How Flint Happened

It’s long and wonky, but Nate Silver’s 538 site looks at the Flint lead problem from a statistical standpoint.  Good stuff.  Some snippets:

Officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the agency in charge of making sure water is safe in the state, made a series of decisions that had disastrous consequences:

  • Against federal guidelines, they chose not to require the Flint water plant to use optimized corrosion control, despite telling the Environmental Protection Agency they were doing so in an email on Feb. 27, 2015.
  • They took few samples and took them from the wrong places, using a protocol known to miss important sources of lead, which some say didn’t comply with a 25-year-old law meant to prevent lead exposure in residential water.
  • They threw out two samples whose inclusion would have put more than 10 percent of the tests above what’s known as the “actionable level” of lead, 15 parts per billion. Had the DEQ not done so, the city would have been required to warn residents that there was a problem with lead in the water back in the summer of 2015, or possibly earlier.

The second bullet point caught my interest, and 538 expands on it.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did water study samples, but too few.  When citizens conducted their own study, spreading out to a number of places and getting more samples, the results were very different:


That is simply amazing.  Bad science practice.

Flint Water – What’s Up With That?

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.


Response To Amtrak Train Crash: Let’s Gut Amtrak

TrainCrash-816x511On Tuesday, an Amtrak train — the Northeast Regional train, No. 188 — was traveling from Washington to New York when it derailed around 9:30 p.m., just outside Philly. The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the train was traveling at more than 100 miles an hour or twice the speed limit in that part of the corridor.  More than 200 people, including eight now in critical condition, were taken to hospitals, officials said.  Seven are dead, including a college dean at Medgar Evers College, and officials have not accounted for everyone on board.

Naturally, early focus is on the 32 year old engineer, who was slightly injured and has not spoken to the NTSB yet.  According to the engineer’s attorney (yes, he’s lawyered up), his client has no recollection of the accident.

But let’s move off the engineer and note that technology that could have remotely slowed the train, which the president of Amtrak has called “the most important rail safety advancement of our time,” has been installed on much of the Northeast Corridor, but not the section where the train derailed — and if some in the Senate have their way, it may not be in place for another five years.

For decades, the National Transportation Safety Board has urged the the nation’s railroads to implement a technology called positive train control systems (PTC). This technology would allow railroads to use GPS to stop or slow trains in cases of driver emergencies, switches left in the wrong position, hijacking, natural disasters, or other human error. In 2008, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required the nation’s busiest railroad operators to have these technologies fully in place by December 2015.

Knowing all that, the House decided it was a good time to… wait for it…. cut our infrastructure spending:

A House panel approved a measure Wednesday that cuts funding for Amtrak, less than a day after a train derailment left at least seven people dead and many more injured.

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 to reduce grants to Amtrak by $252 million — a drop of about 15% from last year’s level. The cut would apply only to Amtrak’s capital spending and wouldn’t touch funding levels for safety and operations. The measure still needs to clear the full House and Senate before it would go into effect in October.

Democrats on the panel fought unsuccessfully to boost Amtrak funding by $1 billion, to $2.4 billion. But Republicans argued that such a spending increase would need to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, and they admonished Democrats for pointing to the derailment in an effort to increase funding for the passenger rail service.

“Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said to Democrats.