Dear Michigan LCV Family,
Welcome to the October 14, 2021 edition of Three Things Thursday!
This week’s edition of Three Things takes a look at Benton Harbor’s drinking water crisis, some of the most dangerous elements of the so-called “Secure MI Vote” ballot initiative, and tonight’s redistricting webinar hosted by our Democracy For All team. Let’s dive in.
1. Benton Harbor’s water crisis and why we must Build Back Better
Benton Harbor has been in the news a lot lately given dangerously high lead levels found in the city’s water, which has not only left residents without access to drinking water, but per guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), residents have been warned not to cook with or bathe in the water, either.
While the Whitmer Administration has been scrambling to put the necessary safeguards in place for the people of Benton Harbor, three years of inaction on the part of EGLE (dating back to the Snyder Administration when it was known as DEQ) has put health, safety, and basic human rights of the people of Benton Harbor at risk. A hard hitting article was published in the Detroit News last last night and included quotes like these:
Elin Betanzo, a Metro Detroit water quality specialist and former EPA official who helped uncover the Flint water crisis, said the continued exceedances of the action levels show the state’s approach isn’t working in Benton Harbor. And there was no “meaningful public outreach” explaining to people that the water wasn’t safe to drink, she said.
The fact that it hasn’t been approached with any urgency and it’s just been drawn out for so long makes me concerned that we haven’t learned anything from the Flint water crisis, and we haven’t made the changes necessary to ensure that a community has access to safe water to drink every day,” Betanzo said.
In addition to increasing bottled water availability and distribution, which the state has been doing in close collaboration with the city and the faith community in Benton Harbor over the past week or so, the Governor issued an executive directive today implementing an “all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach to move forward with urgency and ensure that every parent can give their kid a glass of water with confidence”.
Governor Whitmer also announced that the state is committed to expediting lead service line replacements in the city of Benton Harbor using additional federal, state, and local resources, with the goal of replacing 100% of lead service lines in 18 months.
Benton Harbor, a majority Black city with a population of 10,000 people, almost half of whom (45%) live below the poverty line, sits just north of St. Joseph, a majority white city where the median household income is nearly triple that of its neighbors. While the drinking water in St. Joseph has been deemed safe and clean, in large part due to determined replacement of lead service lines, the lead levels in Benton Harbor have spiked in places to 889 parts per billion (ppb). As a reminder, the federal “action level” is 15 parts per billion (ppb), which means that water systems must only take additional protective steps when lead levels exceed 15ppb in over 10% of taps sampled. (NOTE: no amount of lead is safe to drink).
The contrast between these two cities (captured powerfully and poignantly by Alex Kotlowitz in his book entitled The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma, which was published in 1999) illustrates the legacy of environmental injustice, economic injustice, and racism that plague Black communities and impact the health and safety of community members.
As Mehdi Hasan said in a piece for MSNBC earlier this week, it is astonishing that in the United States, the richest country in the world, people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water due to contamination and decades-long disinvestment in our infrastructure. Please know that the Michigan LCV team has been working tirelessly to ensure that every single resource possible is brought to bear for the people of Benton Harbor.
Broadly speaking, I also want you to know that the Michigan LCV team has doubled down over the past several months to capture an array of compelling stories about Michiganders whose lives have been impacted by the interconnected water and climate crises. This work has helped elevate the voices of residents all across the state, all of whom are immensely supportive of meaningful infrastructure and climate investments that will help protect the health and safety of their families and their communities.
One of the stories we captured recently is that of Reverend Edward Pinkney, minister and president of the grassroots Benton Harbor Community Water Council, a leader who has been in the news a lot over the past few many weeks. Not surprisingly, Rev. Pinkney’s story focuses on the need to invest meaningful dollars to ensure the drinking water in communities like Benton Harbor is clean, safe, and accessible, and the need to break down the legacies of environmental injustice and racism that have prevented meaningful investments in the past.
