Flint Crisis, State Takeover `Devastating:'Councilwoman

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The week of President Barack Obama's visit to Flint, Mich., Jacqueline Poplar, a Flint city councilwoman, spoke with Bloomberg BNA's Rachel Leven about the city's drinking water crisis and more.

The crisis involving high levels of lead in Flint's drinking water occurred after a state-appointed emergency manager approved switching the water source for the city of 100,000 to the Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure. That switch was carried out without appropriate corrosion controls causing lead to leach from service lines into the water exposing residents to the contamination. To this day, Flint residents are urged to drink filtered or bottled water.

Poplar, who has served as a council member since 2005, talked about how her job has changed since the city's water source was switched, what is needed to fix the water crisis, other pressing issues facing Flint and what other cities can learn from Flint's own crisis. The president will visit Flint on May 4.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Rachel Leven

Bloomberg BNA:

How has your job as a city councilwoman changed following the Flint water crisis?

Jacqueline Poplar:

It changed before 2014, when we had the emergency manager takeover. That was the biggest change for the council, period, not just me. When the state took over, that was very devastating. There were things put in place where basically it made our jobs harder to deal with the administration, to deal with our constituents, to get them what they needed. Our job has been disrupted for a number of years. And then with the water crisis on top of it, its just been totally devastating.

But for me, … I'm a strong elected official, and I challenged some of the things the emergency manager had put in place—barriers—and I point blank didn't pay attention to some of those because my constituents came first.

The water crisis on top of the state takeover was a devastating moment for the city of Flint, the elected officials and the constituents.

Bloomberg BNA:

How have your daily duties and interactions shifted?


I go to meetings after meetings after meetings about the water crisis. Basically every meeting is giving you the same information. I listen to constituents. When we started giving out the filters for homes, I helped. I delivered some personally to my senior constituents that could not get out … I made sure I had a water giveaway myself.

I don't get as many calls now because people are getting bottled water, and the media is letting them know what kinds of meetings they can attend. I do phone calls to make sure that people are where they need to be to get their kids tested [for lead]. No two days are the same, I would say.

Bloomberg BNA:

What kinds of concerns did you hear from your constituents about the water?


The water was smelly. The water was brown. Their skin was breaking out. They were getting sick from it. And then when we started reporting that constituents were complaining, then they started putting all of this chloroform and all of these other chemicals in, and that damaged the home pipes, so that made the disaster even worse.

Bloomberg BNA:

How has the focus on the Flint water crisis forced other potentially pressing issues out of the spotlight, if at all?


We still have a crime situation here. I continue to talk about that to make sure that our crime situation is not put on the back burner for the water crisis because this water crisis is going to go on for a while. It's not going to be an overnight fix, and you're not going to put a Band-Aid on it. I'm glad to see that there is a small amount of movement that is going on to limit [crime], but we need a bigger movement here in the city of Flint, and I'm hoping that it comes through real soon.

But our pipes—our infrastructure—that's the biggest problem we have right now. I blame every mayor that we've had for the last at least seven administrations because nobody was fixing infrastructure. They kept kicking the can down the road, and this is the end of the road.

Bloomberg BNA:

What are the action items you would like to see to address or remedy the Flint water crisis?


The only remedy we're going to have is a total infrastructure fix—roads, pipes, all of it. They're going to have to take our town and use it as a model. Everybody knows that this is an opportunity for the federal and state government to step up to the plate and show they can fix or remedy a tragedy. Our city can be used as a model. The only way they can do that is they're going to have to fix our total infrastructure to make sure that we have safe, clean drinking water because we don't even know the [health] ramifications down the road that this [crisis] has caused.

Bloomberg BNA:

Did Flint have any other environmental or environmental health issues prior to the water crisis, such as air pollution?


As a child growing up in the city, we didn't have the [Environmental Protection Agency] and all of these other agencies in Flint … I can remember as a child where some days you couldn't even see the sky because of the pollution from the factories.

The Flint River was being polluted from the factories and from the slaughterhouse and everything else. It has never been a good place to get drinking water, even though back in those days we did use the Flint River. I believe that stopped in the early ‘70s or the late ‘60s. But it didn't make sense in the 21st century to tap into the river water, when the river water changes daily. You can never predict river water.

Bloomberg BNA:

What would you like other cities to take away from this crisis?


What I would like other cities to take away from this is never ever put money before people. That is the most devastating thing that you could ever do, whether you're a politician, whether you're a business owner, whoever you may be. You cannot put a price on people's lives, and you cannot do things in the dark because it will come to light.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

A printable one-page explainer from Bloomberg BNA on how the Flint water crisis happened is available at http://src.bna.com/d95.