Water expert blames DEQ ‘cover-up’ for Flint crisis

and , The Detroit News February 5, 2016

The engineering professor who helped uncover the contamination of Flint’s water told Congress Wednesday that primary blame lies with a few state environmental officials who “misled” Michigan leaders and residents and tried to “cover up” proof of high lead levels.

“One-hundred percent of responsibility lies with those employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. There’s no question,” Marc Edwards, a water expert at Virginia Tech University, told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.

But Edwards also faulted the former Midwest chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Hedman, who last summer discredited a key in-house memo that should have set off alarms about the failure of water officials to properly treat Flint River water.

“EPA had the chance to be the hero here, and Ms. Hedman snatched defeat for EPA from the jaws of victory,” he said.

Hedman resigned effective Monday. Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz said his committee wants her to give a deposition under oath to committee lawyers about her agency’s response to Flint.

Lawmakers on the committee pressed a state official and an EPA official for almost three hours on the government’s handling of the water crisis and how both the DEQ and EPA dismissed complaints and test results for months as city residents continued to consume lead-tainted water.

Republicans focused more on the EPA’s shortcomings in Flint, while Democrats tore into the state’s role. But the officials the committee most wanted to hear from were not in the room.

Chaffetz said former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who refused an invitation to testify Wednesday, would be served with a subpoena by U.S. marshals if necessary. Earley, in a state-appointed role, oversaw the city when it switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure.

Democrats also continued to call for Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, to bring Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to Washington for questioning, saying the committee couldn’t conduct a comprehensive investigation without him.

Chaffetz said he has made no final decision on whether to call Snyder to testify, and made no guarantees about holding another Flint hearing.

“Look, I’m going to keep all options open. I’ve made no final decision one way or the other,” Chaffetz told reporters after the hearing.

Flint residents in attendance

Onlookers began lining up outside the hearing room on Capitol Hill shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday. The crowd included two busloads of residents from Flint and two busloads from Detroit, said Erik Shelley of the liberal group Michigan United.

Many wore “Flint Lives Matter” shirts and said they were disappointed not to hear from Snyder. Barbara Carr of Flint was among them.

“It’s unfair, and someone needs to be held accountable,” she said of the discolored, smelly water flowing from her taps at home.

Democrats and at least one Republican lawmaker criticized Snyder’s use of Michigan’s emergency manager law, which is applied to municipalities that run consistent deficits and amass huge debts.

Oversight Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said the law might be unconstitutional because it usurps the democratic process.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Virginia, called the failures of the emergency managers in Flint “the consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings and their needs and welfare.”

Speaking to reporters in Flint Wednesday, Snyder defended his policy of appointing managers to handle financial emergencies. “Emergency managers have been successful in a number of other places in Michigan,” he said.

Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, faced a grilling about his agency’s delayed response to Flint. He said EPA staff who urged Michigan officials to address the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water were met with resistance.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, questioned why EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy didn’t make her first trip to Flint until this week — almost a year after her agency became aware of the city’s problems.

“I find it despicable that Gina McCarthy, the administrator, shows up in Flint yesterday instead of going there immediately,” Gosar said.

Beauvais said he didn’t believe McCarthy knew about the Flint crisis for eight months. “I came into this job in November of 2015, so I don’t have personal knowledge of all the communications that were done,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, questioned Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan DEQ, about his agency’s response to federal officials.

“With the law and your responsibility, what failed? … And can you explain to me the response to EPA on February 26 (2015) advising the state of Michigan that there was lead and high levels of corrosion in Flint water?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s the question of the day, and that’s what many of the auditors and reviewers are looking at,” Creagh said.

Lawrence asked whether anyone has been held accountable at the state DEQ.

“As you know, there’s been some changes at the DEQ. There’s been suspensions at the DEQ. Everyone deserves due process,” Creagh replied.