For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been living with contaminated water. We urgently need safe, clean water right now—today.” – Rev. Edward Pinkney
Serious and urgent action is needed at both the state and federal levels to address water contamination in communities like Benton Harbor. With close to $11 billion in unallocated funds sitting in Lansing, much of which came to Michigan via the American Rescue Plan, and major pieces of legislation being debated in Washington, DC, our elected leaders have the opportunity to both address the Benton Harbor water crisis in an immediate and holistic manner, and avert potential future drinking water crises throughout the state (and nation) — in cities like Highland Park and Birmingham, where lead has been found in school drinking water.
Indeed, if Congress passed the House version of the Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill together (which would enact the President’s full #BuildBackBetter plan), that would secure $45 billion dollars of funding ($15 billion in the infrastructure bill and $30 billion in the Build Back Better Act) over the next ten years to replace lead service lines across the country. However, negotiations on the Build Back Better Act are still ongoing and overall funding levels are certain to be cut down, making it all the more important that Michiganders demand that these investments remain a priority in order to ensure clean drinking water for millions of people.
We don’t need another Flint and we need help to stop this crisis right now. We are asking the federal government to intervene for the sake of our elders and children. Lead is poison. Lead kills. We desperately need funds to Build Back Better immediately.” – Rev. Edward Pinkney
Finally, I had an opportunity to meet with the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Brenda Mallory, this morning alongside an array of exceptional leaders and advocates:
- Elin Betanzo, engineer and founder of Safe Water Engineering LLC
- Brandon Snyder, C0-Executive Director of Detroit Action
- Pastor Monica Villareal, Flint resident , pastor and community leader engaged in frontline relief and programs addressing the Flint Water Crisis
- La’Shaya Darisaw, Flint area organizer focused on the intersection of environmental and racial justice
- Jeremy Orr, Senior Attorney for NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative
- Sylvia Orduño, People’s Water Board and Michigan Welfare Rights
- Cyndi Roper, Senior Policy Advocate for NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative
The conversation was very much on Benton Harbor and the much-needed immediate federal response, including ensuring bottled water provision and distribution for the foreseeable future; full funding for a water filter study (to ensure effectiveness given the particularities of the Benton Harbor water situation); and complete and immediate provision of full wrap around services for the families and children in the city. We stressed emphatically the need for the $45 billion in lead service line removal funding contained in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the House version of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, and our deep commitment to all the environmental justice provisions included in the latter. And we concluded by making sure that Chair Mallory heard loudly and clearly that we stand fully and completely with the Biden Administration to pass the BBB and bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress.
2. Today’s Redistricting webinar & upcoming public hearings
Our Democracy For All team has been deeply engaged in Michigan’s ongoing redistricting process, tracking the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission’s (MICRC) decisions and lifting up important opportunities for Michiganders to make their voices heard.
The Commission has now voted and finalized ten proposed draft maps of districts and will begin to hold its second and final round of public hearings during which the public has the opportunity to provide comments and feedback that will help the Commission draw district maps that fairly and accurately represent our communities.
The public hearings will begin on October 20th and run through October 26th, with a total of five hearings being held in communities across the state. Here is a full list of the upcoming hearings with links to sign up to attend, either in-person or virtually, and provide public comment to the Commission. Please consider signing up!
- October 20 in Detroit: Sign up
- October 21 in Lansing: Sign up
- October 22 in Grand Rapids: Sign up
- October 25 in Gaylord: Sign up
- October 26 in Flint: Sign up
In preparation for the hearings, our Democracy For All team is hosting a webinar tonight from 6:00 – 7:00 PM entitled “How to Engage in Redistricting Public Hearings”. This webinar will provide information and resources about the best way to engage with the Commission and insights on how you can speak most effectively to ensure your voice is truly heard.
Included in tonight’s panel will be our Democracy for All redistricting expert Mark Payne, Quentin Turner of Common Cause MI, Loida Tapia of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and Micheal Davis of Promote the Vote. The webinar will be streamed live on Zoom and Facebook Live. You can register for tonight’s webinar here.
