About 100 people gathered in the Ford School of Public Policy Monday to hear personal experiences and reactions to the Flint water crisis from a diverse group of panelists, including activists and government workers.

The Flint water crisis occurred after a state-appointed emergency manager decided to cut costs by changing the source of city water to more corrosive sources, which caused lead from the pipes to leach into the water, poisioning Flint’s residents. It was not publicly addressed until nearly two years after the initial notice of potential lead in the the water.

Panelist Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, started the discussion with comments on his work on Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) Flint Water Task Force, which reviewed the state, federal and municipal actions leading to the crisis.

“We worked for five months to come up with the report,” Kolb said. “When we held our press conference in March of this year, I said that I thought the Flint water crisis was a toxic brew of intolerance, incompetence and ignorance.”

The report was a consensus document that contained 36 findings about the crisis and placed the majority of the blame on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, a state government agency meant to ensure water and air quality are up to healthy standards. The emergency manager, Snyder and the ill-prepared Flint water treatment plant were also to blame for the disaster.

Kolb said the report also highlighted the broader issues of environmental injustice that led to the crisis, including the purposeful refusal to involve residents in making government decisions regarding environmental policy laws.

E. Hill De Loney, executive director of the Flint Odyssey House Health Awareness Center, echoed Kolb’s sentiments, saying the government still is failing to work with the people of Flint in resolving the water crisis. Hill De Loney said despite complaints of tainted water from many of the city’s residents, 60 percent of whom are Black, state officials did not listen until a white person spoke up.

“When we talk about what has happened in Flint, racism as it relates to the water crisis in Flint is the elephant in the room,” Hill De Loney said. “However, it is also the elephant in America.”

She said many citizens of Flint did not want an emergency manager, yet one was appointed and residents were subsequently excluded from important talks by city officials on how to handle the crisis. 

“There wasn’t too much trust in the first place but when that happened, I cannot tell you how deeply mistrust became a cancer in our community,” Hill De Loney said. “We don’t trust anything they tell us.”

Nayyirah Shariff, co-founder of the Flint Democracy Defense League, reemphasized that the people of Flint distrust the local officials tasked with fixing the crisis. She said citizens of foreign countries were even calling family members in Flint and warning them not to drink the water.

“Those of you who understand intimate partner violence, this really feels like a violent relationship, because the state is responsible for poisoning us, and now the state is in charge of our recovery,” Shariff said.

Kent Key, director of the Office of Community Scholars and Partnerships at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine and another panelist, connected his work in vetting the numerous researchers entering Flint to the University of Michigan community in his talk. He has created the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center, which was funded by both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University as a way to encourage an ethical and respectable community, as well as academic partnerships.

“One thing is to really start some dialogue, start some conversations,” Key said. “The racial climate in this country is something I have never seen in my lifetime before.”

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