Corrosive: Flushing Out the Truth about the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan
The Law of Unintended Consequences says that intervening in complex systems tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. To those of a conservative mindset this argues in favor of leaving well enough alone. But to liberals and progressives, deteriorating social and economic conditions are a call to action that cannot be ignored. Such was the case in Flint, Michigan in 2011 when three decades of deindustrialization, unemployment and poverty resulted in the city being deemed in a state of financial emergency. As a result, emergency management was imposed.
Michigan’s emergency manager law authorizes the state to intervene in local jurisdictions that are experiencing financial emergencies. Based on the dubious assumption that the state is better qualified to take over and run distressed local governments, the law has been used to place a number of financially strapped Michigan cities in receivership and impose strict financial controls.
As a political tool, the imposition of an emergency manager (EM) appeals to both sides of the political aisle. For liberals it’s the kind of well-intentioned government intervention they demand when the status quo has failed. For conservatives it’s the kind of let-the-adults-take-over assumption of power they applaud, particularly when the errant jurisdictions are communities of color. With so much for everyone to approve of what could possibly go wrong?
Beefing Up the Law
Because the appointment of an EM takes the decision about who will govern them out of the voters’ hands, the emergency management law has been been strenuously opposed. In an attempt to appease critics the law has been modified several times. As a result, by 2010, in the view of many, it had become so watered down it was no longer effective. Then Republican Rick Snyder became governor.
Snyder, a certified public accountant by trade, championed a “beefed up” emergency manager law. Michigan voters rejected the law by referendum, but that didn’t stop Snyder and his Republican led legislature from passing a modified version just a month after the referendum proposal was defeated.
The eleventh-hour law that Snyder rammed through against voter’s wishes had some interesting provisions. One gave emergency managers a degree of immunity they had not previously enjoyed. It stipulated that any claim made against an EM had to be defended in court by the state’s Attorney General, most likely a political ally, and that the local jurisdiction, the aggrieved party, had to pay for the EM’s defense. This was clearly designed to have a chilling effect on anyone trying to hold an EM accountable for his or her poor decisions. Another provision in the governor’s new law stipulated that the public could not reject the law.
The Fate of Flint
Having anointed his EM’s with authoritarian powers, Governor Snyder turned his attention to the stubborn problem of Flint. The city had once been a boomtown, home to the largest General Motors manufacturing complex in the world. Concessions made to workers as a result of the Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937 ensured that assembly line workers were well paid, raising the standard of living for all. At the height of its prosperity in 1960 Flint was a prosperous and productive American city.
But the 1970’s and 80’s were not kind to Flint. The 1973 Oil Crisis, which drove up the price of oil, combined with growing competition from Japanese automakers, hurt GM’s profits and caused the company to impose austerity measures aimed squarely at the cost of labor. Automation was introduced, jobs were outsourced, and manufacturing facilities were moved to states and countries inhospitable to organized labor. GM employment in Flint dropped from a high of 80,000 in 1978 to just 8,000 in 2010. The city’s population fell in half.
The ensuing crisis might not have been so bad had the city been bound to a regional government in the way that cities in Texas and California are. In those places the expansion of the suburbs don’t jeopardize the downtown core even though the majority of the tax base has radiated outward. Houston and Los Angeles don’t wither and die even though the wealthiest taxpayers have moved to The Woodlands or Pasadena. But in Michigan a referendum proposing just such an arrangement was rejected by tax payers in 1968 at the height of white flight, leaving the downtowns to fend for themselves just as industry and jobs were shifting away and the tax base was shrinking. By 2002 Flint was $30 million in debt with no support from the surrounding region. Within a year, it was assigned its first emergency manager.
The Same Old Fix
Beginning in 2002, Flint’s first EM slashed and burned in an attempt to get Flint’s fiscal house in order. He was largely successful. Cutting salaries and benefits for city employees, imposing controls on government spending, closing public facilities, and negotiating pay cuts for union employees, the emergency manager declared the financial emergency over in 2004.
