The Revolution Interview

Attorney in Flint Civil Suit:
“What’s Really Shocking Is When You Talk to Parents...”

February 22, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
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Editors’ note: Michael Pitt is the co-founder and partner of the law firm Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers, which represents a group of Flint residents in two new class-action lawsuits against Governor Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS), the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and additional government officials over the lead poison in Flint water. Details of the lawsuit are available at the firm’s website. Michael Pitt sat down with Revolution correspondent Alan Goodman to provide background to the suit, what prompted it, and the current situation for people in Flint.

Alan Goodman: Let’s start with a picture of what has been done to the people of Flint.

Michael Pitt: For more than 50 years, Flint, which is about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, has received water from the Detroit system. The primary source of water for the Detroit water system is Lake Huron, which is considered one of the cleanest, unpolluted fresh bodies of water in the world. I have lived in this area all my life and I drank Detroit water. It’s terrific. I never had a problem with it. It’s always been refreshing and clean. The studies I’ve read say it’s the finest water in the world. The people of Flint pay extra money, they pay more money that we do in this area because of the distance involved and pumping the water uphill. The water’s uphill from Detroit, so they’ve got to use energy to get the water through the pipe system 70 miles to Flint. And so historically, Flint has paid more, and if you were just to do a cost analysis, it costs more than regular water. So about five-six years ago, some of the people in that area, leaders, decided to develop their own piping system that would run east-west from Genesee County Flint to... It’s called the Karegnondi Water Authority, and it’s like a $300 million project, and is funded through bonds and programs, and that piping system is... will be available probably sometime later this year.

So when Flint agreed to join the Karegnondi Water Authority in 2013, they notified the city of Detroit that they were going to terminate their relationship and they had a year to make other arrangements.

Alan Goodman: OK, so for reasons we don’t really know, the government decided to disconnect Flint from a safe, reliable source, switch to another source, and figure out a way to supply people with water while this switch was taking place?

Michael Pitt: Flint had to make other arrangements where their water was gonna come from, because this was in 2013, and Karegnondi was not gonna be up and running until mid-2016. So you had a lag in there.

So, at the time the decision was made to go to Karegnondi, there was an emergency manager in place. The governor had appointed an emergency manager for cities in Michigan, and primarily minority-populated cities have been broke. And why are they broke? Well, their tax base is eroded to the point where municipal services are under-funded because of a lack of a tax base, and so there is a loss of public services and the governor has the political power and capital to get these emergency managers put in place and to run these basically broken-down cities.

Alan Goodman: Flint lost something like 75,000 auto jobs...

Michael Pitt: Oh, yeah, more than that, more than that. I think in the 1960s, 200,000 people... we’re down to less than 100,000 now...

Alan Goodman: That’s total population in Flint—not auto jobs, right?

Michael Pitt: Yeah. People we’re talking to now are the sons and daughters of former auto workers. They’ve never seen the inside of a plant, but their parents did. But they still live there. And they have family there. And they have reason to live there because they have a lot of kin there.

So anyway, the emergency manager is in control. And in March of 2013, they said they’d go to the Karegnondi Water Authority. And in April of 2014, the emergency manager, Darnell Earley, rejects any final offers from the city of Detroit to continue funding the water source and proceeds to switch the primary drinking source from Detroit to the Flint River.

Alan Goodman: That was a disaster, right?

Michael Pitt: Flint has a water treatment plant in order to process the Flint River, which is highly corrosive and toxic; it has to go through substantial treatment. And what they failed to do is follow the basic protocol, which is, when you have corrosive water and lead pipes that are in service you have to use...

Alan Goodman: When you say in service, that’s the term for running water to people’s houses, right?

Michael Pitt: That’s right. So the lead pipes are those that run from the main to the people’s houses, and they’re probably 15,000 of those still in Flint, and over time they’ve become corroded... and by using an anti-corrosive agent, which the city of Detroit used... The city of Detroit treated their water with an anti-corrosive agent so that when the water ran through the pipe the anti-corrosive agent actually coated the interior of the pipe and created a biofilm and that biofilm prevented the lead that’s in the pipe from leaching into the water. It is a well-recognized and documented form of protection for people who have lead lines. There’s no question that the anti-corrosive treatment was not used when they started pumping the Flint River water to its customers.

