GOP pundit and Flint resident Bill Ballenger says water crisis is "vastly exaggerated"
His view comes amid growing outrage over toxic drinking water in the Michigan city
His former boss says Ballenger "is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts"
In a sea of outrage over the toxic drinking water in one of America’s most beleaguered cities, one man has emerged as a leading skeptic of the catastrophe.
Republican pundit, former state lawmaker and Flint resident Bill Ballenger, 74, says he has not been poisoned from bathing and drinking from the taps of a city where authorities continue to advise people not to consume the water.
“The publicity … is overblown,” Ballenger told CNN on Thursday.
That candor cost him his job as a contributing writer for Inside Michigan Politics, a political analysis newsletter.
In a statement Wednesday, newsletter editor and publisher Susan Demas called Ballenger’s comments about the calamity “indefensible” and said he would no longer be associated “in any way, shape or form” with the publication. Ballenger drew fire after he expressed his views in a local radio interview Tuesday, the day Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized to the people of Flint for failing them.
“He is entitled to his opinion,” Demas said of Ballenger, “but not his own facts.”
Demas said she made her decision “with a heavy heart” and apologized to those hurt by Ballenger’s comments “at a time of already considerable anxiety and pain.”
“Flint is a public health catastrophe, as the meticulous research of Virginia Tech and Hurley Medical Center Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha clearly shows,” she said. “I cannot have anyone associated with Inside Michigan Politics who minimizes the impact of this terrible public health disaster that will impact people’s lives for decades to come.”
Scientists not in agreement with Ballenger
Researchers from Virginia Tech have said the Flint River is highly corrosive – 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply.
Flint residents have voiced complaints about their brown and foul-smelling tap water since officials switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the dirty Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.
Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, discovered that the percentage of children in Flint with lead poisoning had doubled in recent years, she told CNN.
“In some neighborhoods, it actually tripled,” she said. “(In) one specific neighborhood, the percentage of kids with lead poisoning went from about 5%, to almost 16% of the kids that were tested. … It directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest.”
Those findings went against trends across the country, which had seen lead levels dropping every year.
Though experts have described Hanna-Attisha’s findings as incontrovertible, Ballenger said he isn’t convinced.
“The idea that the entire population of Flint has been poisoned and that we all have elevated blood levels because of this is just a total canard,” Ballenger told Detroit’s WJR radio. “It’s just a crock, and for this to be perpetuated as a story is doing a lot of damage to Flint as a community.”
Ballenger admitted that some people have been exposed to lead poisoning, but he questioned the severity of the contamination and said further studies were needed.
Ballenger, who previously was a member of the Michigan House of Representatives and the Michigan Senate, was born and raised in Flint, WWJ reported.
He lives in an upscale part of the city part time, according to CNN affiliate WJRT-TV.
“Lead in the water is no joke,” Ballenger’s neighbor Razan Al-Midani told the station.
“Our water is tasting fine, but I don’t want to take the risk, so I’ve been purchasing bottled water,” Al-Midani said. “I would say, ‘Be better safe than sorry,’ even if it has been exaggerated, you still have take the precautions.”
Ballenger, a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Gerald Ford, pointed to reports showing that about 2% of people tested in Flint – 43 out of 2,182 – have shown elevated lead levels.
“There is a problem with the water in Flint,” he told CNN. “But for parts of the last decade … Flint has been pounded. It’s lost half its population. This is terrible publicity for Flint. It’s vastly exaggerated.”
Since auto plants began closing in the 1980s, Flint – a city of 100,000 – has been struggling with declining population, spikes in violent crime and increasing poverty.
’I think mistakes were made’
Asked whether residents with lead-poisoned children or who complain about smelly and foul-tasting water were wrong, Ballenger said: “I’m not telling them they’re wrong. I think mistakes were made in the way the switch was made to the Flint River to use that as a source of water and to keep the water clean. Mistakes were made.”
Ballenger’s stand on the crisis counters a growing tide of concern from around the nation.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, Snyder and President Barack Obama have declared states of emergency, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security leading Washington’s response.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette is investigating whether any laws were broken. Class-action lawsuits by Flint residents will attempt to prove the culpability of government officials.
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.
“The entire city was exposed,” Hanna-Attisha told CNN. “Every neighborhood had high water lead levels. And every neighborhood had children with high blood lead levels.”
The financially struggling city is poorly equipped to deal with mitigating the impact of an irreversible neurotoxin on a community, according to experts.
“There’s no treatment, but there’s a lot of things that we can put in place for these children,” Hanna-Attisha said, citing universal preschool, nutrition, education and health services. “We owe it to these kids to make this better.”
CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Ben Tinker, Tim Hume, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Sara Ganim and Linh Tran contributed to this report.