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April 18, 2021

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water Crisis (ft. Anna Clark)

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water Crisis (ft. Anna Clark)
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Anna Clark is an accomplished author and journalist.

In The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy, Anna examines what happened to poison the water in Flint, Michigan. She digs into the public policies that need reform and drinking water policy decisions by the Flint and Michigan governments.

Anna Clark lives in Detroit. She is a reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism with moral force.

  • Ann Clark's book won the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award. It was also named one of the year's best books by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Public Library, Audible, and others.
  • Visit the author's website for more information about Anna Clark.


Read the Poisoned City Parable, a blog post by Radio Free Flint that discusses the lessons from the Flint Water Crisis.


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This transcript is generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before using it as a reference or source.

Arthur A. Busch 0:05 

Much has been written and said about Flint's water crisis. There has been an avalanche of television news stories and newspaper articles, all reporting about the crisis. Professional reporters are earnestly seeking the truth. We seek to make some sense out of the morass about what went wrong, how to correct the problems, and who to hold accountable.

Arthur A. Busch 0:38 

At this point in the Flint water crisis, authors of books about various aspects of the crisis can help us understand what happened, who did what, and what needs to be fixed. Unlike the Bible, no one book seems to have encompassing answers to life's tangled messes. It is important to seek researchers who can tell the story about the poisoned City. 

In fact, it will take several books to understand the ins and outs of the Flint water crisis because it's an enormously complex event with long-term implications for the people of Flint, Genesee County. Please note that no one person has or will write a book that tells us the whole picture because that would be except in an exceptionally large project. 

We plan to interview these people and ask them to share their research and the implications for ordinary citizens. 

My guest is an acclaimed author and writer Anna Clark, who lives in Detroit. She's a reporter for Pro Publica, a nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism with a moral force. She is also the author of the poisoned city Flint Water Crisis in the American urban tragedy. This book is won numerous awards, including the Hillman Prize for book journalism, and has also been named one of the year's best books by the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Public Library, audible, and others. 

Our music intro for this podcast is by Colton Ort, who performs his song, the Flint River Blues, the folk group mustards retreat of Ann Arbor, Michigan, performs the outro song, take the children, and run. The songs are about the Flint water crisis, both songwriters authorized the use of their music. Thank you, I hope you enjoy the episode.

Arthur A. Busch 0:00 

Hello, welcome to Radio Free Flint. This is Arthur Busch, your host. Okay, we're back. And we have Anna Clark, the author of the poisoned city, Flint's water crisis in the urban tragedy, which was published in July of 2018. You call this an unnatural crisis?

Anna Clark  3:10

Well, I'm not sure how I came up with it. But the fact of it true. So first of all, it's lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me to this program. I look at the conversation with you. But yes, in a natural crisis, that, and I mean that in two ways. One is that in the gist of the events of the last six years, I guess, six, seven years, more the specific events of like, how this water crisis was caused and prolonged. All of that was man-made. It didn't have to happen. It was choices, people were making choices, both concerted choices and de facto choices, but of neglect. And I also mean, it's an unnatural crisis and the larger history of like why the city was in such a precarious and vulnerable position in the first place. As all that's transpired,

Arthur A. Busch 4:01 

We'll talk about that in a second. How did you get the poison in the title of the book?

Anna Clark 4:08 

Now, it's interesting you say that because I did originally have a different title for my version, I proposed at the start was something like was taken off from the epigraph of the book, which is this quote from Toni Morrison, the title I had was like waters, perfect memory, like Flint, Michigan, and the poisoning of the American city or something like that. So poisoning was in there, but it was in the subtitle. It goes by the epigraph of, like, all water has a perfect memory. It's always trying to get back to where it was, which I felt was evocative in many ways of this story. But the publisher, the publisher didn't like that. And wanted it. She felt like the poison that was in the subtitle should be punched up. She was probably right when it comes to probably right I think I did argue it, so I was like, I had a more. I was like, Oh, it's poetic. Do you know? She's like, no. 

