Flint water recalls Michigan’s botched response to PBB disaster

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By Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Ken Winter. Image: Dome Magazine

Governor Rick Snyder’s public apology during his state-of-state address on January 19th pledging to rid lead contamination from Flint’s water supply and threatening its population of 100,000 is not a new story. The story has eerie similarities to 1973, when a different governor learned that a fire retardant had poisoned Michigan’s food supply.

One of Michigan’s worst agricultural disasters continues to make headlines some 40 years after it decimated 500 Michigan dairy and cattle farms, an entire Michigan city, and blemished the otherwise nearly spotless career of former Governor William G. Milliken, Michigan’s longest serving governor. Even today, no one is sure what the effect has been on millions of Michiganders who consumed poison-laced milk, beef and poultry after the accidental statewide distribution of the fire retardant polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) in 1973.

The disaster started in the early 1970s, when a man-made chemical fire retardant–Firemaster BP-6–produced by the Michigan Chemical Company of St. Louis, Mich. was accidentally mis-bagged, then distributed by the Michigan Farm Bureau as livestock feed. From there, the product was wrongly distributed to farms across Michigan and throughout the Midwest.

As is the case now with Governor Snyder, just as DEQ Director Dan Wyant and others are resigning or being put on administrative leave over the Flint crisis, the PBB disaster pitted a popular governor against one of the state’s strongest lobbies–the Michigan Farm Bureau–and led to the downfall of State Directors from both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. As put forth in a recent edition of Chemosphere, an environmental sciences journal, University researchers now suggest lingering health effects remain in countless Michiganders who may still carry high levels of PBB in their bodies.

One 40-acre Gratiot County landfill had received 269,000 pounds of wastes containing 60 to 70 percent PBBs between 1971 and 1973. Recently drilled test wells show traces of PBBs in the aquifer in all directions. Since 1998, the federal EPA and state DEQ have spent over $100 million cleaning up the Pine River in St. Louis. The effort has included the installation of sheet piling, dewatering and dredging operations. As restoration work continues, a fishing ban remains in place.
Now some 100,000 Flint residents find their health compromised by drinking contaminated water, with an undetermined number of the 9,000 children under age six already poisoned. Health officials say the youngest are most vulnerable.

“No level of lead is safe,” Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s Director of Health and Human Services has said to many news media outlets across the state of MI and throughout the world. “Lead poisoning can lead to aggressive behavior, learning disorders, Attention Deficient Disorder, hearing loss, anemia, kidney damage and lower IQ’s.”

Back in 1973, state agriculture and health department officials at first denied reports of any problems. Some farmers had agents of the Department of Agriculture come out to their farms to investigate their suddenly failing herds. The agents would brush the farmers off, telling them it was because of their own, “bad husbandry.” The Michigan Milk Messenger, a trade publication, blasted the weekly Charlevoix Courier for its extensive 1973-74 coverage of a neighboring dairy farmer’s dying herd. Meanwhile, other farmers were beginning to report mysterious deformities of their cattle, which were delivering grotesquely deformed and stillborn calves.

The Courier eventually uncovered a secret study being conducted on afflicted PBB farm families by the Michigan Departments of Health and Agriculture. State officials, who eventually confirmed the study, told the Courier they didn’t want to influence the study by making it public.

The news made the front page of the Charlevoix Courier and was reprinted in the Grand Rapids Press and other Michigan Booth Newspapers, catching Milliken off-guard and forcing him to hold a hastily called press conference to deal with the issue. As one blogger recently reflected, “The state of Michigan realized there was a problem and they quickly realized the monstrosity of it all. They didn’t know how to properly handle the situation as nothing like this had happened before in the United States.”

For Flint, trouble began in April 2014–just over 40 years after the PBB mishap–and after the state appointed Darnell Earley State Emergency Manager to manage the near bankrupt city. Shortly thereafter, Flint began to draw its water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron to save money.
Flint residents complained immediately after the switch to river water that stuff coming out of their taps had a brownish color and a strange smell. Just like the complaints about the health of farm animals were dismissed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bureau back in 1973, then city Mayor Dwayne Walling made a point of drinking Flint’s water on television while State and local officials stonewalled a team of researchers, this time led by Marc Edwards of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a practicing Pediatrician in Detroit, has since found elevated lead levels in both the water and in the blood samples taken from Flint’s toddlers.

Just like when state officials confirmed–eventually–the secret study being conducted on afflicted PBB farm families, the reality of the contamination in Flint came to light when state officials—finally this past October—abruptly changed their minds and accepted Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings. In mid-October, Governor Snyder admitted for the first time that lead poisoning was, in fact, a problem and Flint’s water supply was switched back to Lake Huron. Even so, Flint’s water is still not safe because damage to the pipes cannot not be immediately reversed, which means Flint’s tap water is still undrinkable.

There are many reports of Flint residents ignoring relief workers sent in to help because they are being sent by the Governor, whom many no longer trust. There are still some people across the state, particularly second-generation PBB-afflicted farm families, that feel much the same way about the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service. Today, PBB research continues in Atlanta’s Emory University–with the Michigan Department of Community Health–and funded, in part, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The Detroit Free Press reports, “Researchers hope that their latest findings — high levels of PBB remain in Michiganders’ bodies, and the link between PBB levels and newborns’ Apgar scores — will trigger to continue the work.”

Michigan needs to repair, then deal with Flint’s water crisis in much less time than the 40 years it has taken to get a handle on the PBB disaster. If there is one silver lining to be fund in this mess, many businesses, organizations and individuals–both statewide and nationally–are shipping free bottled water to those in desperate need of a glass of clean water in the city of Flint.

This commentary originally appeared online in Dome Magazine. Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

2 thoughts on “Flint water recalls Michigan’s botched response to PBB disaster

  1. I live in Breckenridge, MI just 7 miles east of St. Louis where the original PBB mess occurred. My youngest son was born in 1974. We are rural, had no cattle, pigs or chickens and purchased from our local grocery store all of our food items. So far, my youngest exhibits less health issues than residents living just down the road. That isn’t the only mess that came out of Michigan Chemical. A neurologist in Saginaw follows a rare kind of brain cancer that occurs no where else to the degree it does in this ‘neck of the woods.’ The chemicals that were ‘carried on the wind’ possibly played a role. A good source on the St. Louis mess is Jane Keon of the same city.

  2. Well written Ken. The analogies of Flint’s water contamination “handling” are not lost on those of us from PBB contaminated farms nor the residents of St. Louis. However, we have found that there is little to nothing taught about these incidents (even in Michigan public health), so history was destined to be repeated. Indeed it was “lucky” that one of the index PBB contaminated dairies happened to have a MS chemical engineer who found corporate life not to suit him, and returned to his family’s farm. My father, Frederic Halbert, utilized labs out of state to analyze our dairy cattle’s feed.

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