“We are working in conjunction with both the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Procedures concern Walberg

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, asked Edwards why many water utility owners and operators aren’t following proper procedures for testing for lead in drinking water. Is it a “lack of clarity in federal regulations or lack of enforcement or both?” Walberg said.

“The only thing I can conclude is that they don’t care about children getting lead poisoning from drinking water,” Edwards said.

“Do you believe they’re violating the law?” Walberg asked.

“I believe that they’re not enforcing the law or enforcing their own policies,” Edwards said. “Had it not been for people completely outside the system, those people in Flint would still be drinking this water to this day. That is a fact.”

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, said it was “outrageous” that a “government-made” situation like Flint’s could happen in the United States, calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation and for more state aid for Flint.

“The state spends $33 million on the Pure Michigan ad campaign, yet has provided only $28 million to make sure the people of Flint have pure water,” Amash said at the hearing. “The state has the resources. The state needs to make it right.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who testified Wednesday, called on Snyder to “write a check right now for the $60 million the mayor of Flint has asked for to replace the lead service lines.”

“This is a public relations campaign (by the state) right now,” Kildee told reporters after testifying. “It goes beyond partisanship. This seems to me to be individuals who are just trying to protect their reputations, and are more concerned about that than they are about kids in Flint.”

Creagh submitted written testimony ahead of the hearing referencing an in-house EPA memo, prepared in June 2015 by agency water expert Miguel Del Toral. It laid out the public health dangers inherent in the state’s failure to require corrosion controls in the Flint River water.

Creagh highlighted an email from an EPA employee advising DEQ officials on how to deny having seen the Del Toral memo, after the state acquired it through a third party.

When asked by Walberg, Beauvais said Jennifer Brooks, a staffer in the Midwest Region 5 of EPA, sent the email.

“I do not know why that email was sent,” Beauvais said. “We are looking into that.”

Beauvais testified that he was not aware of any punishment of Del Toral: “Mr. Del Toral is a valued member of the EPA’s team. He is a nationally recognized expert in this area.”

Walberg asked Edwards’ opinion of whether Del Toral was punished by the EPA.

“Not in writing, but the way the EPA operates in general is that people who are causing trouble by doing their job are simply not allowed to do their job,” Edwards said. “They are silenced, like Mr. Del Toral was.”

LeeAnne Walters, who lives in Flint half-time, said her complaints to the city and state about her discolored water and her family’s health issues “were dismissed.”

Walters reached out to the EPA, and Del Toral was the “only one willing to address the problem.” She said she requested a copy of his June 2015 internal memo on Flint’s water and made it public “because people had a right to know.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.

Payday lending ‘debt trap’ hits consumers

, Detroit Free Press Personal Finance Columnist January 22, 2016

Low-income consumers, seniors and others can get caught in a “debt trap” involving extraordinarily high fees and interest rates on some payday loan products.

Ken Whittaker, 41, has one of those stories about taking out a payday loan that can make your stomach flip.

One simple mistake — cashing his paycheck and pocketing the money — set off a chain of financial headaches that ultimately ended up costing him more than $7,000. It all started out with one mistake and one payday loan to cover that emergency.

Whittaker, who lives in Detroit, was working in information technology at the University of Michigan more than 10 years ago when he cashed his paycheck and put all the money in his pocket. Shortly afterward, he pulled out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket to buy his little boy a hot dog for lunch.

But somehow, the entire wad of cash fell to the ground. Whittaker didn’t realize it. He lost it all.

So Whittaker took out a payday loan for around $700 or so to cover his bills. He couldn’t pay the first payday loan off and then got another one. He had two loans out at one point that added up to more than his entire paycheck.

“This payday lending catches you in a cycle,” he said.

“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said of the constant building of more debt and high fees.

At one point, Whittaker decided to close his bank account so the payday lenders wouldn’t have access to his money. But that move led to collection calls and then a legal judgment against him for garnishing what money he received from his tax refund, he said.

