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Michigan’s Republican Governor Cuts Off Free Water Supplies in Flint

Auditi Guha

“Basically what the governor did was he thumbed his nose up at the citizens showing us that fiscal concerns are more important to him than humanity itself."

A handful of Flint residents last week blocked a stretch of I-69, a day after the Michigan government announced it will no longer provide free bottled water to residents four years into the city’s public health crisis. 

The closure came a week after Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, received a long-sought permit from the state to increase the amount of water it’s allowed to pump—from 250 to as much as 400 gallons-per-minute—for a $200 annual fee.

“Clean water … all we want is clean water,” said Kinneta Collins, one of the protesters. “We ain’t going anywhere ‘til we get this water situation clean.”

Bottled water sales in the United States outpaced soda profits for the first time in 2016, Bloomberg reported.

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Residents still struggling to access clean water and facing water shutoffs for not being able to pay steep water bills told Rewire.News that once again, state officials are putting profit above clean water and their lives—which is how the water crisis began, when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River on April 25, 2014.

“The Nestlé decision and the decision to end the distribution of bottled water in Flint are completely unrelated,” said Tanya Baker, deputy press secretary for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. “The decision to end bottled water distribution in the City of Flint was made due to the city’s water system stabilizing and testing well below federal action levels for nearly two years.”

“No, it’s not a coincidence,” said Karina Petri, founder of Project Flint, a grassroots organization. “This is such corruption all the way from the bottom to the top.”

As Nestlé continues to acquire water from Michigan, one of about 100 bottled water factories the company runs in 34 countries, Flint activists pointed to the corporate giant’s unethical practices around the world, as well as the Snyder administration’s ties to Nestlé.

The Swiss multinational company has pushed infant formula over breastfeeding in developing countries, been accused of sourcing products made from child labor, been accused of contributing to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest, and has continued to bottle water in California despite drought conditions.

Arlene Anderson-Vincent, a Nestlé spokesperson, outlined initiatives the company has undertaken to help Flint, including providing free water to city schools.

“Nestlé Waters pays the rate set by the local and state authorities at all of our sites. We do not receive a special rate for water use. While it makes for catchy headlines, we are not buying millions of gallons of water for $200. That $200 is an annual fee that goes to the state, similar to a car registration fee. It’s just one of the many expenses we pay to operate in Michigan,” Anderson-Vincent said in an email to Rewire.News.

Local activists countered the company’s claims.

“Nestle has NOT been donating water to the community. They pledged 1.5 million bottles to Flint schools two years ago through Wal-Mart. The schools ran out long ago,” said Melissa Mays, local activist and a founder of Water You Fighting For. “Just two days before the state cut off our bottled water, they allowed Nestle to double their withdrawal of pure water from state aquifers at no extra cost, even though over 80,000 residents spoke out against it. It shows how the state continues to put corporate interests over the residents.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on April 2 approved the permit Nestle had sought since 2016.

Despite government claims about the lead levels, many in Flint still report discolored, smelly, and undrinkable tap water they are afraid to use. The latest developments have left the city’s largely Black and low-income residents feeling disillusioned, cheated, and ignored.

The closure of the state-funded water distribution centers, or free PODs, happened quickly and has led to “panic, outrage, hurt, anger, disappointment,” said the Rev. Stacy Swimp from the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle in Flint, one of the churches organizing weekly water drives since the PODs closed.

“Basically what the governor did was he thumbed his nose up at the citizens, showing us that fiscal concerns are more important to him than humanity itself,” he said.

The decision came as a surprise to Mayor Karen Weaver. She said she tried to talk to Gov. Snyder about the decision, but did not get very far. “When we talked about the PODs, the governor said we need to get over it. He said the water is testing well and we need to move on,” she said this week in a press conference.

Flint still has about 12,000 homes with tainted lead service lines that need replacing. “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have PODs stay open until then, and they backed out on what they said,” she said.

Public trust has long eroded in Flint, a city of 100,000 that has long been one of the nation’s most dangerous and most poor. On top of the unresolved water crisis, Genesee County recently received an “F” for poor air quality in a report from the American Lung Association.

Almost 3,000 residents joined a telephone town hall meeting last week to discuss the decision to stop the PODs and the approval of Nestle’s permit. State Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and state senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) called for for stronger oversight and legislative hearings.

Ananich’s family lives on bottled water and pays an average of $125 a month in water bills. He and his neighbors are “still traumatized by the poison water they drank and the lies they were forced to swallow,” he said. “I have repeatedly called on Governor Snyder to step up and make sure every Michigan resident has access to good clean water, no matter where they live. If we don’t make some serious policy changes a water crisis could happen in any town across this state—and in too many places it’s already begun.”

Syrah Scott, executive chairman of the National Clean Water Collective (NCWC), has travelled to Flint for two years. She told Rewire.News the situation has gotten worse with the lack of free bottled water.

“People don’t have clean water. Some have changed the pipes in their homes but the mains are not changed. They are too scared to shower, or brush with it, or cook with it, or anything,” she said, adding that she doesn’t touch the water there.

The NCWC is organizing a jamboree and telethon in Flint this weekend to deliver advanced water filtration units, open one of the closed community pools, organize a tree planting, and push for environmental justice, she said. 

Locals are taking matters into their own hands as the Snyder administration once again turns its back to the plight of Flint.

Local celebrities and organizations like Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation are fighting for water rights and advocating change; young activist Little Miss Flint, or Mari Copeny, started an online campaign that has raised more than $22,500 in seven days. Flint officials are threatening to sue the state, and so are residents looking for continued bottled water distribution. Meanwhile, the city council this week demanded $6.1 million from the state’s emergency reserve fund to pay water and sewer bills.

“What voice do the people most impacted by those relationships and actions have? What decision making power do they have when it comes to them being able to fight for their lives?” said Rosana Cruz, vice president of movement and capacity building at Race Forward, a nonprofit racial justice organization. She said it will hold its annual conference in Detroit this November to raise awareness and remind people that “Flint is a harbinger. It’s one of the places that is experiencing this gross racial injustice around drinking water but it is not the only one.”

“For me this is an issue that really indicates why it is so crucial to understand the phrase and the movement Black Lives Matter as something that is relevant to Black people in this country and in Michigan in particular, where people are negatively being impacted by policies,” Cruz said. “This affects many different communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities. There is massive opportunity here for the media to support saving lives and really looking at how we can support the people in Flint in having some self determination and the tools to hold corporations like Nestlé accountable.”

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