The roots of Flint’s entirely unnecessary, devastating water crisis

Protesters gather outside Michigan’s capitol building.
Protesters gather outside Michigan’s capitol building.
Image: AP Photo/Al Goldis
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“I’ve been poisoned by policy,” reads the protest sign of a nine-year-old child activist demonstrating outside the city hall in Flint, Michigan. This searing indictment would appear to be an accurate summary of the lead-poisoning crisis in this working-class American city. As the Department of Justice begins its inquiry into the contamination of the Flint water supply, it is clear that lawmakers and politicians made a string of poor decisions that have jeopardized the health and well-being of Flint’s residents, and may have even contributed to a spike in Legionnaires’ disease.

But exactly what mistakes did government officials make—and what can we do to ensure that American citizens are never again deprived of their fundamental right to clean drinking water? Here are a few of the biggest lessons from the tragedy.

1. Don’t take shortcuts. The decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River was born of economic exigency. Faced with a financial state of emergency, the state-appointed city manager made the switch to save a few million dollars while waiting out the two years it would take the state to construct a new supply line to Lake Huron. This kind of quick fix offloads the costs of essential services—in this case, something as basic as clean water—onto residents. The most vulnerable citizens often pay the heaviest price.

Undoing the damage to Flint’s water supply will wind up costing far more than it would have cost the city to prevent the problem in the first place. In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to repair the water pipes, service lines and fixtures, we will be tallying the costs and impacts on health and quality of life for Flint’s residents for years to come.

2. Trust in public review. Flint is a lesson in the perils of under-regulation. The people who run cities, states and countries must adhere to rules—which means that oversight is essential. But the decision to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River was not subject to public review, nor was it made by elected officials. Meanwhile, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to address the corrosiveness of water in the Flint River. Evidence of failed oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also beginning to surface.

Too often, the debate about regulation centers on the private sector, but it is not only the private sector that needs looking after. We also need to pay careful attention to the decisions and actions taken by lawmakers. The crisis in Flint should spur the EPA to take a closer look at the actions of state and local agencies, as well as their own policies and procedures, in the months and years ahead.

3. Governments must be transparent. Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s first executive action was to separate the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into two agencies. Separating the two meant less public oversight of DEQ. The rationale behind that decision will no doubt be called into serious question as the dust settles. Environmental review is one of the most complicated things governments do. It is time-consuming, expensive, and often involves inexact data. But it must be done. And the public must have the necessary assurance that it’s being done properly.

4. Local economies must remain competitive.  The root cause of the tragedy in Flint is that the city has had a poor economic outlook ever since its General Motors plant closed in the late 1980s. Since then, city and state officials have had ample time and opportunity to take steps to reinvent the local economy. Had they invested in strategies and programs designed to support economic resilience, they would not have had to pursue a slash-and-cut approach to basic services in the first place. Louisville, San Jose, and Austin, among many other American cities, have all found paths to economic prosperity and job growth. There are no cookie-cutter solutions: Each city must make decisions that build from local assets and know-how. But it’s clear that investing in city residents is essential—which makes it impossible to understand how anyone could have thought that part of the answer to Flint’s economic viability was a cheaper water supply.

5. Residents are experts. So listen to them. This last lesson of Flint is the most important. Why did it take officials so long to respond to the public outcry for an intervention? Let’s be very clear here: It didn’t take weeks or months to detect the toxic tap water. Residents knew about the problem immediately, complaining of strange odors and colors in the water, rashes and hair loss. Yet as emails released by Snyder’s administration on Jan. 20 show, state officials repeatedly dismissed their concerns.

It’s hard to believe that the decision to switch the water supply was even made in the first place, given widespread local knowledge of pollution in the Flint River. (“We thought it was a joke,” one Flint resident told CNN.) Local action also brought engineers from the Virginia Tech Research Team to examine the water quality, supporting citizen scientists concerned about public health. Yet public officials failed to heed the knowledge and information supplied by the very people they’re supposed to represent—a failure that may well be linked to the fact that much of Flint’s population is black and poor.

The Flint crisis is wholly unnecessary. Residents of this shrinking city are victims of a man-made catastrophe and systemic failures across humanitarian, environmental, economic, and political levels. Ultimately, the story of Flint is one of government ineptitude. Just by functioning at a basic level of adequacy, the government could have saved children from lead poisoning and its awful consequences.

Clearly, we need a higher level of scrutiny on public sector practices, not just those of corporations and private interests. There needs to be more regulation by—and, crucially, of—the government. Of course we want to believe that decisions by policymakers are made with the best intentions. Above all, we want to believe that they will actually do good. But that is not always the case.

Flint is but another example of the strain on America’s social contract. We urgently need to reverse course. This is, quite literally, an issue of life and death.