The point is, I like that the word evokes a lot of the different kinds of toxic consequences that happened from this. And it also put some, a little bit of weight on the fact that it was caused by actual actions and just didn't just happen, there were actual choices that people made.

Arthur A. Busch 5:22 

So, when we think of the word poison, we think of somebody, I think about it as a lawyer, as a prosecutor, if somebody poisoned somebody, I have to show that they did it purposefully. And or with some intention, it was not an accident. And I guess that's why you asked the question. This was not an accident is the thesis of the book, isn't it?

Anna Clark  5:42

A lot of these questions are literally being debated in courtrooms right now like, the level of intention and awareness even. There were many, many opportunities for this to not be as bad as it was, right? Like there are all these choices, there's a choice to like, have this emergency manager that limited the amount of like accountability that was happened, there is a choice to not build out the city water plant with the staffing and resources that would need to treat a more complex water source properly, there was a choice to leave Detroit's water system at all, there was a choice to like, do this like a weird little temporary switch in the first place, which no other future customer of kW a did. And that's all just like in the lead up to this, there's a choice to not like treat the water with corrosion control, despite that being a violation of federal law. And then, as things continued, as the problems like progress as people, there was a choice to like ignore people's complaints. There is a choice to dismiss the fact that the water was corroding GM's engine plants so badly that they needed to leave and hook on to a suburbs water plant.

Arthur A. Busch 6:51 

That's pretty powerful, isn't it? When it can mess up the cars, but not the people? Let me ask you a more basic question that authors should be able to answer in, in a meeting with their editor. What's the thesis of this book?

Anna Clark 7:04 

That's a very good question. What I hope that the book did, I want the book to make it plain that what happened, first of all, that what happened here was a story of like profound environmental injustice and erosion of democratic and human rights. And I want to set that in context with the broader history of infrastructure inequality in the city, which hinges on the way that we built our cities in separate and unequal ways. And we did it on purpose. We are the consequences of that are still playing out today. So this is certainly a story about Flint. Still, it's also this broader, difficult relationship that I think this country has with its cities, which is why we see a pattern of these like hollowed out urban cores surrounded by more prosperous, relatively more prosperous suburbs.

Arthur A. Busch 7:52 

Now, you seem like a pretty successful writer. I mean, when I look at your roster of articles you publish, you're not sitting at home looking for something to do it. And you're a world-class writer. And you can write about any number of things, and you generally have written about things that deal with justice and an environment, some of these broad themes of all the things you depict in the world. Why? What was it that motivated you to write this book?

Anna Clark 8:18 

Well, first of all, those are kind words I will say, like, you know, up until just a couple of months ago, I've been a self-employed self-supporting writer, and they'll tell you what it is a hustle.

Anna Clark  8:30

But one thing I did love, especially about being a full-time freelancer, is that there is room for choice, right? Like I can like choosing to follow what matters to me. One thing that drew me to Flint is, first of all, like it's sort of embodied a lot of this a lot of stories that I had cared about and written about in the past and different forms, you know, like I've been following the infrastructure and water and emergency manager issues like here in Detroit where I am I'm interested in environmental service put like all these kinds of things that seem to like all come together in this unique way in Flint. 

I like Flint and came to like it even more as I spent time there and got to know people there, which also drew me to it. I felt like the story, even when it got a lot of attention, was truly a surreal degree for a while there. I felt like there was a lot of misinformation, sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes not a lot of misinformation that was like out there, making it even more confusing despite having a spotlight on it. 

I wanted an opportunity I wanted to be able to tell a story about what happened there that in context of like this, like a broader, complicated, separate unequal story about cities, and I wanted to do it in a way that like had like some history and some nuance like this is what I appreciate the opportunity to do a book even when I did some long articles. You just can't. Everything is in, and frankly, you can't in the book. Either, this is why we need many good books, documentaries, and all this kind of stuff and podcasts and so on. 

