Professionalism/The Flint Water Supply

Flint, Michigan is a rust belt city located 70 miles north of Detroit. The city once thrived as home of the nation's largest General Motors (GM) plant, but it was hit hard when GM downsized during the 1980s. Years of economic decline and poor fiscal management followed, with the city accumulating over $850 million in unfunded liabilities.[1] Currently, about 41% of its residents live below the poverty line.[2] In December 2011, Flint was put into State Receivership, a situation in which the state's governor can bypass the elected municipal government and appoint a single official to take over a city’s budgeting.[3] In an effort to save $200 million over the next 25 years, Flint switched its water supply in 2014 from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD), which derives its water from Lake Huron, to the Flint River.[4] This was intended to be a temporary cost-saving measure while the city awaited construction of its permanent water supply line, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline.[5]'

Flint River Watershed

Officials and scientists were aware of the corrosive properties of Flint River water before the switch occurred, but the water was never treated. The Flint River water corroded lead and iron pipes, causing dangerous levels of both elements to leach into the drinking water. Lead poisoning may lead to developmental delays, learning difficulties, irritability, abdominal pain, and many other serious symptoms. The excessive iron in the water created an environment for legionella bacteria to grow; Legionnaires disease, a type of pneumonia caused by legionella, led to the deaths of 12 Flint residents between 2014 and 2016[6].

LeeAnne Walters and Miguel Del ToralEdit

When LeeAnne Walters, a resident of Flint, Michigan observed the onset of chronic health problems in her family, she suspected the water in their house may have been responsible. Test results revealed the lead levels in Walters’ water were in severe violation of legal limits. Local officials (politicians and engineers) dismissed the issue as a problem localized to Walters’ house[7]. Once Walters discovered that one of her children had lead poisoning, she notified federal authorities.

When Walters reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, she reached Miguel Del Toral, a Regulations Manager. When Del Toral spoke up about the issue, his requests to conduct additional water testing in Flint were denied. He was labeled a whistle-blower when he released the preliminary draft report of his suspicions to the public. Del Toral was the first expert to publicly suggest that Flint water had a lead problem[8].

Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Hannah-AttishaEdit

Dr. Marc Edwards is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr. Edwards’, whose research involves hazardous levels of lead in drinking water, also received a call from Walters in September 2015. As a result, Dr. Edwards’ team conducted a study that confirmed the lead problem was not confined to Walters’ residence.[9][10][11]

This study lead Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, to perform a study of the lead levels in adolescent’s blood. This study noted that children consuming water from the Flint River had elevated lead levels in their blood.[12]

These studies, in tandem, lead to the Flint Water Crisis being declared a state of emergency by the United States Government.

Prysby, Buch, and GlasgowEdit

On April 20th, 2016, Mike Prysby, Stephen Busch, and Mike Glasgow were the first government employees to be charged with criminal offences due to their role in the water crisis. Upon announcing the charges, Michigan's State Attorney General Bill Schuette declared that these individuals "failed Michigan families."[13]

Stephen Busch was the district water supervisor for Michigan Department of Equality (MEDQ). He was charged a total of six counts, two for misconduct in office, one for tampering with evidence, one conspiracy to tamper and two for violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.[14] He allegedly failed to implement corrosion control treatment in Flint after dangerous level of lead were detected, and tampered and manipulated water samples for a 2015 report, "Lead and Copper Report and Consumer Notice of Lead Result." He allegedly along with Mike Prysby instructed Mike Glasgow to remove Flint homes with the greatest lead level samples from the report and told residents to "pre-flush" taps, which is a technique that severely underestimates lead-levels, before readings were taken.[14]

Mike Prysby was MDEQ's district water supervisor faces the same charges as Stephen Busch. For one of his charges he was accused of authorizing a permit to Flint Water Treatment Plant knowing it was deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking for its citizens.[14]

