The Flint Water Crisis: Who’s to Blame?

Feb 29, 2016 | Environment & Energy, Politics


The response, or lack thereof, to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has dominated headlines in recent weeks. Until April 2014, the city of Flint used water from Lake Huron. As Flint faced a financial crisis, city officials opted to use the Flint River as the city’s water source, switching from using Detroit’s water pumped from Lake Huron to save $4 million per year. However, water from the Flint River contained higher levels of chloride, causing it to corrode plumbing materials and leach lead into the city’s tap water after officials failed to treat the city’s water with orthophosphate, a substance used to mitigate corrosive materials in water.

Soon after the switch, residents contracted rashes and complained about the water’s taste, color and odor. General Motors stopped using the city’s water because the company claimed that it corroded car parts. The city of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system, waiving a connection fee, but the city government refused the offer.

Despite high levels of lead found in multiple residents’ homes and in the blood of many children, Michigan officials and EPA administrators insisted that the water was safe. After government epidemiologists validated the high lead levels in children’s blood in October 2015, city officials told residents to stop drinking the city’s tap water. For nearly 18 months Flint’s residents drank and bathed in poisoned water while officials ignored the signs that something was seriously wrong.

Agency Failures

EPA experts found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested the water in a fashion that drastically understated lead levels. This protocol allowed Flint River water to pass quality tests for far too long. The department continuously disputed reports that the water corroded plumbing equipment and failed to enact corrosion controls in a timely fashion. MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel repeatedly downplayed concerns and said that Flint citizens should relax and not worry about the water’s quality.

Additionally, the EPA failed to take a memo written by EPA employee Miguel Del Toral seriously. Del Toral’s memo expressed concern about the safety of Flint’s water. Instead, agency officials said that the report needed to be assessed and verified by other sources, which did not prompt Flint to take the initiative to improve its water treatment.

Health and Social Implications

Due to this inaction, Flint’s citizens face an array of health hazards. Since last fall nearly 200 children have exhibited elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure in children can cause neurological damage such as IQ reductions and attention-deficit problems. The EPA classifies lead as a “probable human carcinogen”. Aside from lead, other harmful materials were found in Flint’s water. Legionella, the source of Legionnaire’s disease and total trihalomethanes, potential carcinogens, were discovered in water samples.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver expressed her concern about the social implications of the water crisis. The resulting IQ loss from lead exposure may increase the incidence of learning disabilities among the city’s youth. The mayor is also worried about the potential increase in mental health issues and the strain that may put on the juvenile justice system. Lastly, as adults begin feeling the effects of lead poisoning and other toxins, there may be a larger demand for adoptive and foster parents.

Aftermath Responses

Congress held a hearing in which EPA administrators, state, and local government officials were blasted for their lackluster response. The FBI also announced the beginning of an investigation to determine if criminal violations of federal environmental law occurred.

During the latest Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders weighed in on the crisis. Clinton said that Governor Snyder acted like he did not care that Flint’s poor, largely African American citizenry drank contaminated water while Sanders called for the governor’s resignation.

Meanwhile, the controversy was mentioned only once during the GOP debate, when Governor Kasich was asked how he would handle a similar situation. In a CNN interview, Jeb Bush praised Governor Snyder for his leadership.

Emergency Manager Law to Blame?

In the wake of this crisis, Governor Snyder’s implementation of Michigan’s emergency manager law has come under much scrutiny. The law allows the governor to appoint emergency managers to seize control of communities in fiscal trouble. Michigan voters rejected the measure in 2012, but the state’s Republican-controlled legislature reinstated the law less than six weeks later. Flint was under the control of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley during the water crisis.

Critics see an array of glaring issues that stem from emergency management. Some believe that emergency managers are more apt to make rash decisions that compromise public health and overall citizen wellbeing for the sake of cutting costs, as displayed by Flint’s water supply change. Many also point to the fact that cities, such as Flint, under the control of appointed managers are often majority-black. Those opposed to the measure view this as the disenfranchisement of African American communities and a gross usurpation of power from elected local officials that eliminate essential checks and balances. Lastly, due to their appointment by the governor rather than election, emergency managers are only held accountable to the governor’s office rather than the citizens in their respective municipalities. Widespread belief exists that if Flint remained under the control of local officials rather than an emergency manager, such reckless decisions could have been avoided due to greater levels of accountability and closeness to the situation.

Flint’s residents deserve a thorough investigation from the FBI, and Congress must continue to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. Additionally, emergency management laws not only in Michigan, but also across the nation, must be further examined to determine whether such laws lead to increased instances of public health hazards, disenfranchisement, and lower quality governance. No community in the United States should have to suffer the way Flint has.

Image credit: Sam Owens/AP