The water in Flint, Mich. is poisoned. On Tuesday, many months after its residents rightly suspected its water might be tainted and sickening, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency. On Thursday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said the cash-poor city might need to come up with as much $1.5 billion to fix its water system, a sad coda to a crisis that stems from a broken down city looking to save money anywhere it could.
But who exactly to blame, and how far up the state this scandal runs, is still being debated. The move to detach Flint from Detroit’s prohibitively expensive water supply in favor of a more affordable plan that would draw water from a pipeline connected to nearby Lake Huron was made in April 2013 by a man named Ed Kurtz, who had been appointed as Flint’s “emergency manager” by Snyder under a program that was controversial from its inception. Kurtz’s decision was backed up by city council in a 7-1 vote, but Flint would still have to find an interim source of water while the Lake Huron pipeline was being constructed.
Moving Flint away from Detroit’s water seems to have been a fairly uncontroversial choice. The city could not afford the $1.5 million per month it cost to buy it from Detroit. But in between untethering itself from Detroit and the completion of the Lake Huron pipeline, Flint needed to get water from somewhere, and that somewhere ended up being the local Flint River. But that water would turn out to be so corrosive that it stripped lead from the pipes running through the city, raising lead levels in the water far, far above acceptable standards.
So, the more pertinent question is who precisely decided to hook Flint up to the Flint River. When the city finally disconnected its water supply from Detroit in April 2014—which it celebrated with a champagne toast—it was being overseen by a second emergency manager, Darnell Earley. Now that it’s entirely agreed upon that the Flint River was a dangerously unsafe source of water, Earley has attempted to distance himself from the decision to pull from the Flint River temporarily. In an email to MLive.com he wrote the following (note that the “Karegnondi Water Authority” refers to the Lake Huron pipeline):
The decision to separate from (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) and go with the Karegnondi Water Authority, including the decision to pump Flint River water in the interim, were both a part of a long-term plan that was approved by Flint’s mayor, and confirmed by a City Council vote of 7-1 in March of 2013 — a full seven months before I began my term as emergency manager.
In this statement, Earley is referring to the contract signed by his predecessor Kurtz and as affirmed by the city council. But those parties—Kurtz and the city council—dispute that the decision to take water from the Flint River was a part of the initial decision and vote to disconnect from Detroit in favor of Lake Huron. MLive states that there is no record of a vote regarding the Flint River as an interim source of water, and ex-Flint mayor Dayne Walling told the site that the vote to connect to Lake Huron was entirely separate from the decision to temporarily pull from the Flint River. For obvious reasons, no one wants to claim responsibility for a decision that resulted in the cases of lead poisoning among children and infants in Flint doubling since the city stopped taking water from Detroit.
Among the most crucial questions of all are: Who should have known that the water in the Flint River was unsafe, who did know, and when did they know? That includes Synder, the governor, who is now apologizing for the crisis while also attempting to distance himself from it at the same time. At a press conference on Thursday, Snyder essentially plead the fifth on what he or his office might have known and when, but incriminating documents regarding his administration’s knowledge of the crisis have already been uncovered.
On Wednesday, NBC News reported that researchers at Virginia Tech who have been studying lead levels in Flint’s water received, via a Freedom of Information Act request, an email sent by Snyder’s ex-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore in July of 2015 expressing his concern about Flint to a “top health official.” In the email, Muchmore wrote:
“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”
It would be hard to conjure a more damning piece of evidence than this. Snyder didn’t declare a state of emergency regarding the water crisis until this week, but at least five months ago his top deputy was complaining about the administration having “blown off” the residents of Flint who were “scared and worried about the health impacts” of the water they were being asked to drink.
What needle does the governor conceivably thread here? At best, Snyder can plead complete ignorance—of the decision to temporarily pull water from the Flint River, of the water’s toxicity, of its effect on its consumers, of what his administration may have known. Though that might be the first step to protecting himself legally, it would paint him as a deeply negligent governor, one whose special “emergency manager” program directly led to an environmental disaster and who had no connection with a chief of staff who was trying to stop that disaster from becoming even worse.
The other reality would be that Snyder knew that Flint’s drinking water was perilously toxic but just decided not to do anything about it. Flint ended up pulling from the Flint River for 18 months, starting April 2014 and ending in October 2015, when it once again began buying water from Detroit. In that period of time, the city and state, as directed by Snyder, could have taken any number of opportunities to disconnect Flint’s water supply from its poisoned river, but did not.
Almost immediately, residents of Flint reported that the water looked dirty, smelled foul and tasted bad, a story that local reporters picked up at least as early as June 2014. People who came in contact with the water reported losing hair and contracting rashes. In July 2014, Flint announced it was flushing out hydrants in an effort to make the discolored drinking water disappear. In October 2014, the local GM plant made a deal to privately purchase water because it noticed that Flint’s water was corroding and rusting its parts. In December 2014, a city employee tested the water of a woman whose son had picked up a rash after swimming in a pool and found that the lead level in her water was 104 parts per billion, about seven times greater than the lead level the EPA deems “actionable.”
In January 2015, Flint told its residents that there was too much “disinfection byproduct” in the city’s water, but that there was no need to boil the water, which was still safe to drink. In March 2015, the AP reported on the dirty water phenomenon and said state officials maintained that the water met federal guidelines. In September 2015, two independent studies found that the lead levels in Flint’s water were absurdly high, and later that month, the editorial board of the local paper called on the city to abandon the Flint River as a water source. In October they would finally do so, with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality issuing a statement that essentially said “our bad.”
Given all of that, the state’s indifference and inaction as directed—or not—by Gov. Snyder is more or less unforgivable. Small dominoes have fallen—Dan Wyant, director of that Department of Environmental Quality resigned—but the calls for Snyder’s head are only getting louder. Michael Moore, whose breakthrough film focused on the effects of GM closing several of its plants in Flint, has stated that Snyder should be prosecuted. Moore is prone to histrionics, but his position seems quite reasonable, and, with the Department of Justice announcing its own investigation, even plausible.
[image via AP]