But I wanted to, like, offer some kind of contribution here to what I hope to impact people.  hopefully, inspire folks to think differently about their relationship with their communities with water, 

I mean, we're talking in the like, at the tail end of this like pandemic like we've had we've, there's our whole society has had to, like think anew about what's essential, right? Like, what if nothing must a city do? And certainly, that's drinking water. Certainly, that includes water, like this basic stuff of life. I hope people like encountering the story of what happened in Flint and think differently about their relationship with that in their own communities as well.

I didn't know this until I was working on the book. But it turns out I had a family connection in Flint. My grandmother was born there to one of the sit-down strikers in the middle of the sit-down strike, a family story that I never knew.  I've mentioned this to my grandma.  I'm working on this book about flit. And she's like, oh, here's this, here's this little interesting biographical information. I was like, Grandma, why don't you ever tell me this? That's an amazing story. Right?

Arthur A. Busch 11:12 

Somebody that reviewed your book said Flint's not so much an outlier, but it's a parable,

Anna Clark 11:19

I think it guess inspires a few thoughts, like one is, in some ways, I think what happened in Flint was unusual, was escalated to an unusual degree. And I want what was uniquely difficult there to be understood on its terms, respected, and acknowledged. 

That said, I do think some people have mistakenly thought that if their community isn't Flint, or doesn't look like Flint, then they're immune from a lot of what Flint faced. And that's not the right way to view that, either. And that, in that sense, people interpret it as a parable rather than great, like something they can learn from. 

I want what is accepted about Flint's story to be acknowledged as such, but not to the degree that people think it's holy if they're not appointed that this is wholly separate from them and their lives. I mean, I mean, I'm sure you've heard this to a lot of the last few years if somebody had some, some communities had some like water complaints or some issues, a lot of the defenses like, oh, but we're not Flint, we're not Flint, what First of all, what does that mean?

And second of all, you might not that like sort of like knee jerk defense can cause a lot of those same problems that we did see in Flint, like, in other words, we have the decaying infrastructure, segregation, concentrated poverty, a lot of these things are like problems everywhere that we all must reckon with. And if people interpret that as a flint story, as a parable that helps them awaken them to that in their communities, then Great.

Arthur A. Busch 12:53 

Well, this crisis was a product of disinvestment. The lack of updating the water infrastructure, pipes, and so forth contributed significantly to this problem but was designed to be a city of about 200,000 people. Today, it's, I think, your book cited, it was 96, or 98,000, or whatever, it's probably down now, even more since the pandemic, but we still have all those pipes. And the cost of maintenance of those pipes is extraordinary. 

But you know, most of these areas where maintenance has been deferred. It's the entire city. I mean, there's been a big history of robbing the fun that goes into the infrastructure development. There was a lawsuit about whether or not the city should be the emergency manager, should be taking money out of the water fund, and spending it on other things that don't relate to the water or infrastructure. 

That disinvestment begs the question of whether there should be any investment in certain parts of that city. That's a great debate that underlies much of what we've seen here: many houses are no longer here anymore, but there are many pipes under the ground. The problem is you can't drill a well. General Motors polluted the aquifer and then Hebrew. And that's not a funny matter. So, the question becomes, and it's a question in Detroit, it's a question in Flint, and a question in a lot of cities that are like Flint, Detroit, I think of cities that were once great industrial towns is So to what extent and how aggressive should they be to try and be bold and take action before this problem? harm smart people?

Anna Clark  14:43

First of all, I appreciate your talking about this larger structural problem that so many cities that have lost tremendous population and industry, you know, faced with their infrastructure because it is a real problem. It was like the water crisis in Flint before the water crisis. This right? And certainly there was a water crisis before there was a water crisis in Flint.