Mike Glasgow was the utilities administrator for the city of Flint and former laboratory and water quality supervisor for the city's water treatment plan. He was charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of duty. Glasgow allegedly removed sample data in order to lower the city's 2015 lead-level report.[14] This discovery was made only after release of documents and emails Dr. Marc Edwards. Edwards own findings were in sharp contrast with the city's report and thus investigated for the reasons behind the discrepancy. According to Edwards the "state took an 'F-grade' for Flint water's report on lead and made it into an 'A-grade'."[14]

Glasgow's defense for his allegations was that he was simply following order from the MDEQ (Prysby and Busch). Glasgow wrote to state officials, including Prysby and Busch, that "if water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction."[15] Glasgow realized the need for corrosion control and poor water quality but did not act. He reached a plea deal in which the felony charge of tampering was dismissed and he plead no contest to neglect of duty charge.[16] His deal is contingent on cooperating as a witness for the state's investigation.

Financial costs of the crisisEdit

The city had made the water supply shift to save $200 million over 25 years.[5] However in just three years since the switch, the state and federal government has already spent roughly $200 million to fix the situation. As on March 17, 2017, the EPA announced a $100 million grant to MDEQ to implement drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint.[17] Also, on March 28, 2017, a federal judge approved a $97 million settlement for a lawsuit against city and the state.[18] The funds would be used to replace the lead water lines in the city. Furthermore, there are several pending lawsuits that will raise the financial costs even more.

Distrust of GovernmentEdit

MunicipalEdit

He was mayor of Flint from 2009 to 2015. He was in charge when the city switched its water source from the DWSD to the Flint River in April 2014. In his testimony on the Flint Water Crisis to a Michigan Joint Committee hearing, Mr. Walling expressed regret in not “recognizing” the dangers associated with use of the Flint River sooner.[19] Evidence suggests that state and local officials knew in 2013 that, without proper treatment of water, they risked subjecting the people of Flint to lead-contaminated drinking water.[20]

She has been mayor of Flint since November 9, 2015. She largely campaigned on the water quality issue, which helped her defeat the incumbent, Dayne Walling, in his re-election attempt. Even though she took over after the Flint Water Crisis began, many Flint residents are unhappy with her administration because they believe that the local government is not doing enough to solve problems at hand. In February 2016, she requested $55 million in federal funding to replace the city’s pipes.[21] Her plan "still needs money to move forward," and it could take up to 15 years to complete. She currently faces calls for recall on an unrelated matter related to sanitation and trash disposal, so her administration has started out tumultuously.

StateEdit

He was emergency manager of Flint from September 2013 to January 2015. He was put into power by Michigan's controversial emergency manager law, and his primary responsibility was to resolve the city's budgeting problems. When discussing use of the Flint River as a viable water supply, Mr. Earley stated "At the time the decision was made, there was no way to predict such an unfortunate outcome.”[22] He also referred to the situation as “a negative outcome from an otherwise sound public policy decision.” These are the words of a man who does not recognize that his actions placed human lives at risk in order to save money.

He has been Governor of Michigan since 2011. He was responsible for appointing several individuals as emergency managers, including Darnell Earley. He is still in office largely because Republican federal lawmakers have repeatedly shot down attempts to subpoena Gov. Snyder for additional documents tied to the Flint water crisis.[23]

NationalEdit

In June 2015, an EPA official named Miguel Del Toral explained that federal rules require systems of Flint’s size to control for corrosion.[24] City and state officials downplayed Del Toral’s report, and the EPA said it was only a draft that wasn’t supposed to be released.

She has been United States Secretary of Education since February 7, 2017. The DeVos family is a major funder of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the architect of Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law. The Mackinac Center also worked to craft legislation that would advance the DeVos’ privatization agenda. The family spent $1.9 million in the election of Governor Snyder, who signed the emergency manager act into law.[25]

The Blame GameEdit

 
Institutional Blame

The structure of overlapping governmental entities can make it easy to shift blame, resulting in a blame game where each entity tries to pin the fault at the other. The city of Flint blames MDEQ. MDEQ blames EPA guidelines. Policymakers blame "experts" for providing the wrong data. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force (FWTA), appointed by Gov. Snyder, blames MDEQ. KWA blames Detroit for overcharging for water.

