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Flint, MI—Nayyirah Shariff, activist and director of Flint Rising, spent the night of April 7 on a Zoom call for a city council meeting in Binghamton, New York.
Shariff had never even heard of Binghamton until a couple weeks ago.
A Google alert led Shariff to find out that Binghamton’s city council was considering contracting with the utility company Veolia to conduct an audit of the city’s sewage treatment plant. Shariff had free time that Wednesday night and decided to call into the meeting.
Veolia is the same company hired in 2015 to address drinking water quality in Flint. In a lawsuit filed in 2016 by then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Veolia was accused of professional negligence, public nuisance, unjust enrichment, and fraud, all of which contributed to the crisis.
Shariff ended up being the second public speaker on the matter, and voiced concerns about the company, saying that they were more concerned about their contracts and “lining their coffers” than “sounding the alarm” that there were harmful chemicals in the water.
“No community should be looked at with… dollar signs in their eyes, and looking at the long-term impact of what’s happening in Flint…I really do not want that to happen to your community,” Shariff said. “Like the idea of that even happening is making me tear up….I don’t even know your community but, I just really felt like I wanted to let you know of the struggles that we have in Flint. “
Public comment ended up going for more than two hours, and many other Binghamton residents voiced their concerns about the company.
“I don’t want to step on what people on the ground are doing…but I was so happy to see that they were aware, and that the message we created…permeated,” Shariff said.
Dan Livingston, a Binghamton resident and former city council member, said Shariff’s call was a surprise to everyone.
“A group of us organizing were just really excited when we heard [Shariff] call in,” Livingston said.
He said four staff members of the treatment plant spoke out at the last meeting, and that there was a protest and rally at the plant on Monday.
“For years the plant staff has been saying there are critical problems with construction done by Veolia and other contractors,” Livingston said. He said the problems never seem to be addressed.
“So the plant staff was really moved by the public showing up to support them,” he said.
The Binghamton council is supposed to hear from representatives from Veolia on April 19 before making a final decision.
Shariff hopes the council will not choose to contract with the company.
“I don’t want someone to find out after it’s too late that this company is super scummy, and that they’re responsible for poisoning a bunch of communities,” Shariff said. “Why should they be given more money? They need to be held responsible for their actions. This is what accountability looks like.”
Veolia denies any wrongdoing in Flint. A statement from their website from the time of the lawsuit reads, “The lawsuit filed by the Michigan Attorney General yesterday is outrageous. The allegations against Veolia are false, inaccurate, and unwarranted. Sadly for the citizens of Flint and throughout Michigan, the lawsuit represents the latest attempt to deflect responsibility by government officials and representatives who caused and are responsible for this situation.”
Livingston said if Flint residents want to speak about their experiences and about what they think of Veolia, that could be helpful. To find the link to their next council business meeting on April 21, you can visit the city website here.