As President Obama travels to Flint, Michigan, Wednesday to highlight the city’s water contamination crisis, the United Nations said it might initiate a human rights complaint in the case based on racism and class bias, a narrative the White House didn’t dispute.
The U.N. said it’s weighing whether to insert itself in the probe into contaminated drinking water after a trio of U.N. human rights experts in Switzerland said that racism and class discrimination may have played a key role in the scandal. The U.N. human rights office in Geneva called on authorities to draw up a “human rights complaint strategy” to address the crisis.
Experts in the U.N. office say the human rights complaint could be lodged in order to ensure that other U.S. municipalities don’t make the same mistakes that local, state and federal officials made in handling Flint’s water supply needs, which has left residents dealing with the health impact of lead-contaminated water.
“Decisions would never have been made in the high-handed and cavalier manner that occurred in Flint if the affected population group was well-off or overwhelmingly white,” Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in a statement Tuesday.
“Elected officials would have been much more careful, there would have been a timely response to complaints rather than summary dismissals of concerns, and official accountability would have been insisted upon much sooner.”
The White House wasn’t aware of the development Tuesday, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said. But he didn’t take issue with the characterization of race and class potentially contributing to Flint’s problems.
“The fact that something like this happened in a community that is so economically disadvantaged is something that troubles the president,” Mr. Earnest said.
Because probes of the contamination aren’t completed, Mr. Earnest said it would be “premature” to discuss “the president’s view of accountability” in the episode.
But Mr. Obama does plan to use the contamination to make a case for the need for government regulators, and to criticize congressional Republicans for neglecting the people of Flint.
“The president will make a broader argument about just how important it is for government at all levels to function effectively,” Mr. Earnest said. “That stands in pretty stark contrast to some Republican candidates who suggest that environmental agencies shouldn’t even exist.”
Despite the president’s message, both the EPA and the state water quality agency apparently failed to keep the city’s water system safe.
The regional head of the EPA for Michigan, Susan Hedman, announced her resignation in January after she was accused of not doing enough to prevent the water contamination crisis. Ms. Hedman said the EPA knew in April 2015 that Flint’s decision to switch to the Flint River for its water supply “could increase pipe corrosion and spiked lead levels.”
She did not alert the public, opting instead to try to pressure state officials internally to fix the problem.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has blamed the EPA for the Flint crisis, while EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has faulted the governor and other state officials, noting that the city was under state management when the problems arose.
The crisis occurred when state officials switched Flint’s water supply to the Flint River in 2014 to save money in the predominantly African-American city of 100,000 north of Detroit.
State officials did not require the river water to be treated for corrosion, and lead from old pipes contaminated the drinking water. Elevated lead levels have been found in at least 221 children and 104 adults.
On his trip to Michigan, Mr. Obama will first visit a food bank that has been providing bottled water and other necessities to residents of the Flint area. Then he’ll hold a roundtable discussion with Flint residents and speak to about 1,000 people at Flint’s Northwestern High School.
Mr. Earnest has dodged questions about whether Mr. Obama himself will drink Flint water during his visit. He noted that the EPA has declared filtered water in Flint safe to drink.
“That’s certainly the advice that the president thinks the public should follow,” he said.