Anna Clark  15:06

Yeah, I mean, I mean, they're I mean, it just literally was, I mean, they were losing, like a third of their water just through leaks, right, which, of course, just makes these are bills that are already among the most very, most expensive in the nation most expensive even before we count for the fact that as a disproportionately poor people, or population, and of course, an eat. 

But even at those rates, you can maintain the system you've got because you, of course, have a small, much smaller population, shouldering the burden of it's just lit, it's just mathematically impossible. There's just like it can't be done have these like excessively high-water rates in cities that have, first of all, like, even if you could afford them, they're too high. But also, a lot of people can't afford them. 

So, there was this, like the whole spate of like water mass water shutoffs, and then there are illegal hookups. And then there's like prosecutions for it. And then you have these water security deposits before you can move into a place on top of regular rent security to a place which makes it difficult to move, it was a huge problem. And none of its like really getting at the root of the problem, which is, of course, as you're saying, you know, of having an infrastructure design,  for more than twice the number of people, but also like a huge industrial sector, right, that consumed a tremendous amount of water. And in Flint, that also meant having pipes of a large circumference, which literally made this water crisis worse.

 First of all, like in the story of like, what, you know, putting the city in this vulnerable place, to begin with, but also the fact that as these pipes are corroding, you know, when they're when the water is like passing more slowly, through areas where there's a lot of vacancies or sitting stagnant longer in these like giant pipes where it's just, it's just not moving as fast. It has more time to get more saturated with contaminants when people draw it from their tap. 

So this like hallowing out of the population and out of the industry, while having this, like overly large aging in water system made the events of this water crisis worse, in addition to like creating a sort of water crisis of its affordability and access and quality.

And it's not an easy problem to solve is you're kind of like intuiting, like, in Detroit, that was like a huge debate of it was like ten years ago, there's this whole proposal of like, kind of like what you're saying, like, what if we just like move people into like, be more, you know, so it's a more, we're denser, densely populated, we can't afford to send, you know, services, not just water, but like ambulances and things, you know, when there's like in these, like, relatively, you know, led to the far afield from each other. But it did have a tremendous backlash against that because people felt like, you know, well, first of all, if you start,

Arthur A. Busch 17:57 

Oh, you've got the expensive roads, you've got the expensive streetlights, and you've got the expensive utility infrastructure. And all that goes with all that into the land that is not being you know that the cost per unit is not economic. And your research concludes it. That's part of the cause of the Flint water crisis is austerity politics. But when you start to look at austerity politics, we would begin to look at how to cut down those overhead costs. What would that save a place like Detroit or Flint? It might be eye-popping back to your book. 

The research you did to do this book deals with austerity politics. And when you look at austerity politics, did you find that to be the case in the Flint water crisis is part of the reason for the problem?

Anna Clark  18:52

Yes, and no, I guess. Here's one thing that's strange. And honestly, this is a question that's still at the top of my mind that I would I look forward to understanding more, whether through writing, whether through what comes out in legal proceedings, or whatever it is, but, you know, the shorthand explanation that a lot of people give for this, what happened with the water story is they say that like, you know, Flint switched its water to save money. When I looked back at that was like, Well, I was curious about that, like, well, exactly how much money and you know, how what was that looking like at the time, you know, with the information people had at the time what was what did the leaders know? What did you know, consultants know, what did the people know? You know, what, what were people working with here? How is that conversation going? And the idea of like saving money, like it was honestly, like pretty foggy. 

Flint went into significant debt beyond its legal debt limit to join the KWA. In addition to the KWA is the water pipeline. The new water pipeline did Port Huron, right like the kind of so they're going to leave Detroit which they felt charged us expensive rates. We don't have a seat on the board. And this, this was some of the ying and yang going back, you know, for a long time. 

