© Josh Sager – January 2016
Flint Michigan is currently experiencing a water crisis, where basically all tap-water has been rendered toxic due to lead contamination. This is not a natural disaster and is a direct result of reckless cost-cutting by the unelected bureaucrat who Governor Snyder appointed to run the city under the state’s controversial “Emergency Financial Manager” law.
Before looking at the water situation, it is important to understand that local democracy has largely been destroyed in Michigan. Under state law, the governor can assign an emergency manager to replace the local government and take over all official powers with no checks and balances—they can pass ordinance, enter the city/town into contracts, and even sell off public goods at their discretion. If you are unfamiliar with this situation, you can follow this link to my coverage of this anti-democratic law from when it was passed.
Poison Water, at a Discount
In 2013, the Emergency Manager for Flint, Ed Kurtz, signed the order that Flint would stop relying upon Detroit for water and, instead, switch to a the Karegnondi Water Authority run out of Lake Huron. This switch requires the creation of new pipes and will not be possible for over 2 years, necessitating the use of some stop-gap water source. The Flint River was adopted as this source and they fully switched to the Flint River in April 2014.
Unfortunately, as anybody who owns a fish tank can confirm, failing to manage the PH and salinity balances in water can result in significant consequences. Because river water tends to be harsher than lake water (more corrosive) it will strip the biofilm off of existing pipes if it is allowed to circulate untreated in older water systems. Flint has a very old water system, using pipes which are held together by lead soldering (and some pipes are also lead themselves). This lead in the pipes was relatively harmless when it was coated by the accumulated biofilm but, once the river water destroyed the biofilm (which acted as a protecting coating that separated the water from the lead), lead began contaminating all water running through the pipes.
Complaints began almost immediately, and Flint residents found that their new water was discolored, tasted terrible and started to make them sick. In response to these complaints, the state and emergency managers did nothing. The lead problem was not discovered until early 2015. Researchers at the University of Michigan found high lead levels in their water, the local GM plant decided to switch water sources due to contamination, and several doctors started to identify rising lead levels in Flint’s children (one pediatric study found that lead levels approximately doubled after the switch, from 2.1% to 4%).
Despite calls by the local officials to switch back to the old water system, the emergency manager refused to listen to them (and, under state law, he holds all of the decision making power in the city).
Lead is unbelievably dangerous and the EPA considers 5000 parts per billion to be the maximum acceptable level in drinking water. Some studies of the Flint water found that lead levels were triple this acceptable level, explaining the rising lead levels in the city’s children. Lead poisoning causes long-term damage, including lowered-IQ, impulse control problems, developmental disabilities, deafness/blindness, anemia, memory degradation, and seizure disorders. Like with many other types of heavy metal poisoning, there is no known way to eliminate lead once it is in your system and anybody who drank the Flint water and who suffered harm will be dealing with that for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, even after they identified the problem, the damage was already done. There is no way to replace the lost biofilm in the pipes and switching to other water sources will do nothing to prevent the leaching of lead into the system—short of putting in an entire new system of pipes in the city, Flint’s water system is toxic for years and tap water isn’t even safe to bathe in.
The Cover-up was the Crime
The lead crisis in Flint is arguably a criminal act and the federal government MUST go after those who were involved with the full force of the law. While the oversight which caused untreated river water to be run through Flint’s pipes was simple misconduct (a civil case of negligence not a criminal act), the state actively covered up the crisis for as long as possible and exposed thousands of Flint residents to extreme harm. This exacerbated the crisis and dramatically increased the harm it caused.
According to FOIA documents, the state environmental protection agency (MDEQ) claimed that the Flint river water was being treated with anti-corrosion agents when the federal EPA inquired about the rising lead levels, despite the fact that no treatments were being implemented. Additionally, EPA researchers had written memos to the MDEQ raising serious concerns over early cases of lead poisoning, yet failed to act on them or implement further studies.
Despite the concerns of the EPA and the reports of rising lead levels in Flint’s kids, the state refused to even acknowledge the problem until late in 2015. As recently as July 2015, MDEQ was trying to reassure Flint residents that everything was okay and that the experts who were identifying the problem were simply grandstanders who wanted attention. They made a concerted effort to minimize these concerns, up until it became absolutely undeniable.
The final nail in the coffin for the cover up was an incident that happened shortly after the first reports of severe lead poisoning. The city of Flint had conducted a study on its water and found that there were unusually high lead levels—so high, in fact, that they would violate federal lead safety regulations—and the MDEQ responded by forcing the city to alter its data-set to fix the results. They doctored the report to drop the two highest lead samples so that the Flint lead levels would fall just below the federal bar for inquiry.
Here is a link to the falsified document in question.
In totality, the state did everything in its power to hide this crisis and cast doubt on those who tried to warn the public. This cover-up by the state goes beyond simple incompetence and federal prosecutors just began their investigation into this situation. There are a whole host of charges that could result from this investigation, including counts of criminal recklessness, official misconduct, and falsifying documents.
The exact reason why the state decided to cover up this crisis is still unknown. It is possible that they feared political criticism for their decision to switch water sources while failing to take adequate precautions to protect the safety of the public (negligence). Similarly, it is possible that they simply didn’t care about the residents of Flint, who are predominantly poor, and thought that this was more trouble than it is worth. Finally, it is possible that the state tried to cover this up so that it wouldn’t have to pay damages to those affected by its choices—damages that could reach many billions of dollars (repairing the infrastructure alone would cost $1.5 billion and this would be eclipsed by the aid that is due to individuals who were harmed).
Regardless of the reason for the cover-up it is unacceptable what happened in Flint. At minimum, the state should flood Flint with aid and take full responsibility for its actions—it should pay for bottled water for the entire city until new pipes can be built, provide educational aid to students who have been damaged by lead, and set up a fund to defray the long-term medical and care costs for those who have more significant damage due to lead exposure. Also, everybody who was involved in the negligent decision to run untreated water through Flint’s pipes should be fired, and everybody involved in the ensuing cover-up should be charged with a crime. Finally, the governor should face recall and his fascistic Emergency Financial Manager law should be repealed in full.