Alan Goodman: Is there an explanation for why? This seems like a major decision that could have been known to create an extreme danger for people?

Michael Pitt: We haven’t found that yet. I mean the... we don’t know who is the responsible party for that. Obviously, the people in control of the water treatment plant have some culpability. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, a state agency, has to permit the use of the Flint River as a drinking source, which they did. The state is required to make sure that all the protocols are followed so that the water is actually safe. They failed to do that.

Alan Goodman: Just to emphasize, if I understand your point earlier, the default, or standard procedure, is to do a treatment that builds up this biofilm, and so the decision not to do that is a departure from standard procedure.

Michael Pitt: Yeah.

Alan Goodman: Let me explore something here—people say this was all to save money but it seems the factors involved are much more complex than that.

Michael Pitt: Well, I mean, yeah, exactly right. The estimates are that whole system could have been treated with an anti-corrosive agent for about $100 a day. And you’re talking about a multimillion-dollar project. I mean, you’re talking about water and getting receipts of tens of millions of dollars every year, so $100 per day is nothing. So you would think that the cost is not a barrier. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, one would have to assume that this was an act of gross negligence.

Alan Goodman: Is there anything that has come out in these emails that have been released? Is there anything else that indicates anybody, anywhere saying we should have put this in the water?

Michael Pitt: Yeah. So what happens, the water starts coming out brown, because the water is corrosive, and there are iron pipes as well as lead pipes, and the iron pipes, the rust starts to come off and the biofilm after three or four weeks starts to disintegrate and so the rust from the iron pipes begins to flow into the water, and so people are getting yellow water, rust color. People are reporting that it smells, and it tastes bad. So then they over-chlorinate it. Bacteria forms. Over-chlorination creates another problem. And so by September of 2014, they had to do a boil alert because the quality of the water was so poor.

Alan Goodman: But wasn’t the boil alert counterproductive since boiling lead-poisoned water actually makes the concentration of lead worse?

Michael Pitt: By this point, by the fall of 2014, people were not focused on lead. They were focused on other toxicities that were in the water or the quality of water. And, you know, famously, General Motors in October 2014 said the water was corroding its parts and its machinery, and it had to discontinue use of this corrosive water. And they made arrangements to have Detroit water shipped to its plant.

Keep in mind that Flint is surrounded by Genesee County. During the time that Flint is being exposed to this highly toxic water, many of the communities in the surrounding county are still getting Detroit water. Some are on wells, and some are getting Detroit water. The General Motors plant was able to switch over to the township water, which was Detroit water. And so, some people are saying that General Motors had a duty to tell the people that the water was highly corrosive and that they shouldn’t be drinking it, you know. They make a good point.

Alan Goodman: Certainly a moral duty, if not a legal one.

Michael Pitt: Anyways, but the story, if you research the newspaper accounts, you’ll see that it was publicized that in October of 2014, General Motors was discontinuing the use of the Flint River water because it was damaging its parts. So that was well known. And the other thing that was well known, and the governor can’t deny this, is that people or activists were protesting on the street in the fall of 2014, carrying around jugs of brown liquid saying look how awful the water is coming out of my tap. And so, even though lead was not on the radar at that point, poor water quality and toxic water was indeed on the radar screen. So it wasn’t until February 2015 that lead surfaced as a problem.

LeeAnne Walters, one of the activists, is not getting answers from the city of Flint, not getting answers from the MDEQ. And so she goes to the EPA, the federal. The federal EPA has an investigator by the name of Miguel Del Toral who does a write-up, and on June 24 [2015] he publishes an internal memo where he says the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, appears to be lead-laced and that it’s dangerous.

Alan Goodman: How did he detect that?

Michael Pitt: Well, he actually went out and he pulled the water from the homes, and from LeeAnne Walters’ home. Anything over 15 parts per billion was considered dangerous.

There were readings from her home of over 13,000 parts per billion.

Alan Goodman: That’s incredible.

Michael Pitt: It’s like hazardous waste.

Alan Goodman: I haven’t seen that. I’ve seen figures of a hundred.