And they're like; we're going to join that the KWA system. And we're going to finance like a third of its construction that through like, bonds, even though the city, because it's broke, is already at its legal debt limit, this is part of what's come up. And a lot of the charges as people to look kind of workaround was designed to finance that the water they get eventually from the KWA, they're going to have to treat themselves. It's raw water from Lake Huron, as opposed to treated water from Lake Huron that Detroit provided. 

So, they would have to have its treatment plant in full operation indefinitely, right? They're gonna have to invest in it. And they're going to have to, you know, do the staffing for it. And they're going to have to do that for long term. All of these are like costs that they're taking on to get something it already had in the first place, which is water from drinking water from Lake Huron, if people thought it was going to make their bills go down, or at least stop the rate increases, they were also disappointed because shortly after this water switch, the emergency manager signed it like a two year budget that involved like rate increases that were like up to 12%, I believe this is going to save the city money, I'm a little bit mystified about, like, it didn't seem to be about what that actually meant. Because it doesn't seem to be saving anybody money, neither the city nor the residents, there was a lot of language at the time, about how long term this will save the region $20 million or so you know, annually or something like that. But like the region, you know, like it was kind of like, in put in more vague terms. The idea about it like being like no austerity choice, I'm a little bit confused by it. Because that because even though an emergency manager was in town to ostensibly, get rid of redundancies and all this kind of stuff, and even though Flint had like, truly, you know, a lot of really urgent needs, the thing that we went into greater depth for was to provide something it already had in the first place. So, I'm confused by that.

Arthur A. Busch 22:05 

In your research, you said, you basically say that they're spent a great deal of government malfeasance. And you've spoke to that earlier to some extent, but who is malfeasant?

Anna Clark  22:17

One is I do think the folks who are supervising this water switch at the Department of Environmental Quality had a lot of responsibility to make sure the switch went with done properly, that the investments were made to treat the water well, that when problems did emerge, that they were responded to effectively, that basically that the city of Flint would be if we're going to do this whole complex to time water switch, that we're going to do it in a way that is makes sure that the people Flint, like have quality drinking water every single day of that. It didn't happen, despite there being a lot of reasons why even at the outset, the investments at the plant the staffing, some like red flags that were raised at the time, it didn't happen. And so I feel like that's a problem. And I think later on there was like, more problems, you know, that emerged to with the folks in the health department and others who were like monitoring blood blood tests, and some things like this some of the information that was not as transparent as and accurate, as it should have been the fact that there this legionnaires outbreak was going on for two years, two years and killing people, and that it wasn't even made public until January of 2016. When the world spotlight was ordered, like had finally come to Flint A few months after it had returned to Detroit. The fact that that wasn't made public is extraordinary.

Arthur A. Busch 23:46 

It's extraordinary, because it was the largest outbreak of Legionella in the world.

Anna Clark 23:51 

It's a real problem like the fact and other communities. I mean, I looked a little bit at this at like other communities I faced legionnaires outbreak handled it very differently. Like one reason you are transparent even when you're still investigating the cause of it or whatever is so people can make decisions that to keep themselves safe, pretty crucial information. And it was important to have been transparent about that so that health providers are doing the proper testing and, and monitoring. You know, it's widely suspected that a lot of people who were sickened or died of pneumonia over those years might have actually had Legionnaires disease the the medical information wasn't collected as such or tested as such. health providers didn't know that that was this particular thing that they should be looking for. And in the symptoms of it are very similar to pneumonia, that has denied us at like an opportunity to have a full understanding of what happened. Right first of all with the legionnaires outbreak and what its total human cost was potentially put a lot of people or quite a large number of people at risk for this outbreak.

Arthur A. Busch 24:59 

One or the other. underreported stories, when you write a book, and you do this kind of research, probably a few pages of notes and a few, you know, a few hours of research gone here or there that you just say, well, it's not really in the lane, but it's tangential. What are some of the stories that we haven't heard yet, or some of the threads that maybe need to be followed up? I mean, Legionella is one they should be. If we have a daily newspaper here, they should be reporting what's happening with McLaren hospital on a routine basis.