The FWTA blamed MDEQ for the crisis because of three fundamental failures: regulatory, substance and tone of MDEQ's response to the public, and interpretation of Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).[26] FWTA asserts that, in MDEQ, there existed a culture of "technical compliance" in which they only care about maintaining compliance with the law rather than actually making the water safe for use. MDEQ put a lot of effort into discrediting the work of independent researchers, rather than heeding their warnings. The department also consistently shifted their positions on their interpretation of the LCR, incorrectly used corrosion control treatment, and were focused mostly on the legalistic focus of LCR rather than meeting the objectives of ensuring safe water.[26]

Flint City Officials, such as JoLisa McDay, a temporary Utilities Administrator, blame the EPA for the lack of clarity in their written standards. For example, the MDEQ needed to take steps to improve chlorine residuals in the water distribution system. While EPA regulations state that the City of Flint should demonstrate caution, there are not guidelines on how to outline a clear plan a clear plan of action.[27]

When the Center for Disease Control initially requested to investigate the 12 deaths caused by Legionnaire's Disease, the State of Michigan refused their requested and insisted the problem be handled internally. For this reason, the CDC blames the State of Michigan for the perpetuation of Legionnaire's in Flint.

A report by Karegondi Water Authority CEO, Jeff Wright, blames the Detroit Waster and Sewage Department for the Flint Water Crisis, citing a corruption, unreliability, and a unreasonable spike in prices.[28] DWSD allegedly took bribes from surrounding municipalities in exchange for lowering the cost of their contracts. As a result, DWSD had to raise Flint's prices. Additionally, during a 2003 blackout, DSWD cut off water access for residents, hospitals, and business in Flint for four days. Wright claims that these were the true driving factors behind Flint needing to switch to KWA.

In 2015, a lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Detroit that claimed 14 officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, were responsible for replacing safe water with the water that caused the Flint Water Crisis. The lawsuit was dropped in 2016 due to political negotiation.[29]

