intimidation and retaliation.
In a recent interview, with Dennis J Bernstein, Coleman-Adebayo called for a full-scale criminal investigation to ascertain, and if need be punish, EPA and Michigan officials at the highest level for their part in poisoning the water and the people of Flint.
DB: What I hope to cover in our interview is, first, if the EPA has the resources to investigate and the criminal mandate, if you will. And then I want to get into if they have the will to do it. So let’s start with what’s possible. What do you think the EPA could and should be doing?
MC: The EPA has the legal authority to prosecute. In fact, as you said, there are criminal … there are violations. There are provisions [of] The Clean Air Act that provide for criminal prosecutions.  A lot of people really don’t understand the breadth of the EPA, and the provisions by law that the EPA has to go against environmental criminals. EPA has 200 fully authorized federal law enforcement agents. And these agents actually are authorized to carry firearms in order to carry out their responsibility.
At EPA we have about 70 forensic scientists and technicians. We have … 45 attorneys at EPA who do nothing but litigate environmental criminals. And so it’s not the most extensive array of personnel but we certainly have the resources. It certainly does not take the 200 [environmental] law enforcement officers to arrest a governor, or even other people who have been involved in this criminal act, in Michigan. So we have the authority.
But the second question that you asked, “Do we have the will?” I think that’s really where the fault line lies. And that is what the agency has shown, is that it may have the authority, but it certainly does not have the will to protect the people of this country from environmental criminals.
DB: I do want you to hone in on this. It’s sort of an institutional decision that the EPA made not to prosecute in certain communities. You want to talk a little bit about the so-called sacrifice zones?
MC: Well, sacrifice zones are essentially primarily African[-American], Hispanic communities, low-income white communities that no longer have the [economic] ability to flex their muscles, in the overall environment, in the overall economics of our economy, of our country.
For example, Flint, Michigan, used to be an area where a lot of African-Americans [moved to] who were escaping from state-sponsored violence in the South, from the Ku Klux Klan, the White Knights, and all the organizations that were dedicated to killing black people in the early 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s.
So a lot of these people who live in Flint now migrated from the rural South into cities like Detroit, into Flint, trying to escape state-sponsored violence. And they went to Flint seeking economic value, jobs in the auto industry.
And, then, of course, … it’s another economic betrayal, where these industries basically pick up through NAFTA and other kinds of economic [incentives] and they leave these cities. And they go to Mexico, or to some other place where they can pay workers very low wages, with almost no benefits, leaving these communities without a way of really recovering from that kind of economic devastation.
We call those kinds of communities where the economy is almost non-existent in terms of supporting human activities, you know, good schools, and now, of course, even water, it seems, we call these kinds of communities sacrifice zones. These communities no longer have the ability to demand from the political system that they are treated as equal citizens in this country.
DB: Another thing that always comes up here is there are various ways to blame the victims for poisoning themselves. You already start to hear it reverberating, “Well, these people are too poor and stupid to know what’s happening to them.” You want to talk about that?
MC: Sure, I mean, it’s such a pathetic argument, to be honest with you. This community started complaining almost two years ago, that the water had turned various colors: gray, brown. That there was an odor emanating from their faucets. And the governor, as well as all the other city officials, and also EPA, basically ignored them, made fun of them, basically tells them that there was nothing wrong with water that has [this] brown color.
In fact, there’s a very interesting interview some government officials in Michigan actually were shown drinking, supposedly, the water from Flint. But the reality is that there are a number of people who actually knew that there was something terribly wrong. And one company, in fact, Ford Motor Company, realized that something was wrong because they refused to use the water because it was corroding the various parts they were creating. And they received some special compensation so that they could bring water in for the various parts that they were creating.
So they had enough sense to make sure that the water that they used to build cars was not polluted. But they, in fact, were allowing the children and the men and women of Flint to bathe in the water, to drink the water. It is a crime of such unbelievable proportion. The fact that no one has been charged with a crime is, in fact, absolutely astounding, at this point.
DB: It is indeed, and I’m somebody who spent about 12 or 14 years teaching in various areas, very poor communities in New York City. And I saw, first hand, the impact, what happened when kids were exposed to lead. It is beyond acceptance or understanding that this action would unfold like this, that these kids and this community would be poisoned.
It troubles me that, in fact, there is not even a clear and wide ranging education program in terms of what to do, how to deal with it, what’s coming next. A lot of people still don’t know all the dangers, or what’s bad and what’s good. And it’s troubling because there has been so much disinformation from the government, in terms of Michigan, at all levels.
MC: And not only that, lead is irreversible. The poisoning is irreversible. And it’s an inter-generational poisoning. So the children of the fetuses who have been poisoned through their mother’s womb, their grandchildren will most likely be lead poisoned. So this is an inter-generational poisoning.
