Flint Michigan Water Crisis – A Nonpartisan Disaster

The story of how Flint, Michigan’s children were poisoned with lead is long, complicated, and filled with human errors in every chapter.   Not a single child in this country should ever be exposed to health risks in our drinking water. The fact is five percent of Flint’s children have tested with too high levels of lead in their bodies, and there will be life-long health and learning repercussions because of it.

My perspective and opinion on what happened in Flint is informed by my fourteen years experience as a city commissioner and former mayor of a small Michigan city, and my day job as executive director of ConservAmerica, a national conservation organization.

The progressive movement in the country rushed to judgment, declaring Michigan Governor Rick Snyder a criminal for poisoning Flint’s families.  From Rachel Maddow, The New York Times, CBS News, to left-of-center green groups, everyone piled on the Republican governor.  It wasn’t until I saw candidate Hillary Clinton on the Sunday news programs calling for Gov. Snyder to resign that the visage of a concerted effort to leverage the Flint situation for November electoral gain in this swing state came to mind. (A vast left-wing conspiracy?)   Can a political campaign go any lower than to use poisoned children for partisan gain?

Flint was a failing city, just like its larger neighbor, Detroit.  There are many external factors that contributed to Flint’s downfall, like the disintegration of the state’s automotive industry.  That’s not an excuse.

Take my hometown, Sturgis, for example.  Our population has been about 10,000 for decades.  For generations, Sturgis was a company town. As GM was to Flint, Kirsch Company was to Sturgis.  Kirsch was acquired by a larger company in the 1990’s and all of its jobs moved south of the border. We lost 2,200 good paying jobs with excellent benefits.  The city was against the ropes.  The loss of Kirsch was visibly present in our downtown as two of our three community banks sold out and became mere branches of larger institutions. Another 200 white collar jobs lost.  We saw double digit vacancies in our downtown. Fortunately, city leaders tightened its belt, sought efficiencies, and made tough decisions to insure the city would live to fight another day.

Flint, for whatever reason, failed to make the decisions necessary to survive the changing economy.  Even the most jaded observer should agree that Flint faced some insurmountable problems that were greater than those the best managed city might have overcome. Nevertheless, the state appointed an Emergency Manager to try to right the ship.

Maddow harps on the Emergency Manager law as an example of right wing, anti-democracy in action.  The law has been in existence, in one form or another, since 1990.  Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm used it during her two terms as governor.  I don’t recall a single person complaining about her application of the Emergency Manager law. As a Michigan taxpayer and local elected official, I support the Emergency Manager statute.  Throughout my lifetime, we’ve watched nearly helplessly as the state shifted tax revenue to Detroit. Time and again, through Republican and Democratic administrations, Detroit received more than its pro-rata share of state tax revenue in efforts to bail the city out of messes.  The problem came home to roost after the 2008 recession when the state began reducing its ‘guaranteed’ revenue sharing to cities like Sturgis. Revenue sharing was part of a grand bargain the state made with municipalities when it reconfigured its tax structure years ago.  Cities depend upon it for police, fire, and streets.  Even as Detroit continued to receive more and more money, Sturgis reduced its city workforce 30% to make ends meet.

Finally, a Republican governor, Rick Snyder, had the courage to try to fix Detroit once and for all.  He appointed an Emergency Manager. Thankfully, today, Detroit is on the upswing, and Detroit is on the minds of people around the world (I was in Germany last week, and almost everyone with whom I spoke wanted to know about the “Miracle of Detroit”.)

If you polled every city commissioner in the state of Michigan, I suspect you’d find overwhelming support for the Emergency Manager law. Far from being anti-democratic, it protects the rights of millions of Michigan citizens who don’t have a voice in electing leaders of failing cities, or in debt carelessly approved by voters in those cities.

Governor Snyder appointed an Emergency Manager for the City of Flint.  Democrat mouthpieces blame the EM for making the fateful decision to switch from the Detroit water system, and irrationally claim it was a rabid effort to cut costs, damn the people.  In Michigan, municipal utilities are required to fund all operational and infrastructure costs through rates paid by their customers—residents and businesses.   If the EM or governor or whoever didn’t care about the people of Flint, they could have just stayed with the Detroit water system and charged Flint residents higher water rates.  Switching to the Karengodi Water Authority or, temporarily, to the Flint River source had absolutely nothing to do with saving general fund money at the City of Flint.

In e-mails released by the governor’s office, a memorandum reports that Flint was losing 30% or more of its water through its water system.  The memo points out that the city had not followed basic maintenance or upgrade schedules and most of the pipes were 75 years old or greater.  It could be the savings cited by many in this discussion is the water the city bought, but then lost, and could not recoup by selling to customers.  (If they paid less for the water than the price offered by Detroit, that would be a savings.)