Institutional or Individual: Who is to Blame?Edit

Ultimately, the Flint Water Crisis is not the result of one major mistake. It is the culmination of many poor decisions. Therefore, responsibility for this multi-faceted problem falls on all politicians, engineers, and skilled technicians who failed to prioritize public safety over the potential for financial gain or an obligation to follow questionable protocol. Institutional flaws, such as the ability to appoint Emergency Managers who have no stake in the prosperity of Flint, exacerbated the problem, but the individuals who comprise these institutions failed to recognize how their singular, innocuous oversight could contribute to a public health crisis.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Roger Fraser, Laura Argyle, Gene Dennis, Darnell Earley, Robert Emerson, Frederick Headen, … Brom Stibitz. (n.d.). Report of the Flint Financial Reivew Team. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/treasury/Flint-ReviewTeamReport-11-7-11_417437_7.pdf
  2. Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts. (2017, April 10). http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html
  3. Kristin Longley. (n.d.). Emergency Manager Michael Brown appointed to lead Flint through second state takeover. http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2011/11/emergency_manager_michael_brow.html
  4. Dominic Adams. (n.d.). Closing the valve on history: Flint cuts water flow from Detroit after nearly 50 years.http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2014/04/closing_the_valve_on_history_f.html
  5. a b AECOM, Gannett Fleming, Inc, Jones & Henry Engineers, LTD, Lockwood, Andrews, and Newnam, Inc., O'Malia Consulting, ROWE Professional Services Company, & Wade Trim, Inc. (2009, September). Preliminary Engineering Report: Lake Huron Water Supply Karegnondi Water Authority. ftp://cityofswartzcreek.org/2010%20Full%20Council%20Packets/2010-May-24%20Mtg,%20Budget%20-%20Karegnondi%20Report/May%2024%20Mtg,%20Karegnondi%20Water%20Line%20Engineering%20Study.pdf
  6. Ganim, Sara. (2017). "Flint water crisis likely the cause of deadly Legionnaires outbreak". CNN
  7. ACLUofMichigan. (n.d.). Corrosive Impact: Leaded Water & One Flint Family’s Toxic Nightmare. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27K54-lV-Z4&feature=youtu.be
  8. Smith, Lindsey. (2016). "After blowing the whistle on Flint's water, EPA "rogue employee" has been silent. Unitl now. http://michiganradio.org/post/after-blowing-whistle-flints-water-epa-rogue-employee-has-been-silent-until-now
  9. Marc Edwards. (n.d.). Why is it possible that Flint River water cannot be treated to meet Federal Standards?. http://flintwaterstudy.org/tag/drinking-water/
  10. Roy, S. (2015, September 11). Test Update: Flint River water 19X more corrosive than Detroit water for Lead Solder; Now What? http://flintwaterstudy.org/2015/09/test-update-flint-river-water-19x-more-corrosive-than-detroit-water-for-lead-solder-now-what/
  11. Flint Water Study. (n.d.). Flint Water Study Updates. http://flintwaterstudy.org
  12. Hanna-Attisha, M., LaChance, J., Sadler, R. C., & Champney Schnepp, A. (2016). Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response. American Journal of Public Health, 106(2), 283–290.
  13. Eliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet CNN, & Catherine E. Shoichet. (n.d.). 3 charged in Flint water crisis. http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/20/health/flint-water-crisis-charges/index.html
  14. a b c d e Ray Sanchez, Sara Ganim, & Linh Tran. (n.d.). Flint water crisis: Who’s been charged, who hasn’t. http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/21/us/flint-crisis-who-was-charged/index.html
  15. Ganim, S. (n.d.). Flint water official says he could have done things differently. http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/21/us/mike-glasgow-flint-water/index.html
  16. Ralph Ellis, & Kristina Sgueglia. (n.d.). Flint city employee reaches plea agreement in water crisis. http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/04/us/flint-water-crisis-plea/index.html
  17. US EPA, O. (n.d.). EPA Awards $100 Million to Michigan for Flint Water Infrastructure Upgrades [Speeches, Testimony and Transcripts].https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-awards-100-million-michigan-flint-water-infrastructure-upgrades
  18. Boyette, C. (n.d.). Michigan and city of Flint agree to replace 18,000 home water lines by 2020. http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/27/us/flint-settlement/index.html
  19. Cai, H. (2016). Dayne Walling’s testimony on Flint water crisis during Michigan joint committee hearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GJyb9cFNNU
  20. Kaffer, N. (2015, November 7). Year before water change, state knew of risks in Flint. http://www.freep.com/story/opinion/columnists/nancy-kaffer/2015/11/07/flint-lead-water/75268692/
  21. Acosta, R. (2016, February 9). Funding still needed for new $55M plan to replace lead service lines. http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/02/funding_still_needed_for_new_5.html
  22. Fleming, L. (2016, March 14). Darnell Earley: The man in power during Flint switch. http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/03/14/darnell-earley-flint-water-crisis/81788654/
  23. Goodin-Smith, O. (2017, January 24). Republicans block subpoena for Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint water documents. http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2017/01/committee_denies_request_to_su.html
  24. Delaney, A., & Lewis, P. (2016, January 12). How The Federal Government Botched Flint’s Water Crisis. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water-epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c
  25. Schleeter, R. (2016, November 30). How Donald Trump Is Connected to the Flint Water Crisis. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/how-donald-trump-is-connected-to-the-flint-water-crisis-betsy-devos/
  26. a b Matthew M. Davis, Chris Kolb, Lawrence Reynolds, Eric Rothstein, & Ken Sikkema. (n.d.). Flint Water Advisory Task Force: Final Report. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf
  27. McDay, J. (2015). Letter to Mark Pollins https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-08/documents/8-3-2016_flint_ua_response_to_chlorine_supply.pdf
  28. Wright, Jeff. (2016). The Flint Water Crisis, DWSD, and GLWA https://media.wix.com/ugd/60e74e_7e8fb1ac1ab04c1487e4ae486537375d.pdf
  29. Livengood, Chad. (2016). "Snyder officials inoculate state from Flint water suits". http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/09/19/lawsuit/90695032/