Flint, Michigan: Did race and poverty factor into water crisis?

Story highlights

  • Community advocates say that Flint residents are victims of "environmental racism"
  • Flint was neglected because it is 57% black and 41.5% poor, advocates say
  • "Absolutely not," Republican Gov. Rick Snyder says of accusations

(CNN)The contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, has so outraged community advocates that they now pose a powerful question: Was the city neglected because it is mostly black and about 40% poor?

Several advocates say yes. They charge that Flint residents are victims of "environmental racism" -- that is, race and poverty factored into how Flint wasn't adequately protected and how its water became contaminated with lead, making the tap water undrinkable.
    "Would more have been done, and at a much faster pace, if nearly 40 percent of Flint residents were not living below the poverty line? The answer is unequivocally yes," the NAACP said in a statement.
    Others go further.
    "While it might not be intentional, there's this implicit bias against older cities -- particularly older cities with poverty (and) majority-minority communities," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area.
    "It's hard for me to imagine the indifference that we've seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community," he said.
    For the record, Flint is 57% black, 37% white, 4% Latino and 4% mixed race; more than 41% of its residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
    NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks drew a direct connection between Flint's socioeconomic factors and the toxic drinking water.
    "Environmental Racism + Indifference = Lead in the Water & Blood," he tweeted.
    Brooks is pressing for a definitive plan of attack.
    "We're trying to take action that is specific, that's focused, that's urgent and speaks to the people's needs," he said. "Talking with a deadline that has dollar symbols represents action, and that's what we're trying to do."

    Governor takes hard questions

    In an interview with CNN's Poppy Harlow this week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder repeatedly said that he was taking responsibility for the crisis even as she reminded him that his then-chief of staff sent an email in July 2015 to a health department official warning of lead in the Flint drinking water. The email was released as part of a freedom of information request.
    Michigan governor: Flint crisis is failure in government
    michigan flint rick snyder intv harlow ac dnt_00005308


      Michigan governor: Flint crisis is failure in government


    Michigan governor: Flint crisis is failure in government 05:53
    "I'm frustrated by the water issue in Flint," David Muchmore wrote. "I really don't think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving."
    In October 2014, General Motors stopped using Flint River water at its engine plant because the company was seeing rust of vehicle parts.
    Snyder said that General Motors' concern "was not a lead issue."
    Harlow responded, "It was the same issue of the pipes being corroded by the water, chemicals in the water, just like it is (in Flint.) It's actually the same."
    The governor said, "These are very technical issues. But the lead came to my attention in October, end of September, early October of 2015. We took immediate action, need to do more, did more."
    He said Flint has seen a 45% reduction in crime, and he touted a dental program for low-income children -- all moves his administration pushed for.
    Governor: More Flint kids may have high levels of lead
    michigan governor rick snyder poppy harlow intv preview sot_00010004


      Governor: More Flint kids may have high levels of lead


    Governor: More Flint kids may have high levels of lead 00:48
    "In terms of saying it happened because of the nature of the community here? Absolutely not."
    Snyder compared Flint's unemployment struggles and other economic woes to what people in Detroit have endured in recent years, and he said his administration is responsible for improvements there.
    This week, Snyder was served with a subpoena by attorneys representing Flint residents who have filed a class-action suit. They have asked for the governor's emails and text messages going back to January 2011.
    Snyder has released some emails from 2014 and 2015.
    "Will you release all of those back to 2011, from personal and work accounts?" Harlow asked.
    "I released the relevant emails, my emails, that address that issue for the relevant time period," said Snyder, who has released some emails from 2014 and 2015.
    "We are complying with every investigation in terms of being open," he added. "We'll follow the appropriate legal process for subpoenas and other legal matters."
    "Again, we're complying with every investigation," Snyder said. "We'll follow the appropriate legal process for subpoenas and other legal matters. With respect to releasing my emails, I did that. This is an extraordinary case."

    Michael Moore: Arrest governor

    Whether Flint's water crisis happened because the city has poor residents has been discussed in social media, particularly by filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore.
    Moore said the governor should be arrested for his role in the crisis. A state plan to save $15 million on Flint's water bills may now cost $1.5 billion in clean-up, Moore said in his online petition for help from President Barack Obama.
    "This is a racial killing. Flint MI is 60% black. When u knowingly poison a black city, u r committing a version of genocide #ArrestGovSnyder," Moore tweeted at one point.
    "Just to be clear: all 102K residents of Flint have been exposed to toxic water, all of Flint's kids have ingested lead, & 10 ppl have died," Moore tweeted on another occasion.
    The Black Lives Matter group said African-Americans, especially those in rural and poor areas, have long been denied equal access to clean drinking water.
    "The crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident. State violence in the form of contaminated water or no access to water at all is pervasive in Black communities," the group said on its website.
    On Monday, state Attorney General Bill Schuette said he is appointing an ex-prosecutor and Detroit's former FBI chief to join the investigation into Flint's water crisis, creating a "conflict wall" between the state's inquiry and the lawsuits targeting the state.
    Former Flint Mayor: 'Bait-and-switch' led to crisis
    Former Flint Mayor: 'Bait-and-switch' led to crisis


      Former Flint Mayor: 'Bait-and-switch' led to crisis


    Former Flint Mayor: 'Bait-and-switch' led to crisis 05:05
    The prior announced investigation will determine "whether any Michigan laws were violated in the process that created a major public health crisis for Flint residents."
    "I would certainly not bathe a newborn child or a young infant in this bad water, and if you can't drink the bad water, you shouldn't pay for it," Schuette said.
    Flint's state of emergency -- declared at municipal and state levels -- began years ago when the city suffered a financial emergency. The state took over the city's budget and decided to temporarily switch Flint's water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready.
    The river, however, was long-known as befouled. Locals call it the "General Motors sewer."
    After the April 2014 switch, residents complained their water had problems. Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive. A class-action lawsuit alleges the state Department of Environmental Quality didn't treat the water for corrosion, in accordance with federal law, and because so many service lines to Flint are made of lead, the noxious element leached into the water of the city's homes.
    The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October, but the damage was already done to the lead pipes. The state is now handing out filters and bottled water with the National Guard.