U.S. civil rights activists descended Sunday on the midwestern city of Flint, Michigan, describing its drinking water contamination crisis as "a disaster, not just an emergency."
Longtime rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, led a delegation of activists, addressing a crowd of concerned and angered citizens packed into a local church. Speaking later to reporters, Jackson described the city, where residents have been exposed to contaminated drinking and bathing water for nearly two years, as "a crime scene."
Health experts report finding dangerously high levels of lead in the city's children, and state officials have begun importing bottled water to protect locals from further contamination.
Jackson's presence in Flint, a largely African American city where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, came one day after President Barack Obama declared a local state of emergency, clearing the way for streamlining federal aid.
His visit also came a day after firebrand filmmaker Michael Moore, who was raised in Flint, spoke at City Hall, declaring the situation is "not just a water crisis. It's a racial crisis. It's a poverty crisis.....That's what created this," he said.
Public outcry mounts
In an editorial Sunday, the Detroit Free Press called on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to release staff emails that critics say may show a pattern of willful neglect by state officials allegedly attempting to minimize the contamination and its effects.
Separately, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, decried the crisis, which began in 2014 when the cash-strapped city sought to save money by drawing water from a local river rather than nearby Detroit's water system.
It was later found that officials did not properly treat the corrosive Flint River water to prevent metal leaching from old pipes. Additionally, Flint residents were not told about their tainted drinking water supply for a year and a half, and have now begun demanding to know what and when state officials became aware of the contamination.
Flint has since returned to using water from Detroit, but engineers now say its water distribution system may need replacement, costing as much at $1.5 billion.
Hospital sounds early alarm
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatric residency at Hurley Children's Hospital, is credited with bringing the problem to the public's attention after state agencies initially dismissed her concerns. Lead-contaminated water "has such damning, lifelong and generational consequences," Hanna-Attisha says.
The World Health Organization says excess lead exposure can damage a human's nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, and can cause high blood pressure and anemia. It also describes lead as "especially harmful to the developing brains of fetuses, young children and to pregnant women." Additionally, the WHO warns of risks from "irreversible learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma and death."
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency earlier this month, enabling Flint residents to go to fire stations for a daily case of water per household. But many blame Snyder for the current crisis, saying he failed to act until what The New York Times describes as "an outpouring of rage from Flint residents, city leaders, journalists and independent researchers forced him to wake up and focus on the calamity."
State to probe details of crisis
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced last week that he will investigate the crisis to determine whether any state laws were broken.
The NAACP, in a statement Sunday, described Schuette's announcement as a "positive and much needed step in the right direction." It went on to say that "it is not extraordinary or unrealistic to expect the water our children drink and bathe in ...to be free of chemicals. To expose a city of nearly 100,000 residents, many of them children, to toxic lead is, if not criminal, at the very least inhumane."