“When it came to the refund time, I didn’t get my check,” Whittaker said. He was newly married so some of that refund belonged to his new wife who was working and having taxes withheld during the year from her paychecks. She wasn’t too happy.

“It was a very bad period in my life,” he said.

Whittaker’s story is the kind that activists want to bring to light as Washington reviews the rules surrounding payday lending. Advocacy groups want to see tighter regulations on a national level of payday lenders, which they say can prey on millennials, seniors and others who might be stretched for cash.

In March 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it was considering proposing rules that would end “payday debt traps” by requiring lenders to take steps to make sure consumers can repay their loans.

At that time, proposals under consideration included restricting lenders from attempting to collect payment from consumers’ bank accounts in ways that tend to rack up excessive fees.

“Too many short-term and longer-term loans are made based on a lender’s ability to collect and not on a borrower’s ability to repay,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray in a statement a year ago.

But activists are concerned that the payday lending industry is putting the heat on and moving to prevent meaningful changes in the rules that could benefit consumers who end up caught in a “debt trap.”

Kursik spoke Friday on a payday lending reform panel with Whittaker and others at the Michigan United office in Detroit. Megan Kursik, coordinator for the Michigan Communities for Financial Empowerment at the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan in Lansing, said too often people seem to think that someone is just taking out a payday loan because they want to buy expensive electronics or some other luxury item. But she said many times people end up in a cycle of debt because of some emergency or unforeseen financial snag.

As Kursik sees it, regulations should focus on the consumer’s ability to pay back the loan. But right now, she said, the loans are made because the lender has the ability to collect directly from a bank account. To obtain a payday loan, one has to agree to give access to a bank account.

Currently, Michigan has some limits on payday lending or what the state calls a “deferred presentment transaction.” State law limits the amount a person can borrow from a payday lender to $600 with fees capped at $76.  On a $400 payday advance, for example, the fee would be $54​ and in Michigan the payday lender may charge an additional database verification fee of 45 cents per transaction.

As for consumers who run into trouble now, there are a few steps that Kursik would recommend taking. They include contacting the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services, particularly if someone has had troubles with online payday lenders, where the state has seen a rush of complaints. See www.michigan.gov/difs or call 877-999-6442.

Consumers also can file complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. See www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint.

Contact Susan Tompor: 313-222-8876 or stompor@freepress.com. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor. 

Community Leaders Hail Supreme Court Decision to Take up President Obama’s Immigration Program

SCOTUS will rule on the legality of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or DAPA Program

Immigrant advocates applauded this morning’s announcement that the US Supreme Court will take up the case stalling the President’s immigration plan, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA.

DAPA would provide temporary protection from deportation and a work permit to undocumented parents of US citizen children who have been in the country for five years and have no criminal record. The program, in tandem with an expanded version of the President’s earlier program supporting undocumented students (DACA+), would offer protection to four to five million. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 beneficiaries live in Michigan.

“Immigrant families will finally have their day in court,” said Rachid Elabed, Advocacy & Civic Engagement Specialist at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn. “We can finally put an end to the political games, and move toward protecting the parents of U.S. citizens who are already contributing so much to our country. The Supreme Court can and must move swiftly to keep families together.”

The program has been stalled in the courts since summer, when a radical anti-immigrant judge in Texas temporarily halted the program.

The announcement by the Supreme Court comes after months of campaigning by immigrant rights groups, including recent protests in Michigan.

Hungry for Racial Justice?

Structural racism impacts all of us at some level. Besides the way we each experience it individually, it affects our family and it attacks our community. And since it is structural, this racism infuses many of the institutions we must interact with on a daily basis. As a result, it has a profound influence in our lives that we are usually not even aware of.

That’s why Michigan United is forming a Racial Justice core team. We want to band together to identify and eliminate the many forms racism takes in our everyday lives.

