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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Callous Indifference

March 10, 2017

FLINT – You might have thought the Snyder administration would have learned trying to keep information about Flint hidden doesn’t work very well.

But sadly, you’d be wrong.

Last week, state officials refused to take part in a scheduled meeting in which a team of university researchers were to present their preliminary findings about a mysterious outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint.

The meeting was about to start, when state officials learned that the Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership or FACHEP, had invited someone to attend: Pamela Pugh, chief public health advisor for the City of Flint.

Pugh would appear to more than have adequate credentials. Besides her role with the city, she has a PhD in public health from the University of Michigan, in addition to a degree in chemical engineering.

She is also a member of the State Board of Education, having won that post in a statewide election three years ago.

But state officials demanded she not be there. “I was singled out and basically told by Eden Wells … that since I wasn’t a public health authority under Michigan’s public health code, that I should leave the room.”

She refused. “I responded by stating that my job is to protect the health and well-being of Flint residents, (and) therefore I have every right to hear firsthand the information that was presented.” When she refused to leave, she told me in an interview afterwards “the meeting was abruptly terminated.”

Some of those present found the state’s reaction bizarre. (Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, has come under fire for working only part-time during the original Flint water crisis, something apparently illegal under state law.)

Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, was angry, “shocked and disappointed” about the state’s move. “We absolutely should be at the table when information about Flint is shared,” she said in a press release, not just “after everyone on the state and county level has had a chance to review, critique and share it. The fact that we were at the table this time and told to leave is unbelievable,” said the mayor, who herself has a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Later, Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, issued his own press release.

Lyon, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, claimed the state “neither had the responsibility or intent to exclude anyone from the meeting.”

Instead, he rather bizarrely blamed Wayne State University, part of the partnership studying what happened with the Legionnaires’ disease, for lax “data management, study protocols and research ethics” in connection with FACHEP.

Wayne State studiously refrained from taking sides, but Stephen Lanier, WSU’s vice president for research, said “We have the utmost confidence in our researchers as they adhere to the highest federal and state standards in research ethics, including the protection of our human subjects.”

(Full disclosure: This columnist has been a full-time faculty member at WSU for 23 years. The school is normally meticulous to the point of obsessive about ethical rules.)

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) the city’s congressman, told me he was baffled and dismayed by the state. “I know Pam Pugh pretty well. Of course she should have been in that meeting,” he said. “There are so many issues surrounding the Flint water crisis, and one of the biggest problems is a loss of trust. That they would do this is hard to believe.”

Hard to believe, perhaps – but the Snyder administration has a long history of horrible policy missteps combined with what looks like callous indifference to Flint, a city of about 100,000 mostly poor and mostly black people north of Detroit.

The administration’s credibility was severely shaken less than two years ago, when, after months of denials, belittling of journalists and attempts at a cover-up, it was discovered that the water in Flint was indeed seriously contaminated by lead.

Flint had been governed by a series of Snyder-appointed emergency managers who – to save money – switched from water purchased from Detroit to water from the Flint River.

The water was so corrosive it leached lead out of old pipes in the industrial city, poisoning thousands.

For months, the Snyder administration denied anything was wrong with the water, till independent researchers confirmed it was poisoned. Then last year, it was learned that more than 70 people had gotten Legionnaires’ Disease during the year and a half Flint was using bad water from the river.

Twelve people died during 2014 and 2015. State and federal authorities knew about this at the time, and considered warning the public, but never did.

When news of the Legionnaires’ outbreak became public last year, the governor claimed he never had been told about it.

Though state officials initially expressed skepticism the disease was connected to the river water, last month the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta announced that they had, indeed, found a genetic link between the water and the illness.

Last week’s meeting may have provided more information, but the state torpedoed it. “It can appear as if they are looking for a reason to keep information closed,” Pugh said. “That definitely doesn’t look good for the state.”

Not in the least. This happened just days after the governor told Weaver he was cutting off state subsidies to help Flint families pay their water bills, since the water is now technically good enough to drink.

What’s more, he added that if people didn’t pay their bills, their old pipes would not be replaced. Both the mayor and the congressman said that was outrageous, given that Snyder appointees caused the crisis by switching the water without the residents’ consent.

“If someone is behind (on their bills), we are still going to take care of you,” Mayor Weaver said. She intends to keep replacing the city’s many dangerous old lead pipes, at least “until the money runs out.”

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 9, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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