Michael Pitt: Her readings were off the charts. It was very alarming. It is toxic waste. So there was something very unusual about her system. So they started looking deeper into it and realized it was pervasive. And so he publishes this report. And the director of Region 5 of the EPA, a woman whom I am drawing a blank on her name, I apologize, you can probably pull that out. She just recently resigned in shame. She deep-sixed it. She said you can’t go public with it, don’t go public with it. This is only a temporary report. And so, Del Toral, one of the real heroes of the story, hands the report to LeeAnne Walters. LeeAnne Walters then takes it to the media and the ACLU, and they run with it. So the story by July starts to come out.

So then LeeAnne also contacts Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor, of notable experience and expertise in drinking water, and he and his graduate assistants, and the New York Times did a story Sunday about him and his crew. They come to Flint, and they do a sweeping study of the water in Flint. They come out with the very disturbing high levels of lead pervasively within the city. Not every home but enough to be concerned. Incredibly, the city couldn’t tell us where the lead lines are. The record-keeping is so poor, they couldn’t say which ones.

Alan Goodman: And at some point, I remember reading that somebody dismissed the work of the Virginia Tech people, saying, “Oh, everywhere they go, they pulled that rabbit out of the hat,” referring to the fact that they had previously disclosed lead-paint poisoning.

Michael Pitt: Not lead paint, lead in the water... so it was almost an identical case. Anyways, that comment came from Brad Wurfel, who has since resigned. But, you know, he was mocking and berating. He was Director of Commissions of the MDEQ, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. His job was basically to deny a public health emergency. Marc Edwards and his crew were saying, “Folks, you got a real public health emergency here.” And the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality just went into denial mode. And they attacked the messenger, saying don’t believe him and it’s not true.

And they lied. At one point, the EPA asked the MDEQ employee by the name of Stephen Bush, “Are you using corrosion control in the water?” And he told the EPA “yes.” Which was completely false. There was an email in which he makes that false statement, February 27, 2015. And then he corrects himself, not until April, then he corrects himself... that it was not true. The MDEQ had plenty of information by February, that there was no anti-corrosive agent used.

They came up with the cockamamie evaluation of what the EPA rules required to justify their not using corrosion control. There is no downside to using corrosion control. It doesn’t harm anybody. It’s helpful. And, there’s no cost involved. It’s only a hundred dollars a day. Why wouldn’t you use it?

Alan Goodman: Let me see if I can identify a thread here and see what you think. It does seem like a lot of these government agencies, rather than respond on the basis of the actual need, and health situation, [the agencies] invoke regulations and respond, “Well, we’re not outside of the law.” And these people are drinking terrible or unhealthy water.

Michael Pitt: Yeah. A couple of other key benchmarks in the case. As background, lead poisoning in America is a huge problem. [New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristoff did a column about lead poisoning being a silent epidemic—so many kids primarily in impoverished areas are poisoned. So the federal government, state governments, have pretty good robust lead awareness programs. Part of the program is to test children who are Medicaid recipients at ages one and two, mandatory testing. So a mom brings a child into a doctor’s office, let’s say at age one, if he or she is a Medicaid recipient then they are supposed to get tested. The state of Michigan every year has 100,000 or more test results. So they can actually map where the elevations are, and what communities have the most lead, they do epidemiology studies of it and they have a huge database.

Alan Goodman: Epidemiology is the study of the spread of disease.

Michael Pitt: Right. So they... so the charts show that from 2010 to 2015, there’s a steady decline. It’s impressive. I mean... I think it’s tied to government policy. There’s so much education. It’s going from 7 percent of the kids are poisoned down to 5, 4, 3... a pretty remarkable slide down, but then there’s a huge spike in Flint. All of a sudden, you see a spike and what’s the time frame? It’s June of 2014 to September 30, 2014, just when the river is going online. And you gotta give the pipes a little bit of time for the corrosion to come out. And so the spike corresponds precisely with the exposure to the Flint River water. It goes from 4 to 7, almost doubles in Flint. And so you look at the chart...

Alan Goodman: And you’re talking about tested one- and two-year olds?

Michael Pitt: Yes. Well, actually, the testing was like children below the age of six. They have a huge, huge number of samples to go from. So there’s no report out on that. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services remains silent about it.

Alan Goodman: So once again, the whistle should have been blown.

Michael Pitt: Absolutely. Right there, right then. That’s the canary in the mine. The canary died. OK? They should have said, what’s going on here? Why are we seeing this spike?

Alan Goodman: And we’ll come back to the human cost. But these are little children too.

