Lead poisoned children made the news this week. Lots of children in Flint, Michigan were found to be lead poisoned by the city's drinking water. I can't say I read every article published on their issue, but I read a bunch.
The first article had a photo I can't get it out of my head. A woman, with a face showing some mileage, as we used to say, was crying. She is crying because the children are lead poisoned.
After all the years of the Tar Creek Superfund news coverage, all the issues of the tainted water, all the stories of cave-ins, buy-outs and children who were lead-poisoned triggering a massive yard cleanup in five towns and now all through Ottawa County. Towns were closed, people moved, chat hauled, orange water still running. There were photos in the news coverage, there were images you remember and I will never forget, but no where do I remember any single photo of anyone crying for the children. Though in the movie, Tar Creek in an interview with John Sparkman and he fought back tears when speaking about the children being lead poisoned, but no single photo was taken of a person as they wept for the children who have been lead poisoned here.
What's wrong with us?
No one wept openly for the waters in our watershed, or the fish that died. Or the mussels no one eats because they have been gone so long there is no one alive who had a taste for them. I have had a long dull feeling of loss, thinking back of the students I knew as they went through junior high, later middle school and high school, knowing there has been a great deal of potential lost for our community when so many young people struggled to learn, to concentrate, to focus well enough to finish school. Years ago lead levels were not checked regularly for children. We know more about lead and how it effects children, and that it does not take high levels to harm children for a lifetime.
People might not have wept openly, but people have been affected by the exposures we have experienced in the Tar Creek Superfund site. There have been emotions expressed about how work has been done by EPA or their contractors, how people were treated and the decisions that were made.
We never had an elected official declare a State of Emergency like the new Mayor in Flint, Michigan did this week. We have had several governors issue proclamations about lead poisoning. We even had a governor sign a bill on a chat pile for a buy-out for families with children 6 and younger. We did have EPA come when lead poisoned children were discovered and they have stayed because we still have lead poisoned children here. EPA came in response to the emergency we had and the Mayor of Flint, Michigan is hoping the federal government will come in response to the emergency they have discovered among their children.
Flint, Michigan's lead poisoning problem started when the city chose to change drinking water sources from Detroit's to the corrosive water of Flint River, when not treated with phosphates destroyed the protective biofilm in the lead pipes allowing the lead to leach out into tap water in the homes.
We had high numbers of children lead poisoned in the 1990's in Ottawa County and with great effort those numbers came down, lots of effort by a multitude of people, lots of money spent to help make it permanent. Permanent by taking lead contaminated soil out of yards, playgrounds, parks, school yards, alleys where children might be spending their younger years when they are most vulnerable to the effects of lead.
This week we were able to announce the second printing of our book which is available for sale: Making a Difference at the Tar Creek Superfund Site: Community Efforts to Reduce Risk. It chronicles who and what was done to reduce those numbers of lead poisoned children. You will know these people, the nurses and doctors, the Cherokee Volunteer Society, the tribal members, teachers, researchers and state and federal environmental specialists. It will give you hope and remind you where we started, and you can get your very own copy from LEAD Agency!
Those residents in Flint, Michigan organized a group called, "Water you Fighting For?" What are we fighting for? At our man-made disaster, made by men making a living while working for companies set on making fortunes from the ore, leaving the land barren, we are fighting for environmental justice, for a clean, safe environment for every single person living in it. We intend to weep for joy when it is accomplished.
Rebecca Jim is executive director of the LEAD Agency.