For bi-weekly updates and important information about Michigan’s redistricting process, please check out the Democracy For All team’s newsletter, the Democracy Drumbeat.
3. Understanding the ramifications of the Republicans’ anti-voter ballot initiative
Attempts to pass anti-voter legislation in Lansing and enact the so-called “Secure MI Vote” ballot initiative aimed at voter suppression continue to progress and take shape as Michigan Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they are hell bent on restricting our freedom to vote.
The ballot initiative — the signature gathering for which began on Friday, October 8th in Howell — is aimed at restricting access to the ballot through drastic and restrictive changes to Michigan’s voter ID laws, absentee ballot applications, and critical funding and resources that our local clerks’ need to safely and securely run our elections.
Legislation in Lansing, originally introduced in March, continues to move through the Legislature, with amendments and revisions that shift the focus of the bills to mirror the policies outlined in the ballot initiative. In so doing, it is crystal clear that these so-called “reforms” are anything but that; they are, instead, barriers to the ballot.
If adopted into law, Michiganders across the state would face delays or extra hoops to jump through to cast their ballot whether by mail or in person. And our hardworking, already under-resourced local clerks would see their access to much-needed resources diminished, including funds for poll worker recruitment, which will directly impact how quickly voters can vote and ballots can be counted.
The true intention behind the bills and the ballot initiative is the continuation of the Big Lie, falsely claiming that our electoral system is wrought with fraud and illegal voting practices. Indeed, the former resident of the White House has actually told the Republican Party that if they don’t make the Big Lie their top priority, their voters won’t vote. You may want to check out this part of last night’s Rachel Maddow, which focuses on the recent “Trump tantrum” and his communication with Republican members of the Michigan legislature.
While Michiganders should be celebrating our historic turnout in the 2020 election, our safe, secure elections, and the expansion of voting rights that two-thirds of Michiganders supported in 2018, we are instead having to turn our time, talent and resources to this insidious and dangerous petition drive that has a good chance of getting traction among ill-informed Michiganders.
NOTE: Remember that the Republican legislators really have no intention of putting this initiative on the ballot; they are planning to circumvent the will of the people with an initiative process in Michigan law that allows them to quietly act on their own to put voter suppression in place.
In an article published in Bridge Michigan this week, Jonathan Oosting shed some light on the ramifications of the ballot initiative if it were to be enacted and the dangers it presents to Michigan voters. As Oosting details in the article, the changes proposed by the “Secure MI Vote” ballot initiative would prohibit local clerks from accepting donations or assistance for election-related activities from any individuals or non-governmental groups, including supplies, materials, and space for events.
Not only would the proposed changes severely hamper already under-resourced local clerks’ ability to organize and execute things like voter registration events, but they would also eliminate 15% of Michigan’s 3,400 polling places, such as churches, that would be classified as donated spaces. This is a staggering metric, and illustrates the true intention of the ballot initiative.
Churches make up a large portion of the “donated spaces” and have been used to vote in-person for years. By eliminating 15% of Michigan’s polling locations, the burden faced by local clerks to securely execute our elections in a way that is accessible to all would be increased astronomically, making it harder or even impossible for hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters to cast their ballots.
As the signature gathering continues and anti-voter bills are voted on by the Legislature, the Michigan LCV team will continue to update you and provide ways for you to engage and take action to help protect our freedom to vote in Michigan. We encourage you to share this information with friends and family, and tell those around you about the dangers that these proposed changes present to our democratic process, as well as decline to sign the “Secure MI Vote” petition, should you come across it. By coming together in defense of our democracy, we can ensure that access to the ballot and our freedom to vote remain unrestricted and secure for the many elections to come.
Never a dull moment, is there? I am so darn proud of the Michigan LCV team and all that we are taking on in this moment in our state/national history. Thank you for all you do to support our work!
Until next week, please stay safe and healthy….