In response to the ongoing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, environmental activist Lois Gibbs recently visited the city to share organizational strategies with community leaders, demanding infrastructure investment for the reconstruction of water pipes.
Representing her own organization, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), she also went to the Council on Environmental Equality – a White House division that deals with environmental crises – and urged President Obama to “move on this issue,” Gibbs shared in a recent interview with Reuters journalist Ronnie Greene.
Protesters and civil rights activists have flooded Flint’s streets – and national headlines – this year, fighting for the replacement of old, corroding pipelines, still contributing to lead contamination in the water supply.
Gibbs said that, although families in Flint are now hooked back up to the Detroit water system coming in from Lake Huron, instead of the contaminated Flint River, there’s still a major problem.
Lois Gibbs explained:
The problem is, that the lead is in their pipes, and they’ve been putting chemicals in the water to seal the pipes… [but] nobody’s using their water, because there’s lead in the water. There isn’t enough water pressure moving through the water lines for the coating to work. So when mothers of small children run the bath tub, to fill it up to bathe their children, you get a scum on top of the water which is this chemical that’s supposed to be sealing the pipes.
It’s been projected that these lead-filled pipes won’t be sufficiently coated with this protective sealant for 3-5 years, added Gibbs.
Therefore, Flint families are demanding that the major pipelines delivering water into their neighborhoods be replaced entirely.
The biggest issue now is convincing politicians like Governor Rick Snyder to follow through with this costly endeavor.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has put pressure on Snyder to get more money allocated towards the removal of lead pipes, but there’s a great deal of work yet to be done.
Weaver estimated the total cost of pipeline replacements in Flint to fall in the $55 million range – approximately $27 million more than the governor included in his budget request.
With limited financial resources, a grassroots movement in Flint has formed a coalition to fight for the necessary infrastructure investment and innovation. Focusing on scientific tests to prove that lead poisoning was causing poor health in Flint’s constituents, the group wasn’t getting the results they wanted.
That’s where Gibbs stepped in.
Most famous for her role in getting 800 families full evacuations, with all homes purchased at a fair market value, from her own community saturated in toxic waste in the 1970s, Gibbs shared lessons learned from that victory in Love Canal, New York to help Flint residents fight for justice amidst their bleak situation.
“We have to re-think this,” Gibb said, reminding Flint residents the significance of politics versus science when seeking environmental justice.
As the world saw in similar civil lawsuit cases like the Woburn water crisis, also occurring back in the 1970s, the medical community can be “far too slow in recognizing the peril of environmental toxins,” said best-selling author Jonathan Harr, paraphrasing immunologist Dr. Alan Levin, who had served as an expert witness many times in cases involving toxic substances.
Gibbs pointed out that, although science is important in making a case and demonstrating harms that have ensued in the wake of probable environmental dangers, influencing public opinion usually yields quicker results.
This is especially true in poorer communities “that typically bear the brunt of environmental degradation,” according to the CHEJ.
Gibbs’ past success has demonstrated how organized community outrage – mothers with sick children, in particular – is one of the strongest tools in acquiring political attention regarding environmental disasters leading to sickness and disease.
An election year is an especially powerful time to take advantage of these tools.
“If you’re going to make a difference in a community setting, you need to be organized. You need to talk to journalists. You need to get your story out there. You need to put pressure on the decision makers through public opinion,” Gibbs said.
Following Lois Gibbs’ footsteps, the folks in Flint are doing just that. They’re uniting to tell their stories and boldly stating their demands publicly, purposefully putting pressure on politicians.
In addition to demanding new pipes with clean water flowing through them, they want an independent auditor to ensure that all the federal, state, and private money coming in for this cause is not taken and spent by “the crooks” on things other than what’s needed.
Moreover, they want blood tests administered to everyone, not just the children. They also want more special education teachers because of the rampant brain damage and lower IQs, believed to be a direct effect of the lead poisoning in Flint’s children.
Like Love Canal, Gibbs believes Flint’s fight can only be won on a political platform, moving from the bottom to top, enforcing the democratic philosophy of “People Power”, and identifying vulnerabilities in powerful political leaders in order to pressure them into action.
Gibbs plans to be in Flint periodically over the next couple of years to help its communities secure environmental justice, as outlined in the aforementioned demands.