Flint Activist: Federal Aid Won’t Come Close to Addressing ‘Human Cost’

“There’s a lot more money needed to respond to the largest public health disaster in the history of this country,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, told Rewire. “The human cost to this is way more than $170 million.”

“There’s a lot more money needed to respond to the largest public health disaster in the history of this country,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, told Rewire in a phone interview. “The human cost to this is way more than $170 million.” Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate over the weekend signed off on a $170 million federal aid package for Flint, Michigan, and other communities potentially facing water-based lead contamination.

But the federal aid won’t be enough to help the 100,000 residents of the predominantly Black city forced to drink, cook with, and bathe their children in bottled water, according to the head of a prominent activist group on the ground.

“There’s a lot more money needed to respond to the largest public health disaster in the history of this country,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, told Rewire in a phone interview. “The human cost to this is way more than $170 million.”

The Flint aid package preserves the core of a Senate agreement paving the way for the city to tap $100 million in subsidized loans and grants through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-run federal-state partnership. That figure represents “about half of what we’re told needs to be done to replace the pipes and to get the faucets bringing out safe water,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said at a press conference in September.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver praised the federal assistance.

“Our tap water still is not safe to drink without using a filter, an unfathomable situation for any city in this great nation,” Weaver said in a statement. “Although we have waited far longer for this help than expected, we are grateful to the Senate and the [U.S.] House [of Representatives] for providing the assistance that will help Flint residents deal with this unprecedented health crisis and gain a brighter future.”

Activist: Congressional Effort Falls Short

Stabenow’s press release detailed additional Flint-related provisions, including $20 million in loan forgiveness for Flint and $50 million for several federal activities, such as a new national health registry for children exposed to lead. Together, the provisions add up to the $170 million figure that Stabenow and fellow members of Michigan’s congressional delegation touted in the aftermath of their Flint votes.

But Shariff downplayed how much the loan forgiveness would really help.

“We need a forgiveness program for residents [and their water bills],” she said.

One study this year found that Flint’s water rates are the nation’s most expensive.

Shariff argued that Flint’s undocumented community won’t be able to access the services because Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose administration is responsible for the crisis, omitted undocumented immigrants when he sought a federal waiver enabling about 15,000 additional children and pregnant women in Flint to qualify for Medicaid coverage. Snyder’s press release did not specify whether pregnant people, regardless of gender identity, would be eligible.

“How do you get people to consent to a registry where they think there’s going to be … access to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]?” Shariff said. “You’re going to have populations who are not going to utilize the registry, even though it is needed for long-term health monitoring.”

Shariff recommends that any registry include the entire population of Flint, not just Flint’s children, and should make sure to account for mental health. What really needs to be done is “a “door-to-door community-wide health assessment on what’s happening,” she said.

“So, how can you even create any sort of public health policies to address this?” she asked.

Congressional Lawmakers Press on for State Action

The federal aid en route to President Obama’s desk focuses less on public health and more on water infrastructure, two years after Snyder’s administration set off the crisis by switching Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River.

Congressional lawmakers spelled out how they would help Flint in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, a bipartisan reauthorization of the nation’s water infrastructure projects previously known as the Water Resources Development Act. Then they paid for it in the must-pass continuing resolution (CR) funding the federal government through April 28.

The Senate passed the CR late Friday night and then passed WIIN shortly before 1 a.m., sending both to the president’s desk. Obama signed the CR into law over the weekend to avoid a government shutdown. He is expected to sign WIIN in the coming days.

Though the aid package opens up new funding paths, the journey to secure much-needed resources could be long and winding. Flint is the only recent subject of a federal emergency declaration due to lead-contaminated water and, as such, the only community eligible to apply for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund’s $100 million.

Michigan state officials will have to collaborate with those in Flint on a “comprehensive plan” in order to access the $100 million, according to Stabenow’s press release.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) reiterated previous calls for Michigan officials to act—not only in helping to develop the comprehensive plan, but in providing Flint with additional resources.

“It’s absolutely incumbent upon state government to step up to the plate and do more than they have done so far,” he said on a Saturday morning press call with Stabenow and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), according to a MLive.com report.

Kildee and other House Democrats representing Michigan in October urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state’s attempt to block the city from suing over the ongoing water crisis.

Calls for Federal Intervention Continue

Although Peters put the onus for next steps on Michigan and its Republican-held legislature, Flint Rising’s Shariff doesn’t trust the state to act.

“The state of Michigan has proven themselves incapable and incompetent in responding to this disaster in a method that it needs to occur,” Shariff said. “We need the federal government to step up because they’re our last line of defense.”

Shariff had hoped for a federal disaster declaration putting the federal government, rather than the state, more squarely in charge of meeting Flint’s needs. She described the opposite happening under Obama’s federal emergency declaration.

The emergency declaration provided Flint with $5 million in federal aid through August. The Detroit News reported that the Obama administration denied Snyder’s request and subsequent appeals for a $96 million disaster declaration because the water crisis failed to qualify as a “major disaster” under federal law.

”We still need a disaster declaration because this [federal aid package] is still putting power back into the state who poisoned us and doesn’t seem interested in responding properly to this crisis,” Shariff said.