About that switch. There’s much more to the story.  Dennis Lennox, a columnist for the Detroit News reports that it begins in 2009 with the Democrat Genesee County Drain Commissioner who peddled the idea for a new water authority to serve the county.  Known today as the Karengodi Water Authority, he planned to pipe water from Lake Huron.  Despite the then recently approved Great Lakes Compact between every state and province bordering the Great Lakes– which put the brakes on withdrawals from the lakes–Democrat Governor Granholm approved the pipeline.   The Drain Commissioner pressured the Democrat Flint Mayor and City Commission to join the Authority, claiming cheaper water for all.  Flint leadership did so on March 25, 2013.  On April 16, the EM signed the contract to move to Karengodi. The very next day, the Detroit water authority served the required one year notice to Flint that it was kicking Flint off the system.  With completion of Karengodi still two years away, Flint’s options were limited.   For reasons unknown to me, Flint was unable to negotiate an extension with Detroit to provide water until the new system was up and running. To reiterate,  had the interests of the people of Flint not been a primary consideration,  agreeing to whatever Detroit wanted to charge would have been acceptable, since Flint customers—not taxpayers—would be required to foot the bill.

The date of the switch to Flint River water is where the mistakes began piling up.  The Flint River had been approved by the EPA as a back-up source of water. This was not a case of mean Republicans sticking a straw in the nearest water source.  In fact, pinpointing the name of a single person who specifically approved moving to the Flint River is unknown at this time.  However, within the e-mails released by the governor, indications are State Treasurer Andy Dillon, former state Democratic Senate Majority Leader made that decision.

On the surface, it still isn’t a bad decision. The Flint River had been used off and on for temporary sourcing for years, most recently in 2009.  The detailed memo announcing the switch, dated April 25, 2014, is filled with assurances by various city officials, including water department scientists and from the Flint River Watershed Council.

Flint had been a customer of Detroit’s water system for 50 years. It is still not known if Flint water department employees were experienced in the requirements of operating a stand-alone water utility.   A timeline provided by the office of the governor suggests a horrible game of “Who’s On First” played between MDEQ, EPA, and the Flint water department.  We do know that in February 2015, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality met with the EPA to discuss high levels of lead in Flint water.  In that same month, the MDEQ told EPA that Flint was using an optimized corrosion control program to prevent lead leaching. They were wrong. In April, MDEQ told EPA there was no corrosion treatment in place.  (In March, Veolia, Flint’s water consultant, issued a report that the water met both state and federal standards and does not mention lead.)

In July 2015, the Regional EPA Administrator told the Mayor of Flint that it would be premature to draw any conclusions based on a leaked EPA memo regarding lead.  By August, the City released results from its monitoring program for the second six months of using Flint River water, and it showed greatly increased lead levels at 11 ppb.  In the ensuing weeks, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards raised concerns about the corrosiveness of the infrastructure and lead in the water, but through early September, MDEQ officials disputed Edwards’ conclusions.

Finally, on September 28, 2015, the directors of Michigan’s departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services brief Governor Snyder on the potential scope of the Flint crisis.  Two days later, the state urges residents to not drink the water, and on October 2, the governor announces a 10 point plan to address the problems and sends $1 million to Flint for water filters.   By October 15, Governor Snyder has negotiated a transfer of $9.4 million from Michigan taxpayers to assist Flint in reconnecting with the Detroit water system, with the Mott Foundation adding another $4 million. Flint reconnects to Detroit on October 16.

Contrary to left-wing rhetoric, the Governor moved quickly once he was informed of the severity of the crisis.  For a governor who prefers in-depth analysis of any problem or solution, his reaction within days speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, Democrats, Democrat-leaning environmental groups, and the liberal echo chamber have targeted Republican Governor Rick Snyder. Michigan is a swing state.  By attacking Snyder, Democrats hope to paint Republicans as evil incarnate, and lock in Michigan’s electoral votes.    One of their primary charges is that he didn’t act quick enough, and it was because Flint’s population is predominantly minorities. (“This wouldn’t have happened in an affluent white community!”)

First, his Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, reported, each time the Administration asked the relevant departments if there was a problem, they were told there was none.  Second, Rick Snyder is not a grandstanding politician. He is reserved and definitely looks before he leaps.  I think the timeline speaks for itself.  Muchmore, by the way, is much respected by Lansing politicos of every stripe, and even served as Executive Director of the venerable Michigan United Conservation Clubs for a period.

There is no factual dispute that the staff of MDEQ got this terribly wrong. A panel appointed by the governor, including former Democratic State Representative Chris Kolb who now serves as Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Council, released its findings late last year. It’s report pulled no punches.  The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had oversight responsibility and failed miserably.  Based on this report, the director of MDEQ, Dan Wyant, resigned, and three other MDEQ staffers were terminated. Wyant had served three different governors, including Democrat Jennifer Granholm, as a department head.

