Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders moderated an emotionally charged town hall-style discussion at a church here this afternoon during his first visit to the Midwest town that has been ravaged by lead-poisoned water.
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Hillary Clinton traveled to Flint, Michigan, earlier this month, while the Vermont senator first met privately with families from the city a few weeks ago in nearby Detroit before an event. Visibly and admittedly shaken by that meeting, he has mentioned the city and its struggle at almost every one of his events since.
He asked residents today specifically about the status and safety of the water, their extraordinarily high water bills and the health care response and support from local officials.
“One of the things that has kind of blown me away,” Sanders began, “is I pay in Burlington, Vermont, about 70 bucks a month for pretty good water.”
The crowd laughed, though the issue was far from funny. “I hadn’t realized that the cost of poison water is quite as expensive as it is here in Flint,” he said.
“I don’t know that people should be paying to have water that makes them sick.”
The residents, furious about the little help and information they have received, said one of the most important priorities for them at this point, beyond a permanent solution and clean water, is accountability.
“Why hasn’t our governor been arrested for poisoning us?” one young man asked.
Sanders reiterated that he has joined others in calling for Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign, which the governor has said he will not do.
Sanders, looking past the Saturday primary in South Carolina where Clinton enjoys a substantial lead, instead has spent the past few days touring the Midwest and Rust Belt states that do not vote until later in March but where his campaign thinks they will do well.
Here in Flint this afternoon, people in the packed church at times shouted their responses to the senator. “What happens if you shower,” Sanders asked of the lead-tainted water.
“You roll the dice and hope you don’t get poisoned,” someone yelled back.
The crowd yelled in agreement.
Other times individuals stood up and told personal stories of health issues, rashes, changes in their children’s behavior, and water filters that simply did not work. There was particular upset and anger about delinquent pipes that still had not been identified and “water buffaloes” (tanks that could carry larger, steadier supplies of replacement water) that never arrived.
Sanders warned that Flint, and its story of failing infrastructure and problem pipes, might be the “canary in the coal mine,” or just one of many cities on the verge of disaster. He talked about his proposal for a $1 trillion investment to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
“If there’s any silver lining out of this tragedy, is it’s my hope that the American people will look at Flint and say never again that we allow a community to undergo this,” he said.
While he did not offer specific solutions, he said broadly that when local and state governments fail, the federal government should step in.
“You are fighting back and I applaud you for that,” Sanders said. “Flint can be a leader and that’s what you are doing in changing national priorities and saying that every city and every town in this country is entitled to a strong infrastructure, good health care, good educational opportunities for their kids.”