But it couldn’t last. Trying to run what had once been Michigan’s second largest city on a tax base consisting mostly of low paid, unskilled workers was unsustainable. By the time Rick Snyder became governor in 2011, Flint was back in the same old fix. On November 14th, 2011 it was again declared to be in a state of financial emergency, and a new EM was assigned.
More austerity measures were imposed over the next two years. City contracts were renegotiated, fire and police department budgets were cut, taxes were raised on struggling city residents, and, most notably, the city’s water supply was switched.
River of Fire
For nearly half a century Flint had gotten its water from Lake Huron by way of the Detroit Water Department, but in March of 2012 officials announced plans to build a new pipeline bypassing Detroit and feeding directly into Flint. A month later, like a jilted lover, the Detroit Water Department terminated its contract with Flint.
Having shown its hand too early, Flint now had another problem. Long term, the new pipeline would deliver clean water and cut costs, but in the interim, as the pipeline was under construction, Flint was going to have to get its water from someplace else. It was decided to draw the water from the Flint River.
Long a conduit for industrial waste, the Flint River had once been so toxic it had caught fire. Now it was to provide the city’s drinking water, and under the emergency management law the residents of Flint would have no say in the decision.
Looks Like Urine, Smells Like a Sewer
On April 25th, 2014 water started flowing from the Flint River into residents’ taps. From the start residents complained. According to one resident, the water looked like urine and smelled like a sewer. But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) had a different story to tell. In a press release it said: “The quality of the water … meets all of our drinking water standards and Flint water is safe to drink.”
That turned out to be incorrect. Four months later E. Coli and Total Coliform bacteria were detected in the water. Boil advisories were issued to residents. The MDEQ addressed the problem by increasing chlorine levels in the water. Again, the water was pronounced safe to drink.
Three months later it was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because total trihalomethanes (TTHM) in the water exceeded national standards. TTHM are byproducts that occur when chlorine interacts with organic matter, producing carcinogens. Concerned for its own safety, the city government started buying bottled water for its employees to drink. As for the residents of Flint, they were told not to worry, the water was safe.
The Weight of Lead
Flint is not a pleasant place to live. Those who could escape got out long ago. Those who remained behind have an uphill battle. Flint residents experience higher unemployment, higher illiteracy, higher rates of crime and higher infant mortality than any other Michigan city. The median household income in Flint is half the Michigan average, and the poverty rate is nearly double. A child born in Flint will live fifteen years less than a child born in the neighboring suburbs.
In a place like Flint, resignation is the default setting. Yet some people still have the gumption to speak up. In January 2015 LeeAnne Walters, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of four went to a city council meeting to complain about the water flowing through her taps. Her three-year-old twins had been breaking out in rashes after taking baths. They were experiencing abdominal pain, and her eighteen-year-old daughter’s hair was falling out in clumps when she showered. LeAnne herself was losing her eyelashes. Most concerning of all, her youngest son had stopped growing.
A month later a city employee was sent to test the water in her house. Following MDEQ guidelines, he ran the tap for a few minutes before testing. This “pre-flushing” was explained as standard operating procedure. But even after flushing, the water showed extremely high levels of lead. Any lead at all is considered unsafe in drinking water, but the EPA sets the “action level” at 15 parts per billion. LeeAnne Walter’s water tested at 400 parts per billion.
Alarmed at what the test had shown, LeeAnne Walters took her children to a doctor. They were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Outraged, she contacted the city. The city told her the problem must be in her household plumbing since the city’s water was in compliance with regulations. A few days later Governor Snyder’s office issued a statement reassuring Flint residents that the system was “producing water that met all the state and federal standards”.
But LeeAnne Walters wasn’t finished. She contacted the regional EPA headquarters in Chicago and spoke to Miguel Del Toral. Del Toral was the Regulations Manager of the Midwest Division of the EPA. By now LeeAnne had done her homework, researching water treatment procedures and concluding that Flint’s water supply was corrosive and leaching lead. She questioned whether the city was using corrosion control. Water is naturally corrosive. Left untreated, it will corrode the interior lining of pipes. When pipes are made of lead, as they often are in older cities like Flint, lead will leach into the water.
