Understanding Flint’s Water Crisis
On the confusing saga of Flint, Michigan’s lead poisoning disaster and how to keep it from happening again.
Michigan began 2016 with a stark reminder of an ongoing crisis when, on January 5, Governor Rick Snyder declared a long-awaited state of emergency in the city of Flint; on January 14, he called on President Obama to declare a federal emergency as well. The governor’s declaration comes almost two years after locals started complaining about foul, discolored water following a major change in local infrastructure—and three months after authorities belatedly recognized and took action on mass waterborne lead poisoning. Health officials estimate that 4 percent of children in Flint are suffering from elevated lead levels in their blood, a condition that puts them at risk of permanent brain damage. No one’s sure how deep this crisis goes—some fear that a local outbreak of the waterborne Legionnaires’ disease is revealing a new layer of pain and suffering—or how long it will last. (Some officials estimate that fixing the infrastructural issues underlying the problem could cost the city up to $1.5 billion, a project that could take some time to fund and carry out.) This uncertainty just adds to long-simmering rage, which has already manifested in protests and lawsuits seeking to hold someone responsible for the massive and completely avoidable man-made disaster.
Thankfully, after a slow grind of activism, investigation, and revelation, it’s getting easier to understand where things went wrong in Flint and who is responsible. But figuring out how to ensure that those mistakes are never made again there or elsewhere may be an even greater challenge.
Flint’s current woes ultimately stretch back to March 2013, when the city council voted seven-to-one in favor of ending their longstanding practice of buying water from Detroit. Instead Flint would join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), whose pipeline linking the region around the city directly to Lake Huron was set to open this year. The switch was a cost-saving measure, billed to potentially save the city $19 million over eight years after the switchover took place. And as such it’s been maligned in recent coverage as a shortsighted, foolish austerity measure.
Yet to local officials, the KWA switch made sense at the time. Once a wealthy town awash in union jobs and reliable industry, Flint has been hit hard by Rust Belt syndrome since the closure of major auto manufacturing facilities from the 1980s on. The local population has shrunk to about 99,000 from a peak of 200,000 in the 1970s; as much as 42 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty (two-thirds of Flint’s children fall under the poverty line), and 16 percent are unemployed. This demographic shift left the city burdened with oversize infrastructure, abandoned homes, and a crippled tax base. From 2011 to April 2015, the city had to go under the oversight of an emergency manager and impose harsh austerity programs. (It’s still under a receivership trustee board put in place by the governor.) Some have argued that the cuts made by emergency management were callous and shortsighted, with little eye toward achieving a solid future fiscal plan. But whether that’s true or not, the water switch was low-hanging fruit—and an increasingly important issue, given the ongoing rises in the rates that a struggling Detroit charged for its water. The savings offered by switching to a local water source, less prone to the whims of Detroit, with many years to make sure that the change was done right, probably seemed safe, cost-effective, and rational at the time.
Unfortunately, the next month Flint learned that Detroit would end its 50-year supply deal in April 2014, and Flint was not yet ready to make the switchover to the KWA. This forced the city to find a stopgap to tide them over for two years (after failing to work out an an interim supply deal deal with Detroit). In mid-March, with no vote from the city council, city officials decided to tap the nearby Flint River until the KWA deal kicked in, investing $4 million to upgrade their water treatment plant to handle the task. Still, officials looked on the bright side, arguing that over the next two years the shift would save them $2 million. But within weeks of the unilateral shift, locals started complaining that tap water tasted and looked off; some (who could afford it) switched to bottled water.
Map showing Flint, Detroit, Lake Huron, and the Flint River. Image by Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons.
Officials insisted that the water was fine, adding a bit of lime to combat hardness. Four months later, after discovering fecal coliform bacteria in the system, they issued a boil advisory, flushed the pipes by opening up every fire hydrant, and added chlorine disinfectant. And in January 2015, officials again had to eat crow, notifying customers about a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the form of excessive levels of trihalomethane (TTHM)—a byproduct of overzealous disinfectant usage that can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system damage or increase cancer risk over time. The city hired a water consultant to help with the new system, and a month later Governor Snyder offered Flint $2 million for little fixes. Officials eventually claimed that they had bacteria and TTHM contamination in check—all the while ignoring offers from Detroit to resume water sales on a short-term contract, offering reasonable financial allowances and perks. Emergency managers even ignored a city council plea to accept Detroit’s offer—which came just as many became disenchanted with the new system.
But in September 2015, the city lost any right or ability to shrug off continuing local concerns about the quality of the water system when researchers from Virginia Tech announced that they’d conducted a study on Flint’s water showing that it was seriously contaminated with lead. The river water’s corrosiveness, the researchers explained, had abraded old lead-based pipes in many of the city’s homes, resulting in lead levels many times above acceptable levels. This was seriously alarming because lead poisoning in children can cause permanent damage—and may even lead to multigenerational impairments. At first, officials tried to argue that the system met all federal and state water quality standards, but they quietly launched a lead-reduction plan for 2016. After more data emerged from corroborating sources, including local health workers, to back the Virginia Tech study, officials declared a health emergency in October 2015, urging locals not to drink tap water until it had been checked for lead contamination or until their houses had been fitted with filtration systems. Officials decided to return the city to its Detroit water supply (for now at least) at a total cost of $12 million (with the state footing half of the bill) and Snyder created a fund—since supplemented by other organizations—for filters and water testing. The city also started to probe what it would take to replace its 500-plus miles of aged, permanently damaged lead-based pipe infrastructure, and found the costs to be shockingly high.
