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Flint Pediatrician Says Charges Against Ex-Governor Help 'Wounds Finally Close'

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was among the first to raise a red flag over the contamination of the water in Flint, Mich., says the filing of charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder "helps the city and the people move on and recover."
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was among the first to raise a red flag over the contamination of the water in Flint, Mich., says the filing of charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder "helps the city and the people move on and recover."

The Flint, Mich., water crisis resulted in charges Wednesday against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who is now facing two counts of willful neglect of duty.

The misdemeanor charges carry a punishment of up to $1,000 and up to one year in prison. They come almost seven years after the city of Flint began taking in water from the Flint River in an attempt to save money. The water wasn't properly treated, and it corroded the city's aging pipes, causing lead to leach into the drinking water. More than 100,000 Flint residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead.

During an arraignment Thursday, Snyder pleaded not guilty to the charges. Several additional officials are also facing charges over their alleged roles in the crisis, including the state's former health director and Flint's former director of public works.

The charges drew mixed reactions from people who have been working to help the city deal with the crisis and its aftermath.

"Accountability is great, but even with accountability, even if Rick Snyder was behind bars for a significant amount of time, that still doesn't compensate for the generations of irreversible damage that is and will continue to happen with residents," said LaTricea Adams, who heads Black Millennials For Flint, which advocates for the rights of Flint residents still dealing with the effects of the water crisis.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who was among the first to raise a red flag over the contamination, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition that "having some level of justice is like a salve. It helps those wounds finally close, and it helps the city and the people move on and recover."

Years ago, Hanna-Attisha began noticing that her young patients in Flint were showing twice the normal amount of lead in their blood following the change in the water supply. She called a press conference in September 2015 and warned residents, especially children, to stop drinking the water.

More than five years later, Hanna-Attisha is now the director of Flint's pediatric public health initiative. She is also the author of What the Eyes Don't See, a bookabout her experiences in the crisis.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity:

Interview Highlights

Can I ask you to take us back to that moment when you started to realize something was wrong. What was going through your mind?

It was the summer of 2015. I was actually with a high school girlfriend who, of all things, had become a drinking water expert. And she told me in my house at a last-minute barbecue that "Mona, the water isn't being treated properly in Flint. And because of that, there's probably lead in the water." And that's the moment that my life changed. When I heard the word lead, it was a call to action. I respect the science of what lead does. I understand it's a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. And I also understand that lead's a form of environmental racism. It's the last thing our kids in Flint needed. That's the moment I stopped sleeping, I stopped eating, I lost about 30 pounds. And I began this quest to find out if that lead was getting into the bodies of our children.

What do you make of these charges now?

It's a bit of disbelief. It's been so long. And for so many people in Flint, this justice delayed, really felt like justice denied — that there was never going to be this level of accountability. And as a physician in Flint, I never used to really kind of respond to these questions of accountability and justice. There [were] these criminal cases and civil cases. And as I began to practice more in Flint and interact with the families in Flint, I began to understand how critical and foundational the concept of accountability and justice really is to health and healing. Because without that to happen, it's almost like a wound that never [closes], and it stays open and open and open. And it's been open for about seven years. And having some level of justice is like a salve. It helps those wounds finally close, and it helps the city and the people move on and recover.

You've written a book, and in it you talk about the villains in this crisis as being more than a single person, more than one individual. Can you explain how you see that?

So many people ask me, who do you want in jail or who should go to jail? And there's not one villain. There's not 10 villains. There [are] many villains. And this is what I say in my book:

"There are lots of villains in this story. A disaster of this scale does not happen completely by accident. Many people stopped caring about Flint and Flint's kids. Many people looked the other way. People in power made tragic and terrible choices — then collectively and ineptly tried to cover up their mistakes. While charges have been brought against some of the individuals who were culpable, the real villains are harder to see. Because the real villains live underneath the behavior and drive it. The real villains are the ongoing effects of racism, inequality, greed, anti-intellectualism, and even laissez-faire neoliberal capitalism."

And these are the villains that we don't usually notice and don't want to, and these are the villains that poison Flint with policy. And I hope one day we can go after these systemic villains and bring forth justice.

What could that possibly look like now? Even as you nod to the positive effect of these charges, where do you begin that larger level of healing and reconciliation to try to address some of those huge issues?

That has been my work since Day 1. From the moment of recognizing this widespread lead contamination, this population-level trauma and this broken trust, our work has been in a very holistic way to mitigate the impact of the crisis and bring forth healing and recovery. You can think of what happened in Flint as a case of science denial and our science helped speak truth to power. And we're leaning on that incredible science of child development and what kids and families need to bring forth healing and recovery. So what that looks like right now are these long-term interventions to support Flint families — like child care, like Medicaid expansion, like literacy support, like nutrition access, all of these critical ingredients to keep families healthy, including things like behavioral health services and trauma-informed care. Because what Flint was, by and large, was this population-level trauma. And people to this day are stressed and angry, and they feel guilt and they feel betrayed by the folks that were out there to protect them.

Would the crisis have happened had Flint been a white suburb instead of a predominantly black city?

Of course not. Flint is this egregious example of environmental injustice. It never would have happened in a richer, whiter community. There's a long history of racism in Flint, and it was also perpetuated during this crisis.

As the director of the initiative to mitigate the impact, tell us where your focus is.

My focus is to make sure that the kids of Flint have the brightest future possible, that we can not only recover but thrive after this crisis, and that we can share our best practices with so many other communities where children are suffering from the same sort of injustices.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.