The ‘Obscene’ Failure in Flint
A top aide to Michigan’s governor referred to people raising questions about the quality of Flint’s water as an “anti-everything group.” Other critics were accused of turning complaints about water into a “political football.” And worrisome findings about lead by a concerned pediatrician were dismissed as “data,” in quotes.
That view of how the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder initially dealt with the water crisis in the poverty-stricken, black-majority city of Flint emerged from 274 pages of emails, made public by the governor on Wednesday.
The correspondence records mounting complaints by the public and elected officials, as well as growing irritation by state officials over the reluctance to accept their assurances.
It was not until late in 2015, after months of complaints, that state officials finally conceded what critics had been contending: that Flint was in the midst of a major public health emergency, as tap water pouring into families’ homes contained enough lead to show up in the blood of dozens of people in the city. Even small amounts of lead could cause lasting health and developmental problems in children.
In an editorial the other day, the Detroit Free Press blistered Snyder’s administration, calling its handling of Flint’s water crisis “an obscene failure of government.” From the editorial:
And in at least three Flint schools, children have been drinking lead-contaminated water for up to 16 months.
Sixteen months, as Flint residents told the state again and again that their water wasn’t right. Sixteen months, as independent researchers meticulously documented rising lead levels in water and in the blood of Flint children. Sixteen months, as the state worked to disparage and discredit the work of respected scientists, even as its own data supported those findings.
At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder appeared chastened.
Snyder appoints the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the agency charged with ensuring that drinking water throughout our state is safe.
In Flint, it failed.
Flint’s decisions first to join a new regional water authority, and then to pump water from the Flint River — ending a decades-long relationship with Detroit’s system — were made while Flint was under state oversight, during the tenure of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager charged with balancing Flint’s budget. That system is justified by the governor’s constitutional responsibility to attend to the health and wellness of all Michiganders.
In Flint, he failed.
The newspaper, which twice endorsed the Republican for governor, said that Snyder has a reputation for fiscal conservatism. It accused him of penny-pinching at the expense of the basic health of the people of Flint, who could not even rely on the safety of the water they need to sustain their lives.
There’s no way to read Snyder’s mind, but it is hard to believe that Snyder’s administration would have been so bureaucratically callous about the children of a rich, white city like, say, Grosse Pointe. If you are the governor, and you find out that the people in one of your cities are forced to drink poisoned water, you move heaven and earth to get them relief. It’s basic human decency. It’s beyond politics, or the ordinary business of bureaucracy.
To be fair, the newspaper earlier praised Snyder for making hard choices to reform bankrupt Detroit, though it faulted him for lacking empathy. It should not be hard to hear stories about an entire city suffering from foul drinking water, including elevated lead levels, and to know at once that this is an emergency.
UPDATE: 1) The photo above is a stock photo of dirty water, not something from Flint. You can easily find online newspaper images of dirty Flint water, but I don’t have reproduction rights.
2) A couple of you have pointed to the column by National Journal‘s Ron Fournier, who talks about how the Obama EPA (as well as Gov. Snyder, as well as he, the journalist) failed Flint. Excerpt:
In February 2015, months before Edwards helped expose the contamination, an EPA water expert named Miguel Del Toral identified potential problems in Flint’s drinking water. He confirmed his suspicions in April and summarized the crisis in a June internal memo. The memo was kept under wraps by EPA Midwest chief Susan Hedman, and the analyst was forbidden from making his finding public, according to Edwards, who secured an embarrassing batch of EPA emails via Freedom of Information Act requests.
Hedman concedes that her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water supply, but said her hands were tied by interagencyprotocol.
“Protocol?” Edwards told me. “She buried the memo and gagged the analysis while kids were being poisoned.”
Like the story about Johnny Whitmire, the scandal in Flint is a reminder of how government and other institutions fail.
—Arrogant leadership, with a lack transparency, follow-up, and singular attention to mission.
—Lack of power at the bottom of society’s brutal pecking order. This would not have happened in a wealthy city like Traverse City, Michigan, or Snyder’s hometown of Ann Arbor.
—Finally, a lack of oversight from traditional institutions. Where was the state legislature and Congress? Where was the media? Why did a scientist in Virginia crack the case with a FOIA request, rather than an investigative journalist?
For that matter, why did I write a column about Snyder’s leadership that didn’t even mention Flint? There’s no good answer, no excuse. I took my eye off the ball. I blew it.
3) One of you posted a link to this column by sports writer Craig Calcaterra, who spent some of his childhood in Flint then moved to West Virginia, which, as you know, is heavily populated by poor white people. He points out that environmental poisoning and government indifference is not so much a matter of race as of poverty and political power. Excerpt:
But this stuff happens every day. It happens in marginal places which are, invariably, home to poor people. People who don’t fund political campaigns or sit on boards of directors or play golf with those who do down at the club. For most of us, these people are abstractions or stereotypes. Poor blacks who, to some, are a demographic category more than they are actual people. Or dumb rednecks who are easily written off unless or until some regulation-hating politician needs them to bring their guns and trucks and bibles to a campaign stop so he can show just how much he loves freedom and the common man. They’re used at best but usually ignored and are always, always the victims of these atrocities.
I’d wish that we can do better. But after all of this time, I doubt we can. And I doubt most people care. They don’t care about Flint. They don’t care about Parkersburg. They don’t care about Beckley or Charleston or the Elk River. And thus such things will happen again and again and again.
UPDATE.2: Great comment by Dennis Sanders:
Hi, Rod. I’m from Flint and I’ve been following the crisis. I think you’ve left out a lot of information that surrounds this issue. Synder does have a share of the blame for many reasons. But what happened in Flint was the result of a lot of different factors and not just one governor.
Also, Detroit has two newspapers: the Free Press and the News. The “freep” has been harder on Snyder, but the News (which doesn’t let Synder off the hook either) has been more nuanced. It would do you well to look at all the sources. The following is their editorial today:http://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/editorials/2016/01/20/editorial-cooperate-flints-future/79094432/
Second, I wrote something that was later picked up the Federalist. They added the Hilary stuff, but the rest of the article is my take:http://thefederalist.com/2016/01/19/hillary-clinton-cant-blame-michigans-governor-for-flints-water/
Finally, a former politician from Saginaw shares his own view from his background in local government in Michigan: http://gregbranchwords.com/2016/01/17/the-real-tragedy-in-flint/
What I’m trying to get at is that it’s easy to look at this in black and white. But the reality isn’t so clear. I’m not excusing the governor and even he has admitted he messed up big. But this is not a simple issue and it was a failure at all levels of government.
Also, Sam M. points out that the poor and the working classes sometimes don’t want the environmental policing. He reminds me of an interview I once did back in the 1990s with a Louisiana pharmacist who started raising hell about evidence that led her to suspect that something in the environment in their town was causing an unusually high rate of rare cancers. The pharmacist said that many in the town turned on her, and it was so bad that her priest asked her to find another parish, because her presence was too divisive. The reason? Everybody in town worked at the chemical plant, and if what she said was true, then it undermined their psychological security, as well as their job security, potentially.