Immediately after the lead-based revelations of last fall, it was a little unclear just who ought to take the blame for the crisis—or whether it was an unavoidable accident. Many saw fault at every level, from the mass failures of Flint’s governance and finances to mismanagement in state and local environmental offices to blithe disregard by the governor. But by December, when initial state task force investigations released their results, we found out a lot more about who was immediately to blame and who let those perpetrators slide.
First, a task force appointed by Governor Snyder laid the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ, the task force claimed, had conducted improper tests, not suitable for the demographics of Flint, and failed to consider or address concerns about the water’s corrosiveness. It had also ignored early reports of lead contamination and General Motors’ very public decision to stop using local water at its Flint engine plant all the way back in October 2014. (The manufacturer found the river water to be corrosive to its machinery.) The task force characterized the environmental agency as aggressively dismissive and belittling, claiming that the DEQ tried to discredit those who sought to raise awareness of water contamination. While Governor Snyder apologized to the residents of Flint (poor consolation for what seems like an inexplicably callous, negligent attitude toward human life—especially in an already marginalized community), the DEQ’s director quietly resigned his post.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Image by the Office of Governor Rick Snyder via Wikimedia Commons.
Yet the buck didn’t stop at the DEQ. Over the past couple of weeks, emails unearthed by Virginia Tech researchers between Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Munchmore, and others in the administration, sent back in July 2015, showed that the state executive had long been aware of but likely brushed off contamination concerns coming out of Flint. This revelation reaffirmed the belief, long-held by many people affected by the crisis, that the governor and other state-level officials were culpable and sinister forces. Snyder’s reluctance to discuss emerging evidence of his neglect and his seeming willingness to pin it all on the DEQ adds fuel to this fire of discontent. But even more important is that the new evidence shows that the failure in Flint wasn’t really an isolated cock-up, or a diffuse and intractable failure. It was the failure of a specialized agency and a failure of oversight and advocacy from elected officials, who kept vital information from citizens.
To be clear, we don’t now know how much of this neglect was intentional or malicious, as opposed to just careless. But the persistence of the willful neglect, especially regarding the concerns of a poor community, seems to fit a trend of malpractice in modern American governance that, if not criminally intentional, is still systematically disastrous, despicable, and deserving of grave consequences. We’ll have to wait for investigations being conducted by the United States Attorney’s Office (announced this month) and Michigan’s attorney general (announced today) to conclude before we know what sort of punishments are in order. But any popular or judicial punishments imposed on individuals, while morally satisfying and appropriate, probably won’t be able to touch the underlying issue: how to prevent this sort of double blindness from occurring again. Addressing that problem is difficult, and this incident proves, if nothing else, that enacting new regulations, layers of oversight, or laws can amount to nothing if one or more layers of the system screws up its job or shirks its responsibilities. This seeming invalidation of traditional mechanisms of political recourse can make the flaws that led to Flint’s crisis seem intractable, and repeats of the event inevitable—in other words, there will always be space for catastrophic and large-scale neglect to root and flourish. But there are a few things that we can do now and in the long term to help Flint and our future selves.
First, we can focus on helping Flint’s recovery, supporting state, federal, and nonprofit efforts to provide clean water, filter systems, and water safety education to locals. By doing so, as a nation and as individuals we can show our solidarity with the city and proclaim the unacceptability of such crises (putting officials in other regions on alert).
We can also rally behind the cause of overhauling our nation’s failing infrastructure, the seeming impossible scope and cost of which drives many politicians away from the task in fear. Most of the nation’s water systems are on the verge of failure after more than a century of use and a gradual slide in funding. We need to demonstrate and actualize (as activists and voters) our willingness to sink a (literal) trillion dollars into overhauling these moribund water systems.
But most important, we need to find ways of improving popular oversight—rather than institutional oversight—of agencies like Michigan’s DEQ and governorship by throwing our weight behind improved transparency. Part of the transparency issue is a legal matter, pursuing cases and advocating for laws that chip away at privileges and norms that lock away vital data. But transparency is also a matter of interest and markets; the public needs the means to scope out, contextualize, and compellingly communicate the sorts of wonky gaps and shortcomings that led silently, slowly, and invisibly to Flint. If government bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency failed to alert the public that they’d been fighting with the Michigan DEQ over lead and corrosion concerns for months, if offices like the governorship lock away data like Munchmore’s emails, then we need the resources to unearth that information and mobilize around it. That’s probably the best way to insure that those in power can’t blindly brush off legitimate concerns and to make it easier to assign clear blame and sanctions in a crisis like this. It’s also a big ask. But unfortunately, mass changes in social expectations and behaviors are the only surefire ways to combat intractable human failures embedded in societies. Climbing toward this shift in values will be slow, painful, and, ultimately, essential.