Anna Clark  25:29

Yeah, there's like things that I wish I could have included, but I just couldn't.

Arthur A. Busch 25:34 

What was it you wish you could have included?

Anna Clark 25:36

My book focuses like thinking more about it in this like kind of structural and historic lens, urban policy and public policy, kind of like Lynn said, I hope it's a very human story as well to its focuses on this, like why cities are made vulnerable. This is one reason I appreciate Dr. Mona's book because she provides some of that and Ben Polly's book that gets more into embedded with the activist more granular detail about like how, see I'm so this is what like, no one book can do everything. Like you need other good things out there. And among us, I think we're hitting different points of emphasis, all of which are important. But if you put it all together in one book, it'd be just too much.

Arthur A. Busch 26:16 

Did you find anything that drew your attention? In your research or the financing of this itself? I mean, Flint went from being a city that was already close, teetering near bankruptcy, to now being totally in hock to JP Morgan Chase through the bonds.

Anna Clark 26:37 

Yeah, that's another piece that I would love to go more in depth with. Like, right. And I don't feel that doors closed. Right. I feel like there's a lot more to ask. And I'm curious, I lucked out with the with the with the money. But it's critical, trying to understand where people were coming from with the decisions that they were making in the first place with leaving Detroit joining the KWA the interesting things is like the fact that it's like raw water, right is the untreated water, which like, it just implies that it's meant to be more, if I remember, right, like it is meant to be more useful to kind of industrial and agriculture customers, basically, more than individuals who just need regular drinking water. I do think there's this like whole larger question. I do think Michigan is a place where water is are abundant, especially with climate change coming, I think we're like heading into a time where like, other places are dealing with quite a lot of scarcity. And I do think that there are a lot of decisions out and this is not just like with like Flint stuff, it's also with the Great Lakes compact and other things that are going on. A lot of what's the decisions being made now are setting really powerful precedents for who gets to decide the people who control the water gonna be very powerful indeed.

 Well, that would be JP Morgan, when, and then the bonds are Yeah, the bonds are gonna, like tell a really important story,

Arthur A. Busch 28:36 

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the city of Flint is going to have trouble paying its bills for a long time.

Anna Clark 28:45

Yeah. And well, it makes, it makes it difficult to be flexible, like with, you know, just adapting to adapting to like the evolving needs of like the community, like for the folks who are there and how they want to like to reimagine their city and stuff like that. I mean, if you're locked in, the more long of these long-term ways of being like locked in does ultimately limit your choices. So, if you're getting water, and you're one of the poorest cities in the country, and you're paying the highest price for water of any city in America, that doesn't give you some options that normally if you're a good manager, you'd look to see how you could draw that cost down.

Anna Clark  29:27

You would I think, that would talk about like an economic development thing, like a lot of people in Flint were spending less of their money on these like high water bills, and could instead spend that money like in the community, you know, what I mean, like at local businesses or other things like that, or like, you know, enroll in a course or whatever. It's, it's a real burden for people and even if they can't afford it, either, you know, you know, people like art have the means where they're like it's expensive, but I can pay it. It still takes a while.

Arthur A. Busch 29:56 

I call it economic development in reverse. Because essentially what you do is set a building up the city as you guarantee as poverty until the long-term borrowing money to get out of debt has always been a kind of a bad idea.

Detroit knows this did lead us down a dark road, you know, I happen to agree with your point of view. I'm sure there are others who don't. And again, it didn't if you have bad political decision making, that can certainly make things more compound problems, but Flint had bad pipes before bad decisions happened. As to the water. But Lansing had the same problem. I found it fascinating that Lansing before the Flint water crisis actually addressed this. In one of the articles you wrote, you tell that story.