In November, the EPA indicated that possible interpretations of the Lead and Copper Rule were the root cause of the problem.  For most of 2015, MDEQ stuck to its guns.  My instinct tells me that there were a series of human errors made, but they were compounded by bureaucratic arrogance.  Imagine for a moment you are a DEQ scientist and you begin receiving calls from non-scientists calling into question your work or decisions. For most of us, our natural reaction would be, “Ah, how quaint. This person with no expertise thinks they know more than me.”

I have personal experience with this attitude in state government. Ten years ago, while I was mayor of Sturgis, the Michigan Department of Transportation rebuilt US-12 through our downtown.  After the excavation phase was complete, we knew there was a problem.  We called it to the attention of MDOT, but were told, “We’re the engineers.  We do this work every day. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  So MDOT continued with the rebuild. They finished the paving and, then, we knew we had a problem. MDOT had built the road three feet lower than it was supposed to be built.  Once our sidewalks were installed, the slant from storefront-to-curb was so steep, walking was difficult and wheelchairs tipped over.  We howled to MDOT, but got nowhere. We brought in our state representative and senator, and I went on the record calling for citizens to take up pitchforks and torches and march on the capitol.  Finally, a year after construction started, MDOT admitted there was something amiss. The following year, they came back in, tore up the sidewalks, and made modifications to make the streetscape work for Sturgis.  Sturgis is the largest city in the most Republican county in the state.  Bureaucratic arrogance is color blind. Thankfully, our ‘fight’ did not include poisoning of our children and life-long health issues as it did and will in Flint.

Rick Snyder ran for governor originally on a platform of reinventing government and changing the culture of the state bureaucracy, to make customer service the watchword of every state employee. Apparently, changing an entrenched culture among civil servants is more difficult than a bumper sticker slogan.

Adding more horror to this story was an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease in Flint between June 2014 and March 2015.  While this coincided with the switch to Flint River water, no public health official has been able to definitely make the connection.  (Most reasonable people would agree that it is highly likely something in the changeover of water supply was the causal factor.)  Sixty five cases and ten deaths were reported to health officials.  Yet, public health officials only informed the governor in January 2016—they had kept the outbreak secret and did not warn Flint residents.  The Genesee County Health Department, DHHS, the federal Centers for Disease Control, and other agencies all knew about the outbreak, but no one thought it important to inform the public. Sources have told multiple people that the governor was uncharacteristically furious for not being informed of the outbreak when it occurred.

In his annual State of the State address on January 19, Governor Snyder apologized profusely and sincerely to the people of Flint, accepted responsibility, and said, “The buck stops with me.”  He promised to dedicate the remaining three years of his governorship to fixing Flint’s water problem, addressing the health needs of its residents, and working to restore trust in state government.  It was not a political speech, but a deeply personal one.

I know Rick Snyder and have complete confidence he will manage the situation better than anyone else. In fact, I cannot think of another politician I’d rather have leading the effort to fix this problem.

One outcome should be to adopt, for use in these situations, the Incident Command procedures the Department of Homeland Security implemented after 9/11.  The interdepartmental miscommunications between local, county, state, and federal agencies played a significant role in allowing mistakes to be made and go unchallenged for too long, and kept the public in the dark about potential and real risks to their health.  A single incident commander could have shortened the timeline dramatically, and insured better communication with the public, the governor, and EPA officials.

The governor mentioned the need for more preparation and planning for public infrastructure in his speech. He has already implemented a mapping process with which every Michigan town must comply. In Sturgis, for example, a company has been here for two months snaking video cameras through our underground infrastructure to examine its condition.  We know there are towns in Michigan which still have some wooden water pipes in the ground and in use.  A day of reckoning is coming for municipalities that will call for massive expenditures on water and sewer infrastructure.  Governor Snyder, before the Flint crisis arose, was already working to insure Michigan cities and towns can provide clean drinking water to its citizens.

The partisan calls from Michael Moore, Cher, and Democratic groups for Gov. Snyder to resign are simply wrong.  Because there are so many involved in the Flint catastrophe who could have done better, who made mistakes, and who made poor decisions, it is too easy to dismiss the liberal mouthpieces as partisan cranks.  Had they been honest, and really had the interest of Flint residents in mind, they might have called for the heads of everyone—the governor, the DEQ director, the DEQ staffers who erred, the Democrat Drain Commissioner, the Democrat mayor and city commissioners, the Democrat Emergency Manager (yes, the EM was a Democrat and had worked for and with the city of Flint before) and the Democrat-appointed EPA Regional Administrator. Or, they could have followed the governor’s lead. Let’s fix Flint’s water problem and make sure the health needs of its residents are met now and for the long term, then let’s fix the process so this never, ever happens again.