These children will never, to a large extent, see their God-given potential because of this lead poisoning. And the President hasn’t even gone to Flint, to kiss these babies or hold their hands, or just make a head bow to the incredible disaster that Flint has become. And so one of the questions that I asked in my first Guardian piece on this issue is what would have happened, for example, if we can imagine if ISIS, for example, had lead poisoned an American city? How would the response have been different if “a terrorist” had poisoned hundreds of American children and thousands of adults? How would we have dealt with that situation?
And it’s one of the really sad parts about this is that a lot of the people who are responsible for this kind of poisoning will get away with it. They will get away with it. We’ve already seen one sacrificial lamb sort of pushed under the bus and that was Susan Hedman, who was Region 5 Administrator, in EPA.
DB: I believe she tried to blow the whistle in April of 2015.
MC: No, she didn’t. There was an EPA whistleblower named Miguel Del Toral and he tried to blow the whistle in April. And in EPA’s culture, if you try to blow the whistle the first thing they do is demean you. They start spreading rumors that you’ve got mental illness or that you’re not quite up to par in the EPA.
They demeaned his work, they discredited what he tried to do. And what’s really fabulous about this particular man, he just refused to allow the people of Flint to be poisoned, on his watch, without sounding the alarm. And so he joined with a Virginia Tech scientist named Mark Edwards, who also, by the way, was the person who exposed the lead poisoning in Washington, D.C. And EPA and the CDC did the same thing to this professor. They also demeaned him, tried to discredit him. And he also refused to be intimidated by the EPA and the CDC.
And also a medical doctor who noticed that a lot of her patients were bringing their children in to see her. And when she evaluated them and performed tests she realized that they had 3 to 4 times the amount of lead in their system that’s allowed. So there [are] some real heroes in this story. There’s one EPA employee who [has] been really battered but he’s still standing. But all the officials from Region 5, Chicago all the way to Washington, D.C., none of these officials lifted a finger to help the people of Flint, Michigan.
DB: Wow. It’s very interesting when we look at the statement from the EPA administrator talking about, I guess, letting Susan Hedman take the brunt of it and call her the scapegoat and she says, “Susan’s strong interest in insuring that the EPA Region 5’s focus remains solely on the restoration of Flint’s drinking water.” She’s resigning.
MC: I mean you have to laugh at this stuff. It’s just so silly. And so the question that we’re posing to Congress is when did Gina McCarthy, who is head of the EPA, when did she know about this crisis, and what did she do about it when she found out about it?
In other words, we need to see the e-mails stream. E-mail traffic from Susan Hedman to Gina McCarthy. We need to find out when did the head of the EPA find out that an American city had been poisoned. And then, what did she do about it?
And if she didn’t know that Susan Hedman was inadequate and should have been removed, was there any conversation between the head of the EPA and the White House? That, “I have an employee in Region 5, who’s not up to snuff, who shouldn’t be there.” Either way, it seems to me that we need to really focus on the head of the EPA instead of all the people that she’s basically pushing under the bus.
DB: You make the mighty powerful point that really at the core of this, this should be a criminal investigation.
MC: At the very least.
DB: At the very least, not only of the people at the EPA, but in terms of the role of the governor and the various officials and the appointed administrators, and the decisions that were made at all levels. I’m wondering about how you might carry out that part of the investigation, who you’d want to ask what to.
MC: Well, I think the responsibility to carry out this investigation lies with Congress. I was at the hearing last week, at the first hearing on this issue. There will be a second hearing on this hopefully, fairly soon. But we need to really get to the bottom of what happened. How were these people poisoned? And, by the way, Flint is not the only city that’s being poisoned. I mean there are cities and municipalities around this country who are also being impacted by lead in the water. And so if people think, “Well this is just a problem for Flint,” I think they’re really in a fool’s paradise at this point.
DB: Examples of other cities?
MC: For example, I found out about three cities in Pennsylvania today, that also have very high levels of lead. And we’re trying to track that down now, and perhaps we’ll do another piece for the Guardian, on those cities. And there are obviously some municipalities that people are complaining about in California now.
Let me just say, citizens have a right to know whether the water coming from their faucet is clean and safe to drink. I mean, it sounds like such a simple statement but it’s really very powerful. Because what is it that the EPA could have done in Flint?
The reason why I’m pointing my baton at the EPA is because EPA has the power of the federal government behind it. And even if state officials, the governor and the officials in Michigan had decided to hide the information from their citizens, the EPA had the overall responsibilities as the federal government to inform the citizens of Flint that their water was not safe.
They could have given the governor, for example, ten days to inform the citizens of Flint that there was a possibility that there water was not safe. And they could have said, “Until we’ve confirmed the results, we advise you to drink bottled water.” That didn’t happen. If the governor decided that he was not going to inform, it was the responsibility of the EPA then, to inform the citizens of Flint … that there was a possibility that their water was not safe.
The EPA could have ordered a cease-and-desist order. They could have told the state, “You do not have the right to poison your people. And we are now going to step in as the federal government and we’re going to take over this responsibility.” EPA did not do that.
