What My State Government Did to the People of Flint

What My State Government Did to the People of Flint January 11, 2016

MichiganSealI haven’t written anything yet about the appalling story of what happened with the water supply in Flint, Michigan, so I’m glad to see that Dave Gorski has a comprehensive post about the whole situation — the causes, the effects, the horrifying incompetence and apathy of state officials who have done extraordinary damage to the children of that city by exposing them to lead poisoning to save a few million dollars.

As a result of its longstanding financial problems, in 2011 Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager of the city’s finances. Michigan has a law that allows the governor to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager to take control of a local financial unit, such as a city or a school district after a review finds the unit’s financial situation is deemed precarious enough that a financial emergency exists. Emergency managers have broad, some would say undemocratic, powers to reorganize departments, reduce pay, modify employee contracts, and outsource work. Detroit was just under the control of an emergency manager who filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, a process that went surprisingly well, all things considering. The same can’t be said of Flint. It went through five emergency managers over the last four years, although two of them were the same. First it was Michael Brown. Then it was Ed Kurtz. Then it was Michael Brown again. Then it was Darnell Earley. Then it was Jerry Ambrose. The names, however, aren’t important. What they did is…

What happened? There were higher concentrations of salt in Flint River water, which led to corrosion of the lead welds in the copper pipes that carried the water to the city. Detroit’s less corrosive water had flowed through the pipes for decades without a problem, but it didn’t take long after the switch was made in April 2014 for elevated lead content to be noticed. Why was the switch made? Here the story gets a bit complicated. In 2010, the Flint City Council voted to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint was begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. In April 2014, the emergency manager switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to getting water from the Flint River as a temporary measure until the pipeline was completed. The reason? When Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated its 35-year contract with the city. To continue to purchase Detroit water, Flint would have to renegotiate a short-term contract, at a higher cost. Basically, switching to river water saved Flint between $5 million and $7 million a year. That’s why the emergency manager did it.

As can be seen in this handy time line, report, and overview, residents almost immediately started complaining about the “bad water,” saying that it was causing skin problems, including rashes and hair loss. Others complained of a foul odor and cloudiness. (The switch was made in in April 2014, and by June there were stories about it in the local press.) By October a GM engine plant announced that it would stop using Flint River water. By January 2015, the University of Michigan-Flint had found that some samples on campus were high in lead. In February, it was reported that one home in Flint had water with a lead content of 104 ppb, compared to 15 ppb, the EPA safe limit for drinking water. More reports followed, and in April 2015, a Flint resident named Lee Anne Walters discovered that her child had lead poisoning. By June, a leaked memo revealed the EPA’s concern about elevated lead levels.

As is often the case in these sorts of situations, city officials denied that the water was unsafe, although they issued a notice that the levels of of trihaolomethanes (TTHM), a group of four chemicals formed as a byproduct of water disinfection, were too high. It got to the point where avoiding tap water became a way of life in Flint. Meanwhile, in September, Virginia Tech University researchers led by Marc Edwards tested water samples from 300 Flint homes and found high lead levels throughout the city. One sample was as high as 13,200 ppb. By way of comparison, the EPA considers water with 5,000 ppb lead to be hazardous waste. Not long after that, Flint pediatricians found that the percentage of children with elevated lead in their blood had doubled, from 2.1% before the switch to 4%. By October, Genesee County declared a public health emergency, and the City of Flint developed plans to distribute thousands of water filters. Finally, in October, Flint reconnected to Detroit water. Ultimately, several Flint residents filed a class action lawsuit, and in December the new mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency, declaring that the elevated lead levels had caused irreversible damage to the health of the children of the city. And, finally, long after he should have done it, earlier this week Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency as well.

But now memos gotten through a FOIA request show that Gov. Snyder knew about all of this months ahead of time. His chief of staff had told him that the situation was terrible, that lead poisoning was going up and that the victims were being ignored. So Snyder continued to ignore them, despite having been informed of the problem months ago. Michael Moore is now calling for Snyder to be arrested, which is not going to happen. And he can’t run again for governor, so there’s no real political damage for him. But what is going on there is horrifying and should be a source of great shame for our state.

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