Flint Water – What’s Up With That?

Ken AshfordInfrastructureLeave a Comment

The Flint water story has been around for a few weeks, but it really hit national attention (finally) when Hillary Clinton raised in the Democratic debate last weekend.

Here’s a backgrounder.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Flint, Michigan is no longer the thriving city it once was.  As Michael Moore documented in “Roger and Me”, Flint once had almost 200,000 citizens, and about 80,000 of them worked for General Motors.  But GM closed its plants and moved them out of the country, and now Flint has about 100,000 (roughly 8,000 still working for GM). In 2013, Forbes voted it the 2nd worst city in the U.S., in part because of the 48 murders, 145 rapes, 447 robberies, and 1,267 assaults — a total of 1,907 violent crimes (that’s a violent crime rate of 1,876.1 crimes per 100K people).

But the crime was simplya by-product of the financial crisis spawned by a city with high unemployment, white flight, disinvestment, etc. and therefore no tax basis.  In some ways, it was worse than Detroit in that the size of Flint was much larger.

So Rick Snyder, Republican governor of the state of Michigan, comes along and enacts legislation — an “Emergency Financial Manager” law that allowed him to dismiss the democratically elected municipal government of any local government unit when “probable financial stress” was found and appoint an Emergency Manager. This law was fully and completely rejected by a referendum of the voters in Michigan. Subsequently the bill was re-introduced and passed in a form that was not subject to voter referendum. In practice what this has been is a usurpation of local control, and a disaster for local residents.

Detroit was having a water crisis of its own, and the Emergency Manager there decided that the way to raise revenues would be to privatize the water utility.  But how can you sell an asset that had 175 million dollars of uncollected and frankly uncollectable bills?  Well, the EM started off by shutting off the water to residents who were broke and raising its prices. Flint was getting its water from Detroit and was being choked financially by the prices, so the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to build a new water pipeline to Lake Huron, freeing us from exorbitant rates from Detroit. Emergency manager Ed Kurtz went along, happily claiming a mandate for a policy he supported. But until the pipeline was complete, the city of Flint had the option to pay more for water from Detroit, or use the water from the Flint River.  The same Flint River that was too corrosive for GM to use for washing auto parts:

The Flint River — that’s what the Emergency Manager of the city of Flint and Governor Rick Snyder thought was a better choice, and in April 2014, Flint was drawing water from Flint River Anyway, in December 2014, Flint sent out EPA-mandated notices because the city had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act due to high levels of total trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen. A few months later when rumors started to circulate about a new contaminant: lead.

But… Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly said that the water was safe, and they had the test numbers to back it up. (Later investigation would suggest that some of those numbers had been doctored to maintain federal compliance.)

As late as July 2015 — 16 months after the switch had occurred — officials said that residents could “relax” about reports of lead in the water. Plus, the Department of Environmental Quality was monitored by the EPA, and they had made no official complaint. (Later investigation found that the EPA, too, knew of the presence of lead by mid-2015.)

But there clearly was something wrong. For many, the water just looked gross.  Others reported rashes, fatigue, and nausea. A person showering at the YMCA, started to bleed from her ear due to the abrasiveness of the water. Another man passed out in the showers there.  And so on.

In October 2015, the state finally confirmed the worst fears: There was lead in the water after all. The city switched back to Detroit water, but the damage had already been done.  But the people of Flint — and children — has already been poisoned. Alas for Flint (which is 57 percent African American), lead is measured in parts per billion, and it only takes a few of those for a child to suffer permanent neurological and sometimes physical damage. Points of IQ lost. Behavioral problems and learning disabilities.  Developmental delay. Damage to the nervous system. The discolored water is gross and sickening, and it makes for dramatic pictures, but much of the coloration actually comes from iron flaked off pipes and water mains.


Well, one the one hand, slow agencies like the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  They didn’t do their job.

But the real culprit was Governor Snyder, who took control of the cities away from the people and put it in the hands of Emergency Managers with unchallenged authority.  An EM named Darnell Earley is getting the brunt of the blame, since he was in charge when the decision was made to get water from the Flint River.  But the decision to do that was actually made by his predecessor EM, the aforementioned Ed Kurtz, along with the city council and Mayor.

So… lots of blame everywhere.

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