Please come to the Michigan United office at 4405 Wesson in Southwest Detroit on Tuesday, January 12th at 5:30PM for a potluck dinner. Meet the newest member of the Michigan United team, Dorthea Thomas our Environmental Justice organizer. Elder Leslie Mathews and other members of our Detroit Pastoral Alliance for Change (DPAC) will be there, fresh from their victory to restore the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners and looking for the next structural change to be made.

After the meal, we’ll have a discussion on the topic of Mass Incarceration.  What are the impacts it has on your life? What are the root causes? What can we do to stop the ‘School to Prison Pipeline’?

If you have friends who are interested in seeking racial justice in Detroit, please forward this message on to them. There is also an event on Facebook with all the details there too.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1730136190541598/

Hope to see you there!
Michigan United team

Michigan United celebrates relief for a local woman, and sets its sights on the work ahead

It wasn’t until several years after her immigration to the U.S. that Boko Haram became a household name when they kidnapped hundreds of girls from the Chibok school in 2014, causing a global outcry.

Amnesty International says Boko Haram has “committed war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity,” and they say that the terrorists’ actions have, “crippled normal life in north-east Nigeria.” In fact, since 2009, they have killed thousands, abducted at least 2,000, and forced millions to flee their homes due to violence. Rejoice’s family is among those fleeing violence back home.

Rejoice came here, legally, on a student visa, but lost her legal status when she had to pause her schooling a couple of years into her stay when she became pregnant and gave birth to her son. She has since completed her degree, with honors, and is working for one of Kalamazoo’s largest corporations. But since losing her status, her life, like that of the 11 million other undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., has been full of uncertainty.

Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) is an executive order enacted by President Obama one year ago. The program offered relief to the 4.5 million parents of American children, like Rejoice, by placing them as the bottom priority for deportation. And for a few months, Rejoice found relief under DAPA. She was issued working papers and was told that, as long as she didn’t commit any crimes, she would be allowed to stay.

That all changed, earlier this year, when DAPA was challenged by 26 states, including Michigan, that argued the order was a Presidential overreach. A federal judge sided with the states, blocking the order from being able to continue. Even though Rejoice’s home province is rife with terrorist violence and she and her son would surely be targets considering her Western education and single motherhood, she had already been denied asylum. Suddenly and without warning mid-November, she was fitted with an ankle tether and given a notice of deportation. On Dec. 2 she — with or without her son — would be placed on a plane to Nigeria.

The tragedy is the normalcy

Michigan United organizes around immigration, mass incarceration, affordable housing and childcare, and civic engagement. They have offices in Detroit, Kalamazoo and soon, Grand Rapids. They helped organize support around Rejoice’s case, and they know that the tragedy of Rejoice’s story is the normalcy of this situation.

Allison Colberg is the Deputy Director of Michigan United. She says that in addition to cases like Rejoice’s, there are 11 million people living in this country who are fleeing things like poverty, violence, and lack of economic opportunity in their home countries. She says even though they work hard, provide for their  families, and contribute to their communities, they still live in fear every day — “you know, the parents walking out the door, thinking, ‘will I come back tonight?’ the children going to school, thinking, ‘will my parents be there tonight?'”

Many people think it is easy to immigrate to the United States legally, but Colberg says that it’s not, and that the rules are really stringent — especially if one is trying to come from a non-European country or a developing country. Asylum cases are even harder to come by. “An asylum case is somebody who, for whatever reason, feels they are not able to stay in their country for fear of danger to themselves. The guidelines are very strict. It is difficult.”

Colberg has worked with many, many immigrants, like Rejoice, who have been denied asylum, repeatedly, even though returning to their home country would likely result in their being killed. Colberg tells about a Chinese woman Michigan United supported. Even though she was a human trafficking victim, sold into trafficking by her father, who told her, ‘if you run away from them, I’ll find you and I’ll take your life,’ she was denied asylum several times. Michigan United campaigned around her case, and public support and advocacy saved her from deportation.

