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Lead in Flint water, mold in Detroit schools: an anatomy of a free market disaster

by David Bacon

In spite of the growing sense of disbelief and horror surrounding the lead contamination of drinking water in the Michigan city of Flint, at least one thing is clear: that the catastrophic levels of pollution and destruction are a direct result of the extreme policies pursued by the Michigan’s right-wing leadership.

A very conservative group has controlled Michigan since the election of Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican majority in its legislature in 2011. At the heart of their policies has been a concerted effort to remove control over cities and communities by the people who live in them, and to impose austerity and free market measures on populations who are mostly African American and people of colour.

Some of the key opponents to that threat to democracy, however, have been Detroit’s teachers. This January, the Detroit Federation of Teachers filed lawsuit, and some educators even staged a walkout of the city’s schools, to protest against the “deplorable, dangerous, unhealthy and unacceptable” conditions for children that have emerged from the wreck of Michigan’s autocratic rule.

The key to the conservative’s strategy has been the emergency manager law. While a version of it was passed in 1988 under a Democratic administration, new Republican office holders passed Public Law 4 in 2011, which was much more radical. It gave virtually unlimited powers to unelected managers appointed by the governor in times of financial distress, while elected city councils and school boards lost all decision-making power.

With none of the constraints of public accountability, emergency managers in several cities then proceeded to nullify union bargaining agreements and sell off public assets. Detroit itself was forced into bankruptcy in July 2013.

In nearby Flint, Governor Snyder appointed Darnell Earley as emergency manager in October 2013. Over the next 16 months, Earley laid the groundwork for switching Flint’s water supply from the municipal utility that serves Detroit to pumping water from the Flint River – a waterway that is highly-polluted as a result of decades of toxic waste dumping by auto plants and other heavy industry.

Earley, a Democrat, justified the move as a measure to reduce costs. It has since become clear, however, that his action was connected to a plan to drive Detroit even further into bankruptcy.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has operated with budget deficits that averaged US$57 million a year; debt servicing took up half of its budget. Bondholders, facing the loss of Flint as a customer, pressured for cutting off delinquent customers and raising rates to avoid writing down their investments in bankruptcy proceedings. The French waste and water management multinational, Veolia, was waiting in the wings.

 

Flint is the biggest customer for Detroit’s water

When Detroit’s water agency offered to halve its rates to keep supplying the city, Earley and his successor refused. Instead they signed an agreement to put Flint into the hands of a new water supplier connected to Veolia.

Without Flint as a customer, Detroit residents now have to pay higher rates. Detroit itself may have to sell its public water system – one of its main assets – to private investors.

One year ago, under the decree of Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr, the water district began to shut off water services to poor residents behind on their bills. Only a global outcry stalled the move. At the same time Orr began negotiations with Veolia.

In February 2015 Veolia was then hired by Flint to study its water, after the switch in sources had been made. Public health doctors were already warning state and federal authorities that the level of lead in the drinking water pumped from the Flint River was alarmingly high. Lead is a recognised cause of learning disabilities in children, and the damage to their cognitive development is permanent.

Veolia announced that Flint’s water was safe. It echoed similar false safety claims by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency under the control of Governor Snyder. However, last year even General Motors stopped using Flint water in its car manufacturing plant because it was causing corrosion.

Eventually Snyder was forced to admit that corrosive river water was dissolving the lining of Flint’s ancient lead pipes, causing a spike in the metal’s concentration.

Embarrassing emails revealed knowledge by state authorities of the lead contamination, at the same time they were ridiculing parents and public health officials who warned of the danger.

Eventually a state of emergency was declared, and President Barack Obama offered US$80 million in relief, although replacing the city’s pipes is likely to cost over US$1 billion.

 

Emergency in Detroit’s schools

After leaving Flint, in January 2015 Earley was appointed by Governor Snyder as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) – the system’s fourth emergency manager in seven years.

The main program of all four has been the privatisation of Detroit schools. By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, 36 per cent of students (50,139 students) were already attending private charter schools, and another 41 schools (30 per cent of the district serving 16,000 students) were converted into charters.

The Deficit Elimination Plan – agreed between managers and the state of Michigan in a bid to erase DPS’ US$20.4 million deficit by the end of 2021 – required the district to close a further 70 schools over two years, and raise class sizes to 60 students at high school level.

Voters rebelled and repealed Public Law 4 in the 2012 election. The legislature moved even further to the right, however, passing a law forbidding contracts that require union membership as a condition of employment (a so-called “Right to Work” law), and then passed Public Law 4 again in a slightly modified form, as Public Act 436.

In a recent opinion piece, Pamela Pugh, treasurer of the (elected) State of Michigan Board of Education, wrote: “After more than six years of a failed state takeover, Detroit Public Schools have deteriorated into a destabilised education system, marred by decreased academic outcomes and increased deficit, upward of US$3.5 billion. Just as Flint’s water crisis occurred under emergency management, so did the demise of the Detroit school district.”

Last month, the Detroit Federation of Teachers finally filed a lawsuit to force Earley to resign, and to return the schools to control by an elected school board. “Asking a child to learn or a teacher to instruct in classrooms with steam coming from their mouth due to the cold in the classroom, in vermin-infested rooms, with ceiling tiles falling from above and buckets to catch the rainwater, or in buildings that are literally making them sick, is more than what is legally or constitutionally tolerable”, the suit says.

Other conditions named in the action include black mold, bacteria, freezing cold or boiling hot classrooms, rats and insects, exposed wiring and falling debris.

At the beginning of this February Earley finally resigned, telling Governor Snyder he’d completed his work of “comprehensive restructuring” months ahead of schedule. And as hundreds of teachers staging a‘sickout’rallied in front of the school district offices, Snyder announced he’d appoint a ‘transition leader’ to move the schools back toward local control.

“Educators and parents have been raising the red flag for years about dangerous school conditions, only to be snubbed, ignored and disrespected by DPS and the emergency managers, including Earley”, said Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “The state has brought the school district to its knees, and now it’s time to give up the reins.”

Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint have been used as a laboratory for market-based policies and the most extreme forms of austerity. The results have been deadly.

Detroit remains in bankruptcy and emergency managers still wreak havoc in several other cities. Detroit schools, even without an emergency manager, will take many years to recover from the devastation caused by disinvestment and privatisation. The water in Flint still has lead, and the children damaged by its pollution will never fully heal.

As Americans go to the polls to vote this year, they must remember that conservative candidates all over the country are proposing to extend policies like those enacted in Michigan. The actions of politicians shouldn’t just be debated in the abstract; when people are forced to suffer the very real consequences of political negligence such as that wrought on Flint and Detroit, individuals must be held to account.

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