They could have referred the governor to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution; for poisoning his residents. They didn’t do [that]. There were so many tools that EPA had at its disposal, to step in and really make such a profound statement about the sanctity of life. Not only the planet, but the sanctity of human life, the EPA did not use. That’s the reason why I’m really pointing my baton at EPA, because that was the responsibility of the agency, that when states fail to protect their population, the federal government must step in and protect the people.
DB: As I mentioned earlier, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is turning down a request from the House to testify about his role in Flint. His spokesperson Anna Eaton said that the governor won’t attend because he’s due to present his annual budget proposal that day in Michigan. Now, would you suggest that Congress subpoena him, rather than offering him the possibility of not showing up?
MC: Absolutely. In fact, that came up at the hearing any number of times, where a number of the Democratic members of Congress strongly urged the chairman of the committee, Chaffetz, to subpoena the Michigan governor. Force him to stand before Congress, and explain what happened in Michigan. So we’re still waiting to see that kind of Congressional action.
In fact, there’s one other person, I think he’s a Michigan official, that Congress has now subpoenaed, and the chairman has actually ordered U.S. Marshal service to hunt him down. Direct quote, “hunt him down,” and bring him to Congress. Congress can do the same thing with the Michigan governor, by the way. They could actually order the U.S. Marshal service to serve a subpoena against this governor. And to order him to stand before Congress. And that’s the kind of action we’re looking for at this point. Because this criminality deserves that kind of commitment to justice. And so we must, really, put a lot of pressure on Congress, to carry out its oversight responsibilities.
DB: So you would advocate … subpoenaing the governor, and if he doesn’t show up, just tracking him down and taking him into Congress?
MC: Absolutely. And that is what the law provides. And so we can’t have two systems of justice. You know, where now a Michigan official has been ordered by U.S. Marshals, subpoenaed and ordered to appear before Congress. But the governor is sort of out of bounds for that kind of action. So we can’t have citizens treated so differently in this country.
One of the things that, I just think is … again, a two-tier system of justice, in this country: We have young men in prison now for possessing, you know, a little bit of marijuana, a couple of grams of marijuana and they’re sentenced to 10, 20 years in prison. And we have federal government employees and we have state employees who have poisoned an entire city and no one has been charged. So we can’t allow the government to operate with this two-tier system of justice. This isn’t a democracy at this point. We need to really focus in on this. And then also the people of Flint, we need to really understand how the federal government is going to assist these families, going forward, with major medical and educational challenges before them.
And these families are going to really suffer a lot. I mean, they’re already suffering because they’re living in an economically depressed community. But now they’re going to have children who are going to find it very difficult to learn.
And they’re going to have other medical problems as a result of the lead poisoning. And so we need to try to understand how the government is going to assist these families, in helping these children with these enormous, enormous challenges that lie before them.
DB: Finally, I want to ask you, and I’m not being facetious here, if you were still in the EPA or if not … what do you think would have happened if you’re in EPA and you tried to go right to the President, or send an epistle through somebody who might be a little bit closer. And what do you think he would have done if he heard from an official like you who was concerned, on the ground, the city being poisoned. Has that ever happened?
MC: Well, a lot of us at EPA have gone to Congress, when we’ve tried to go through the bureaucratic channels, and communities are being poisoned … you know, in my case I also reported that a community had been poisoned.
DB: Where did that get you? It got you a lot of hell.
MC: Exactly. It was hell because you become the target. … I became the target, death threats and rape threats. And, eventually, of course, I was fired. So, it is a process. But we don’t know what the President knew and we don’t know when he found out. So did the President find out about the lead poisoning when all of us found out about it? Did he find out about the lead poisoning 6 months ago … or 3 months ago? And if he did, what did he do about it? We don’t have any of those answers, yet.
So now we have to rely on Congress to help us figure out this puzzle. It’s the same puzzle that they grappled with at Watergate. What did you know, and when did you know it? We need to find that out. And then once we have those answers, the officials who for 6 months, or 4 months, or 3 months, or a month or whatever it was, allowed the residents of Flint, Michigan to continue to drink poisoned water, bathe in poisoned water, feed their children, allow their children to drink poisoned water. Those officials must be held accountable.
DB: Well, the President might have learned a little bit more if he had gone down there for a couple of days, and started handing out water, and dialoguing with the people who were poisoned. Probably a bunch of them voted for him.
MC: What’s really sad, of course, is that those residents are getting like a couple bottles of water a day. So that means that they have to bathe in that one bottle of water, they have to bathe their children, using that one bottle of water. … I mean it’s almost just too sad to talk about. And yet we haven’t seen the National Guard sent out, and put up tents, and places, for example, where people can just go and take a bath once a day. You know, we do that when we have disasters, the Red Cross and other emergency operations will go out and they’ll put up large tents, and allow people to take a bath, or have a place to have clean water. But we haven’t seen that happen in Flint. So this story just remains a very heart breaking and very sad story.