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The Presidential Race and Environmental Racism: Flint Water Crisis Center Stage at Democratic Debate

The race for the Democratic nomination intensified this weekend.

The race for the Democratic nomination intensified this weekend as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton at caucuses in Maine, Kansas and Nebraska, while Clinton easily won in Louisiana. On Sunday night, the candidates faced off in a debate in Flint, Michigan, which has been in the national spotlight over the poisoning of the city’s water. The crisis began in 2014, when an unelected emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of the city’s drinking water from the Detroit system, which they’d been using for half a century, to the corrosive Flint River. Soon, residents began complaining of a range of physical maladies. At Sunday’s debate, both candidates condemned the devastation in Flint and laid out their plans for addressing the crisis. We play excerpts of the debate and speak with Democratic New York Congressmember Yvette Clarke, who has just returned from Flint as part of a Congressional Black Caucus delegation.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday night, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders squared off at a CNN debate in Flint, Michigan. Both used their opening statements to call for the resignation of Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder for his role in the poisoning of Flint’s water supply.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I had the opportunity to meet with a number of residents of Flint at a town meeting in Flint. And I have to tell you, what I heard and what I saw literally shattered me, and it was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America, in the year 2016, are being poisoned. … I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton?

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m very grateful that my request that we hold this debate be held here, so we can continue to shine a very bright spotlight on what has happened in this city. I agree: The governor should resign or be recalled. … I know the state of Michigan has a rainy day fund for emergencies. What is more important than the health and well-being of the people, particularly children? It is raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required.

AMY GOODMAN: CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders what punitive measures should be taken against those responsible for the Flint water crisis.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton, you’ve – you’ve now both called for the governor to resign. I believe that’s new for you. Previously, you had not called for that, but you’re calling for that tonight. It’s easy to blame the Republican governor, Rick Snyder. But the federal government also dropped the ball here. … The EPA knew for months and months, never warned the people of Flint not to drink the water. As president, would you fire the head of the EPA?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think that the people here in the region, who knew about this and failed to follow, what you just said rightly, the law required, have been eliminated from the EPA. I don’t –

ANDERSON COOPER: So far, one person has resigned.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t know how high it goes. I would certainly be launching an investigation. I think there is one.


HILLARY CLINTON: I was told that, you know, some of the higher-ups were pushing to get changes that were not happening. So I would have a full investigation, determine who knew what, when. And yes, people should be fired. How far up it went, I don’t know. But as far as it goes, they should be relieved, because they failed this city.

But let me just add this, Anderson. This is not the only place where this kind of action is needed. We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate. We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint. So I’m not satisfied with just doing everything we must do for Flint. I want to tackle this problem across the board. And if people know about it and they’re not acting and they’re in the government at any level, they should be forced to resign.

ANDERSON COOPER: Senator Sanders, would a President Sanders fire the head of the EPA?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: President Sanders would fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act appropriately. And President Sanders would make the point that: How does it happen in the wealthiest country in the history of the world? What are our priorities when, among others, Republicans today are fighting for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest people? How did we have so much money available to go to war in Iraq and spend trillions of dollars, but somehow not have enough money, not just for Flint – secretary is right, there are communities all over this country – it’s not just infrastructure, it is education. Detroit’s public school system is collapsing.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in New York is New York Congressmember Yvette Clarke. She just returned from Flint, Michigan, where she took part in a Congressional Black Caucus delegation town hall and visit. Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

REP. YVETTE CLARKE: Thank you for having me, Amy. It’s great being here.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we start commenting on the debate – and interestingly here, both Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton agreed on the issue, calling for the resignation – Hillary Clinton said, or the recall – of the governor, Rick Snyder. But what you found in Flint, what you were most surprised by?

REP. YVETTE CLARKE: Well, I mean, the breadth and depth of the devastation there, the people and their concerns about their well-being. I mean, you got a sense of it from just empathizing with a poisoned water system, but to be there, to see people with disabilities. We oftentimes speak of the children, but we don’t speak about people with compromised immune systems and what this may mean for them. There are concerns about other contaminants in the water. We hear mostly about lead, but the examination of just about every pollutant that was in the Flint River has not been thoroughly vetted as of yet, and so there remain a lot of questions for the people living there, and just the way of life that they’ve had to adjust to, whether it’s water filtration in their homes or receiving constant deliveries of bottled water. And what do you do with all the recycled bottles?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Flint resident LeeAnne Walters raised a question about lead service lines throughout the United States to the Democratic presidential candidates.

LEEANNE WALTERS: After my family, the city of Flint and the children in D.C. were poisoned by lead, will you make a personal promise to me right now that, as president, in your first hundred days in office, you will make it a requirement that all public water systems must remove all lead service lines throughout the entire United States, and notification made to the citizens that have said service lines?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I will make a personal promise to you that the EPA and the EPA director that I appoint will make sure that every water system in the United States of America is tested and that the people of those communities know the quality of the water that they are drinking and that we are going to have a plan to rebuild water systems in this country that are unsafe for drinking.

ANDERSON COOPER: Let me just point out for accuracy’s sake, there are 10 million lead service pipes delivering water to people all across this country tonight. Secretary Clinton?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I agree completely. I want to go further, though. I want us to have an absolute commitment to getting rid of lead wherever it is, because it’s not only in water systems, it’s also in soil, and it’s in lead paint that is found mostly in older homes. That’s why 500,000 children today have lead – lead in their bodies. So I want to do exactly what you said. We will commit to a priority to change the water systems, and we will commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton answering the question of LeeAnne Walters, one of the leading advocates for what has taken place in Flint and changing the situation there now. LeeAnne Walters’ own children have been poisoned by the lead in the water supply. She and her husband, who’s in the military, eventually moved to Virginia. It was actually Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards who took a team from Virginia to Flint, Michigan, to test the water. And together with doctors and scientists in Flint, without the help of the Michigan government, proved that the people of Flint were being poisoned.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a quick trip to Flint and what we found when Democracy Now! went to the Michigan city. Stay with us.

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