Del Toral couldn’t believe that Flint wasn’t using corrosion control. Failure to do so was a breach of federal law. What’s more, the application of corrosion control is not costly, just eighty dollars a day. Even a cash strapped city like Flint could afford that. Del Toral decided to find out for himself. He tested LeAnne’s water and discovered that the source of the lead was not her household plumbing but the service lines running into her house. He prepared a report highlighting Flint’s failure to use corrosion control. He sent it to the Ground Water and Drinking Water Division of the EPA. The response? Silence. Then resistance and hostility.
The Value Placed on Engines
The Law of Unintended Consequences says that intervening in complex systems tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Had the state just left well enough alone, this would not have happened. But Flint’s economic woes were a blot on the good name of Michigan, and liberals were up in arms. Something had to be done, so an emergency manager was assigned to put the city’s fiscal house in order.
From the governor’s perspective his first duty was to address the economic conditions in Flint, which would require some hard choices, one of which was to take Flint off of Detroit water and save millions of dollars. To reverse that decision now would complicate his objective and turn what had been an orderly process into a can of worms. Understandably, he was on the defensive, and his defensiveness was reflected throughout Michigan’s state government.
Curiously, little was said about the prime mover behind all of this misery. General Motors was responsible for pulling out of Flint and cratering its economy. General Motors and its industrial off shoots were responsible for the deplorable condition of the Flint River. Quietly, in the autumn of 2014, as lead flowed through pipes into the homes of Flint residents, what remained of General Motors in Flint stopped using the city’s water. Its reason? The water was corroding engine parts.
The whistle blower was dealt with. Labeled a rogue employee, Miguel Del Toral was reprimanded and his report was brushed aside. But the cat was out of the bag. On April 24th, 2015 the MDEQ confessed to the EPA that it “the City did not have corrosion control treatment in place at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.” In response the EPA did nothing, and the state continued to insist Flint’s water was safe to drink.
Lead is a neurotoxin that disrupts brain development. Brain scans show that lead exposure in children erodes gray matter, making it harder for them to pay attention, control their emotions and restrain their impulses. Studies have shown that children with lead-poisoning have a harder time in school and are more likely to drop out. Research even suggests a correlation between lead exposure and the incidence of violent crime in a community.
Had this been any other jurisdiction it’s hard to believe it would have been tolerated. But then other jurisdictions had not earned the infamy of having to be rescued by an emergency manager twice. Among some in Michigan there was a sense that the residents of Flint had brought this on themselves and now would have to take some bitter medicine to make things right. In any case, the state of Michigan was sticking to its guns. The water was safe, and that was that.
Flint, Michigan Should Just Relax
In July 2015 Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for MDEQ, bristled when challenged on the question of lead in Flint’s water. “Let me start here — anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” In August the MDEQ dropped two samples from its report on lead levels in the water. Doing so brought the water within the federally mandated action level, meaning the EPA would not have to respond. It seemed the state was bound and determined to keep lead-laced water flowing into the homes of Flint’s residents.
In September a team from Virginia Tech conducted an independent study of Flint’s water and found “serious levels of lead in city water”. Dr. Marc Edwards, a member of the Virginia Tech team, told Michigan Public Radio, “The levels that we have seen in Flint are some of the worst that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field.”
Later in the same month Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center revealed the findings of a study that showed children’s blood lead levels had doubled after the water was switched from Detroit water to Flint River water. That same day the governor’s chief of staff wrote in an email that MDEQ felt that “some people” were trying to turn the issue of children’s lead exposure into a political football. The doctors and scientists had become the enemy of the status quo and were to be questioned and discredited.
But the pressure was mounting. National media was picking up on the story. And on October 2nd, 2015 the governor caved—sort of.