Michael Pitt: So Marc Edwards is in Flint doing his thing in August. The media is now on to the story because of the Miguel Del Toral memo that has been released. And Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrician from a local hospital, starts looking at her data in her hospital, and she’s got quite a database, and she on her own discovers that there’s a spike. So she calls a press conference in September and says the children of Flint are being poisoned. And it’s pervasive. She says every child who drank the water has probably been poisoned and that this is a human tragedy. This is a public health emergency. So that’s in September. She gets a lot of press attention. At this point the governor’s really nervous...

Alan Goodman: And she, too, got a lot of flack...

Michael Pitt: They... and Brad Wurfel [of MDEQ] was basically calling her irresponsible, saying her stats are wrong. So the people from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, they look at their database. Now, they have a separate database. They look at their database, and they say, oh, my gosh. Our data correlates almost precisely with her data. So they say she’s right. At first they were saying she’s wrong but then later they say we rechecked our data and she’s right. So at this point the governor has no choice but to step in. And so on October 1, he says there’s a public health emergency, don’t drink the water. And then a couple of days later he says, I’m gonna order the water to switch back to Detroit water. That happens in October 2015. They continue taking water samples.

The Detroit water is flowing, and the samples from late January 2016 show that there are at least 400 homes that have lead in the water in excess of 15 parts per billion. And this is 90 days after the Detroit water has returned. It’s still showing up lead. So it’s a pretty safe assumption that the pipes were maybe permanently damaged, that even with corrosion control, at this point they’re not going to restore the lead pipes to really being serviceable. So that’s why there’s this large hue and cry now to get funding to actually replace the pipes. The pipes were damaged. The highly corrosive Flint water was running through the pipes for 18 months. And I think they ruined the pipes. That’s where we are right now.

Alan Goodman: So what is the public health status right now, in Flint, with people drinking water? Are there still today people who cannot safely drink their tap water?

Michael Pitt: Well, yes, they’re providing filters. If the filters are applied properly, that’s a big if, because people don’t have standardized faucets. And if the lead levels are less than 150 parts per billion, the filters will be effective in providing safe water for people to use. But not everybody is applying the filters correctly. And the cartridges get used up and have to be replaced every couple of weeks. Many of the people of Flint don’t have transportation. It’s an ineffective fix, because people don’t have the wherewithal to use the filters properly.

Alan Goodman: I wanted to just follow up on that briefly. From what I’ve read, or see in the news, this is a city of people really living on the edge. I just saw account after account of people who are just waiting for a paycheck to go get the basic necessities and no wherewithal to move to another area, or anything like that. So that obviously has to impact a mother trying to care for her children and everything else, and then deal with the technology of a water filter, replacing it, and I am sure there is minimal public transportation, if that.

Michael Pitt: It has been ineffective.

Alan Goodman: My second question, which you have addressed all along the way, and maybe we could just return to it: To what degree was this conscious policy? You’ve painted a picture of how over and over again where low-level people working for different agencies detected the problem, or the problem was showing up in testing...

Michael Pitt: This really is an austerity crisis. The conservative Republicans really believe the least government is the best government. They want to squeeze out extra expenses; allegedly the switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River and eventually the Karegnondi would be cost saving to save the city money. I don’t believe that’s true. There’s another motivation there that I just don’t understand yet. They talk about saving money, but somebody was making money on this deal. Because the saving money scenario doesn’t really work. In the long run they were going to go to Karegnondi, but it was going to be just as expensive if not more expensive, and that under state law, if a city has a little surplus in the way they deliver the water...

Alan Goodman: Can you break down why the government did not and could not actually save money in the immediate sense by switching water supply?

Michael Pitt: You see, the city buys the water at a wholesale price, and then they distribute it to their customers and they collect fees. In some situations the fees would be greater than the costs of buying the water, so you have a surplus. Under state laws, that surplus is supposed to be passed on to the consumer to reduce the bills. You can’t take the surplus and put it into your general funds to use it to operate your police department. You can’t do that by law. And so the alleged savings was only going to work to the benefit of the customers, not to the city. And so when they say we switched the water to save money, it doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t add up.