Anna Clark  30:45

It is a fascinating story. First of all, like we have aging infrastructure all over this country, including in wealthier, more privileged, whiter communities. We have lead pipes everywhere and lead plumbing and despite it being one of the world's best-known neurotoxins, and we've never really summoned this, like the political will to seriously change that. But it just never rises to the top of, of like, you would need the courage to like take it on, because it's expensive, because it might not even be what your voters care about. Most, you know, the constituents care about most a lot of people just take their water for granted that pipes are underground. Like in Michigan, we can't even deal with our we haven't even figured out how to fix our roads, even though that's something that people complain about every single day. And it's right in front of us the infrastructure that's underground, which is equally if not more neglected, and more essential for her ability to live visible to most of us. And so, we don't even, it's not the thing that we're calling our mayor about.

Arthur Busch 31:48 

Well, in Genesee County, there have been some community some governments that have actually taken the bull by the horns. And you know what they've done. They've dug up all the asphalt and all the all the cement that covers the road and turn it back into a dirt road.

Anna Clark  32:05

And that's in there and better. That's an improvement. That's an improvement. That's very interesting.

Arthur A. Busch 32:10 


Anna Clark 32:12 

Yeah, that's very interesting. It's a real thing like infrastructure, that honestly that might be my next book like it like this broader, like, why is it so hard to like, build reasonable places to live, it was very interesting that there was just a couple of exceptions. And Madison, Wisconsin and Lansing, Michigan were like the two of the only cities in the country that had taken this on to replace all their lead pipes. And not because there was some like critical emergency in their local area that like required it not because anybody told them to do but just because it was the right thing to do. The pipes needed updated dating, and they shouldn't be made out of a poison. It's interesting to compare Lansing and Flint, because they are different in many ways, with Lansing being the state capitol and every Michigan State there. But they're also both had similar population sizes, they're both GM towns. Not too far away, Lansing figured out a way to replace the lead pipes over it was initially a 10-year plan, it did go a little bit over, but they did it, they completed this process to replace lead pipes with copper, they figured out ways to do it pretty efficiently, they developed a tool to lace the pipes in and out with minimum disruption. They did involve like some higher costs that were built in like over time, but a lot of people didn't even notice that this was going on. It was they also said that like just by the fact of doing it intentionally, like they built the skill to be able to be doing this efficiently to like, so just the workers are able to like to move relatively quickly and getting this done. And by the time this like Flint water crisis breaks out, and suddenly every community in the nation is like, oh, my God, like maybe this is something I should be thinking about. Suddenly, the town of Lansing is getting calls from folks everywhere, asking for advice on how to actually do it. Because it is so rare, has been so rare for a community to take this on. And it's certainly rare to do so without having some emergency or public relations crisis pushing you to do so.

Anna Clark Arthur A. Busch 34:09 

To wind up our conversation. There's some unfinished business. I think you speak of that in your book, where you refer to the fact, you're surprised that some of these things haven't yet to be changed. One of those was sea change in the emergency management law that allows the state of Michigan just to seize governments government's sort of at will and suspend democracy. What are the other ones?

Anna Clark  34:37

Sure. Certainly, the emergency manager one which even Governor Snyder's own investigative commission acknowledged as being a contributing factor in what happened in Flint. You know, there have been a number of some people want to repeal it completely. Some people have ideas to reform it so it can be more workable.

Arthur A. Busch 34:54 

There was actually a referendum on this issue and the people of Michigan's Oh,

Anna Clark Arthur A. Busch 35:01 

yeah, it's so it's so amazing how this played out. So, Michigan have had some kind of oversight as like most states have some oversight mechanism for when communities are really in crisis. The law was expanded in some pretty dramatic ways, giving this administrator like more powers, not just what elected officials would normally hold, but even some additional authority that no elected official would have. It did go up for a referendum the state all across the state, you know, like so all kinds of different communities voted to repeal it. Six weeks later, during the lame duck session, it was introduced in virtually identical fashion, although that now with appropriations attached to it so that it couldn't be subject to another referendum widely believed that this was a priority because the state was expecting Detroit to be going through a bankruptcy and wanting emergency manager there with certain authorities. Flint though ended up being the first town to be under this more expansive emergency manager, former mayor Dayne walling told me he felt like it was like a test case for Detroit a sort of test case for that, which is interesting. Yeah. So, like,

Arthur A. Busch 36:11 

Wasn't he the guy that drank the water on TV?