The Shocking Truth
The governor offered to provide free filters and water testing for Flint residents. This half-a-loaf answer was unsustainable; the state was not prepared to provide filters and testing forever. As always, the state just wanted the problem to go away. But advocates for the public health were growing in number and becoming more strident. Finally, two weeks later on October 15th the governor surrendered unconditionally, signing a bill for $9.35 million to reconnect Detroit water and provide relief to Flint’s lead poisoned residents. What came out afterwards was shocking, to say the least.
Freedom of Information requests revealed the extent of the state’s efforts to discredit and downplay the truth about Flint’s water. An analysis done by Michigan’s Department of Health and Humans Services in July 2015 clearly showed a spike in blood-lead levels in the summer of 2014, but rather than do anything about it, the department tried to dismiss it and cover it up. It wasn’t the first time the state had tried to bury the truth.
The city, controlled by the state, had deliberately manipulated water samples taken from resident’s homes. By pre-flushing, removing faucet aerators and using smaller mouthed bottles, they had reduced the percentage of lead collected in samples. When those measures failed, they simply threw out the samples showing higher lead levels. It became clear that the state had engaged in a systematic effort to conceal the danger, and in the end heads rolled.
Flushing Out the Culprits
MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned. MDEQ Director Dan Wyant was let go. The Flint city manager Natasha Henderson was shown the door. The Director of Public Works for Flint, Howard Croft, lost his job and was charged with two felonies—false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses. The felonies didn’t stop there. Criminal charges were leveled against a number of public officials. Flint’s all-powerful emergency manager was charged with manslaughter.
As for Governor Snyder, his poll numbers plummeted. Once considered a potential Republican contender for the presidency, his political ambitions were dashed. In an attempt to regain public support, he apologized repeatedly, and when that didn’t work, he introduced the “30-Day Flint Challenge” in which he vowed to drink only Flint tap water for a month to show Flint residents that the water was now safe to drink. But it was just another ruse. A week into his commitment he left Michigan to tour Europe, breaking his promise.
Good government requires the state to be responsive to the challenges of its constituency. Michigan’s emergency management law was designed to do just that. But when the application of the law led to unintended consequences, the government chose to remain focused on cutting costs rather than to acknowledge a looming public health crisis. If its purpose had been to safe money, it failed. Civil suits were brought against the city and the state, costing them more money than they had ever sought to save. Only the lawyers prospered. Flint, long fertile ground for attorneys practicing criminal law and bankruptcy, could now add another arrow to their quiver, class action litigation. The suits will cost the city plenty, but this time the rest of the state will share the burden. Unfortunately, this does little for the beleaguered city of Flint. It will continue to flounder, and its people will continue to struggle. But at least they will no longer be poisoned.
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Dingle, Adrian. The Flint Water Crisis: What’s Really Going On? ACS, December 2016 website
Emergency Manager, EMF Fact Sheet, Michigan.gov website
Hakala, Josh. How did we get here? A look back at Michigan’s emergency manager law. Michigan Public Radio. 3 Feb 2016 website
Hanna-Attisha, Mona. What the Eyes Don’t See. A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City. One World, 2019 website
Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look at the Makings of a Crisis, NPR, 20 April 2016 website
Flint Water Tower, Malcolm Logan
Flint River, EPA.org
Governor Rick Snyder, Public domain
Flint Vehicle City sign 1913, Wystand
Factory workers outside plant 1912, Public domain
Abandoned Buick plant, Nailhead
Vacant house tagged with gang signs, KultureVulturz
Water pouring over Flint River Dam, Malcolm Logan
Tap Water in the Flint Hospital, FlintWaterStudy.org
MDHHM billboard in Flint, Malcolm Logan
LeeAnne Walters holding up samples of water, Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
Corroded nails, FlintWaterStudy.org
The condition of pipes, FlintWaterStudy.org
GM Flint assembly plant, Malcolm Logan
Miguel Del Toral, Jan Worth Nelson, East Village Magazine
Flint water treatment plant. Malcolm Logan
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at news conference, Harley Seeley, MSU College of Human Medicine
MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel, Mlive
MDEQ Director Dan Wyant, State of Michigan / Live Stream
Attorney’s signs, Malcolm Logan