So to answer your question, yes, I think there was a conscious... the profit motive for somebody... There’s an economic advantage for somebody or some group of people out of this whole system that I think is eventually going to be revealed. I like to call it the story behind the story. The story behind this story is gonna be who is actually benefiting from the switch. And that’s gonna be the real story. One day it’s gonna come out what happened.

Alan Goodman: But what emerged to me from your narrative was... not narrative in the sense of you made it up... but walking through the history of the whole thing was... sometimes it’s not even so much bad people, or bad rules, but here one- to six-year-olds are being tested at scary levels, here the local pediatricians are identifying the problem. The EPA tests the water, over and over again, society as it functions was incapable, wouldn’t or couldn’t sound the alarm until the shit hit the fan.

Michael Pitt: Well, but look at... people have their comfort level, OK, and bureaucrats have their comfort level, and a lot of the decision-makers, people who are capable, were bureaucrats and they were staring at a public health emergency. They really were. They were looking right in the eye of a public health emergency. And why didn’t they sound the alarm? I mean, is it that they didn’t want to get out of their comfort zone? Is it because they were just indifferent? Is it because these were poor, broken-down, primarily minority people in this town, and we say if they had been in the white neighborhoods where these people lived would they have seen the public health emergency that was really there? I think they would have. I think the public health emergency would have been on the table months and months before it actually happened in this case. It wasn’t until the governor really stood up in October and said, there’s a public health emergency here. But for 10 months...

Listen, I think the day that General Motors decided the water wasn’t fit for its parts was enough for me to say, “If it’s not fit for the parts, it’s not fit for the people” and declare a public health emergency at that point.

So I think it borders on intentional conduct... it is... I mean the risk of injury is so high. And the amount of effort it would take to actually declare a public health emergency makes it appear as though that this was borderline intentional conduct. And there are federal and state law enforcement agencies looking at that very question.

Alan Goodman: Let’s finally talk a little bit about the personal dimension. The people who you’ve had a chance to interact with who were victims of this, stories to share your own personal feelings about it, why you took a case on.

Michael Pitt: First of all, I said to my partners last summer, if there’s some way for us to get involved I’d like to do it. We were invited to join a group of lawyers that are now involved in prosecuting the case. So from a personal...

Alan Goodman: You’re bringing a civil action?

Michael Pitt: Civil action for damages... right. I mean, the... what’s really shocking is when you talk to the parents and the grandparents of the small children, and when you... if you can identify...we have been identifying houses where there is documented lead in the water. So you start with the premise, OK, this house is a source of lead poisoning.

So let’s find out, over the 18 months that the water was poisoned, who was actually exposed to it. So you sit down with mom, or grandmother, and you ask them, “Make a list of all the people who have been in your house, friends, neighbors, children. And they sit down and they do this exercise and write out a list, and sometimes the list has got 25 or 30 names on it. And then you know, you look... you look at this person, and they’re like actually weeping, because I as a lawyer am making them face the reality.

The reality is the list of all the people who have been poisoned in their house. And you know, one grandmother said to me, my... my kids, my grandbabies, they didn’t like the taste of that water so I just put a lot of Kool-Aid and sugar in it and they drank it. They love... they drank it with the sugar and the Kool-Aid, and they just loved it. And all summer long they were drinking that water with Kool-Aid in it and it didn’t taste bad to them once I put Kool-Aid in it. So you know she is voluntarily poisoning her own kin. She doesn’t realize it. But now she feels awful about it.

Alan Goodman: That’s horrible! But it’s not her fault.

Michael Pitt: Yeah, but you’re dealing with these moments of reality when you talk to your clients when you make them tell you, when you ask them to tell you who’s been at your house and how many people have been exposed, kids who have stayed over for the weekend. These people, many of them are related to each other. They all live... and families, cousins, extended families, they all live within walking distance of each other, they all live in each other’s home, and they stay over. The minority people that I talk to, they have this saying, not where do you live, but where do you stay. And “stay” has got a meaning in that community, stay means like you visit with somebody, and you stay with them for a week or two at a time. Then you go back to someplace else. You don’t live some place, you stay some place. That’s the way they view their relationship with their friends and their family. You’re welcome to stay at the house if you want to. And so...

Alan Goodman: Yeah, and then the bitter irony, that with that kind of sharing, networking, people were being poisoned.

Michael Pitt: Any more questions?

Alan Goodman: No. And thanks for sharing your information and perspective.



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