Anna Clark 36:14 

He was and I believe he regrets this deeply. It wasn't but yeah, he like I did talk to him for like, while I was working on the book, because the day Flint got its emergency manager was the day, he was elected mayor,

Arthur A. Busch 36:27 

Michigan's also a secret society when it comes to government. Right?

Anna Clark 36:31 

The transparency piece was like another thing. And honestly, this is it. We're talking about this during a week where like, the momentum is really rising in Michigan to change this. It's Sunshine weekend, there's both in a ballot referendum proposed. There's some legislation that's been proposed with it, maybe things are going to get better with so we're talking about Freedom of Information Act.

Anna Clark 36:52 

Yeah, Michigan is one of only two states along with Massachusetts, where both the governor's office and the legislature are exempt from open records requests. On top of this, we also don't have require, like personal financial disclosure disclosures from lawmakers, we have no waiting period before lawmakers become lobbyists. So, we end up with this kind of revolving door situation.

 One of the other things you said that was unfinished business was disinvestment in the city continues, the state of this chronic disinvestment in so many of our cities, the ongoing neglect, that ends up having the effect of being a violence, you know, against people, a real life and death issue, it will be at one that has is now taken a form that is, so we're so familiar with that, where mistakes are normal, it's not normal. And there and there are choices that we can do to to change this. They're their choices that led to this situation. That's why it's a pattern. That's why Flint and Detroit and then harbor and he's all over the country, you can see that there's a pattern where we have, like abandon these places, and more particularly the people in them and a way that I think is deeply dangerous. And while it might not have the sort of eye-catching drama of a water crisis, the stakes are equally serious, you know, because it puts people's lives at risk unnecessarily.

Arthur A. Busch 38:22 

You said that there were 53,000 American cities that exceed the lead rule, the Federal lead rule today. And you think that should change?

Anna Clark 38:32 

Well, yeah, I mean, we got that's another thing that Flint story really like unveiled it. So, we have a lot of, there are a lot of gaps in our regulations for water testing as including with lead, Michigan. Now the good news is Michigan now has a law that is stricter than federal This is one good reform that happened a couple of years ago, presents a higher standard for the testing and how much lead it can be allowed. Truly no lead should be allowed. All LED is bad for all people at all times. We've just decided through our regulations that some of it is going to be fine. Because it's too complicated to fix it, I guess, the National lead and copper rule, they just went through their like, first revision process since it emerged in 1991. And it's basically one of the things I think we're learning. Even when you are compliant with the standards, it doesn't mean your individual household is doesn't have an excessive amount of lead in it. The way the rules are designed, it allows for it.

Arthur A. Busch 39:30 

Let me ask you one last question. How is writing about this city? How is it personally affected you? Are you the same person that you were before you started this project? And if not, how did it change you?

Anna Clark 39:43 

Well, in addition to this white streak I have in my hair It has changed me um, and mostly positive ways. I think I think some of the best of it is truly just on a personal level. Just getting to know a lot of really great people and getting to know Really great town. It was also like a really difficult process. And even though I was talking to so many people and meeting wonderful folks so working on this book, ultimately when you must sit down to write it, you're by yourself. And I think I'm still kind of processing from that. Now even though it was several years ago, oh, just like a spending the hardcore year, like a year and a half or so where it's like in hardcore writing mode, like I feel like I didn't even talk out loud. And ever since I've been trying to kind of like, okay, now I got to rebalance my life. Now, what am I going to work on next? I still care about Flint stories.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai