Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fulfilled a pledge he made during his 2016 presidential campaign and returned to the city of Flint, Mich., on Feb. 25. During his visit to the city, which has not previously been reported, Sanders met with local community members and activists who are dealing with the lead poisoning crisis that has affected the city’s water supply since 2014.
In a statement to Yahoo News, Sanders said the situation remains dire and the government response has been inadequate.
“On my return to Flint this week, I once again saw a community that is economically and socially oppressed and in desperate need of our help. I also saw some beautiful and strong people of all ages working tirelessly to improve that community,” Sanders said, adding, “The impact of the water crisis continues to be enormous, and government at all levels is not doing enough. The work of Pastor Tillman and all those I met in Flint is extraordinary, and I look forward to continuing to work with them.”
The residents of Flint, which is the seventh-largest city in Michigan and has a predominantly African-American population, have been exposed to high levels of lead since their drinking water source was changed to a local river in 2014. Flint’s water crisis became a major issue during the 2016 presidential race. As candidates, President Trump and Sanders both visited the city. Sanders also had a campaign office in Flint and its workers got involved in bottled water distribution efforts.
Sanders said he would return to Flint when he came to the city on Feb. 25, 2016. Two years to the day, he kept that promise. Sanders, who is reportedly considering another run for president in 2020, came back to Flint at the tail end of a trip to Michigan, where he campaigned on behalf of congressional candidates he’s endorsed and against President Trump’s tax plan.
On this weekend’s visit, he was accompanied by Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who is the president of Our Revolution, the political group that is the successor to Sanders’s presidential campaign. Yahoo News learned of the visit via a tweet from Turner’s spokeswoman Tezlyn Figaro, who posted photos of Turner and Sanders meeting with Flint residents.
Turner told Yahoo News that she and Sanders participated in a private meeting that included Pastor Ezra Tillman of Flint’s First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, Tillman’s wife and environmental activist Guy Williams. She said they also held a larger meeting with younger local activists.
“People were crying in those meetings,” said Turner, adding, “So many felt they were used as props in the 2016 election cycle and that most politicians only want to be affiliated with them when there’s cameras, and it was so refreshing to have him back there to have deep meetings about their suffering.”
Tillman told Yahoo News that the participants in the meeting discussed ongoing concerns for Flint, including long-term health issues faced by the residents. Questions remain about children who may have suffered developmental issues related to lead poisoning. He also said there are “food deserts” in the area in which residents are unable to access fresh produce that could help mitigate the effects of the poisoned water supply. Tillman also said there are issues around how federal funds allocated for the crisis were spent.
“The pipes have still not been fixed in certain areas, a very small number of the pipes have been fixed,” Tillman said. “The money has not been accounted for properly.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Flint’s water quality continues to improve.” However, Flint’s residents are still advised “to use filtered or bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth.”
Tillman also said the locals told Sanders about rumors that the current bottled water distribution programs in the city may be reduced. The EPA referred Yahoo News to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality for questions about bottle water distribution in Flint. That agency’s public information officer would not confirm or deny rumors that the distribution program was ending.
“At this point the state has not made an announcement relating to the end of bottled water,” DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told Yahoo News.
Overall, Tillman said Sanders was “really concerned and moved” by the meeting. He said he was pleased Sanders returned but “wasn’t shocked” to see Sanders back in Flint given the work the senator’s presidential campaign volunteers did in the city.
“I understood that he was committed to doing more than speaking it over the microphone,” Tillman said of Sanders. “He was definitely committed to Flint.”
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