Rejoice’s temporary victory and the need for reform

Public campaigns are often a last-resort intervention that can work to spare some immigrants from imminent deportation. But, they don’t always work, and they are often a temporary fix.

In the case of Rejoice, thousands of community members stepped up to sign a petition issued by Michigan United, and hundreds made calls to the state and national Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to plead for a stay on her behalf. Senators Peters and Stabenow also intervened, and at her immigration check-in a week and a half prior to her scheduled departure, she was offered a six-month stay. A victory, albeit a temporary one.

The Obama Administration has begun the appeals process with the Supreme Court to ask them to overturn the lower court’s ruling and to let the administration begin enforcing its DAPA program. But until and unless the Supreme Court overturns the lower court’s injunction, immigrant parents, like Rejoice, will be out of options to stay in this country.

And time is running out. Colberg says that the case would need to be heard in the next month or two in order for a decision to be made during the current presidential term. And that’s imperative, because the program might be eliminated by the next person to occupy the Oval Office.

“(DAPA) is really about our basic value of families and keeping families together, and what families go through to provide for the ones they love,” Colberg says. “And there’s also so much talent and ability that people are unable to give because of their legal status not allowing it … a program like this will enable (Rejoice) to stay and contribute to this country.” Colberg says that would be a gift to her, her community, and the United States.

Day of action and a celebration

Lilina Aguado, Michigan United Member, shares her story at November Nat'l Day of Action calling on 5th Circuit Court to action.
Lilina Aguado, Michigan United Member, shares her story at November Nat’l Day of Action calling on 5th Circuit Court to action.

Last week, Thursday, on Human Rights Day, advocacy organizations and individuals used traction from that day to put pressure on the Supreme Court of the U.S., asking it to take action immediately on the DAPA appeal.

On the same day, Michigan United celebrated victories, like Rejoice’s case, and many others at their annual fundraiser and celebration, “Together We Rise,” took place at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. One of the other big, local successes they celebrated was the victory on housing. Colberg beams as she explains, “Kalamazoo county residents handily voted to tax themselves to help provide housing to homeless families” — an initiative that Michigan United has been working on for 13 years.

Colberg says that the work of Michigan United is all based around asking, “Why? Why are there so many people who are suffering this problem? Why are there so many families in the school system who are homeless? Why are there so many of our African American community members ending up in prison? Why are their suspension rates different? It’s hard and uncomfortable work,” she says, “but so necessary. We count on community members to invest in their values by supporting this work with their finances.”

You can find out more information about Michigan United and ways that you can support their work by visiting its website.

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com.

Tell the EPA “Justice Isn’t Optional!”

This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan. For the first time, the federal government will limit carbon emissions from power plants. This could be big — an historic chance to slow climate change, clean up our air and create thriving, sustainable communities.

But the Clean Power Plan doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect those of us most affected by climate change: low-income communities and communities of color. While our planet is in peril, big energy companies rake in profits. They’ve left communities, especially low-income communities and people of color, with dirty air, poisoned water and dangerous, dead-end jobs.

Now we have a chance to build a more equitable clean energy economy, but we have to make sure it works for all of us.

Right now the comment period for the Clean Energy Incentive Program — the main program that helps low income communities get access to renewable energy and energy efficiency — closes Dec. 15. The program is a good start but it is currently voluntary and much too small.

Let’s flood the EPA with our comments to say: We need a strong, mandatory Clean Energy Incentive Program and an equitable Clean Power Plan that puts frontline communities first.

CLICK HERE to make your public comment to the EPA and tell them “Justice isn’t optional!”

Good News with Immigration Reform & A Call to Action for Ever Cornejo-Herrera

Lolita Brayman, Greencard-US.com December 11, 2015

Ever Cornejo-Herrera's wife, Mirelle, speaking at a Michigan United rally in September, 2015.

President Obama received some good news last week from the U.S. Supreme Court with regards to his November 2014 executive action on immigration. The Court rejected Texas’s request for a 30-day extension to file its opening brief against the President’s deferred-deportation program, which essentially raises the likelihood that the justices will hear the case in the Spring of 2016 and decide it by the end of June (before Obama’s term as president expires).

Obama’s executive action on immigration reform unveiled the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which aims to protect undocumented immigrant parents from the threat of deportation. Executive action also expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which does the same with undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children. Texas and 25 other states sued the Obama administration and sought to block both programs, claiming that the President had exceeded his constitutional authority.

Why is the denial important? Well, for starters it keeps immigration reform on track for possible consideration, giving the deferred-deportation program more of a chance to actually come into fruition. This of course does not ensure a victory, but it does keep the ball rolling on reform that has been in limbo, along with the lives of 5 million undocumented immigrants, for over a year.

But despite the promising news, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is still adamant to deport low-priority individuals that could be DAPA eligible. Local ICE field offices are in charge of denying or accepting applications for stay of removal to immigrants and effectively issuing deportations.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set out a clear priority plan for the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. There are three levels in DHS’s  Priority and Enforcement Program (PEP): The removal of Priority 1 individuals – people who are deemed a threat to national security or border security – are prioritized for removal. Priority 2 is the second highest priority for deportation, while Priority 3 is the lowest and includes people with immigration violations but no criminal record. People in all three categories will be priorities for deportation unless they qualify for asylum or another form of relief or unless, there are compelling and exceptional factors that indicate the person is not a threat to public safety or national security.

The DHS priorities are supposed to dictate the actions of local ICE Field Offices, but ICE agents have a lot of room to make decisions for themselves. In Michigan, we are experiencing this issue first hand with the ICE Field Office in Detroit. They have been denying applications for stays of removal to Priority 3 immigrants while it appears that most other ICE offices around the country are not pursuing Priority 3 deportations, pursuant to the DHS directive.

One of our clients, Ever Cornejo-Herrera – a Priority 3 individual from El Salvador – has been detained since April 2015. We have been trying to stop his deportation for the better half of the year, but his asylum and stay of removal applications were both denied, as was the appeal and the application to reopen the case. He has a clean criminal record and is a loving father to U.S. citizen children; deporting him would be breaking apart a hard working American family that poses no risk to public safety.

EVER

The Detroit ICE office is also acting in defiance of the President’s orders regarding DAPA eligible candidates, at least in spirit. Since the President’s announcement, DHS policy has been to grant administrative closure of removal cases for those that are DAPA eligible in order to prevent them from losing their right to DAPA. Since removal for these individuals would only be a result of DAPA’s delay in the courts, administrative closures would prevent the deportation of these would-be qualifiers.

Ever Cornejo-Herrera was not able to have his case administratively closed in time before a removal order became final, and now ICE is using this fact to try to deport him. This is both unfair and a violation, in spirit, of the President’s interim policy while his Executive Order is under review by the Supreme Court. It looks like the Supreme Court will issue its decision in June, and since the vast majority of legal scholars in the country believe that the President has acted lawfully, people in Ever’s position will be able to lawfully apply for DAPA eventually.

This essentially means that no one in Ever’s position should be deported in the meantime. We at George P. Mann and Associates believe that Ever’s deportation would amount to a rogue action by local ICE agents. DHS must issue clear orders to ICE Detroit, and any other ICE offices, which try to deport Priority 3, DAPA eligible people. Rebecca Adducci, the Detroit ICE field director, needs to stop pursuing Priority 3 deportations, including Ever Cornejo-Herrera, as she is not following directives from DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. We are also calling on Jeh Johnson himself to issue more detailed directives to all local ICE field offices to stop this unlawful and ill-spirited pattern of pursuing the deportation of Priority level 3 cases until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the DAPA lawsuit.

Read more about Ever Cornejo-Herrera and find out how you can help here.