We’ve all read and heard a lot about the water situation in Flint. We’re hearing most of it from Democrats, who are citing this as an example of the evils of Republican leadership and all sorts of other hyperbole.
Rachel Maddow, among others, has (nauseatingly endlessly) blamed it on Michigan’s emergency financial manager law.
So much noise. So much misinformation. So little time.
If you’d like to know what really happened here, read on, but be warned: it’s long. If you’re the TL;DR type (Too Lazy; Don’t Reach), skip to the last subhead. The conclusions won’t make sense to you, but then maybe you don’t want it to.
The Tragedy’s Roots
For more than 50 years, Flint bought its water – treated and ready to serve – from Detroit. In recent years, Detroit has – like most cities with wholesale water customers, like Saginaw – has raised its rates to reflect the rising costs of maintaining aging systems. Detroit, according to Flint (and most of its other wholesale customers) was really jacking prices up.
Keep in mind that all of Saginaw’s wholesale customers say the same thing at every rate increase, and some – Frankenmuth most recently – have, over the years, threatened to build their own systems or find another source.
In order to be able to control its own water destiny, Flint’s city council and its mayor voted to join the Karegnondi water authority. It’s something they’d been talking about – and tried once before – since the 1960s. They finally got enough municipalities behind them to make the deal work. They announced the deal in 2013, with a target of getting water from Lake Huron through the new system sometime in 2016. Council voted 7-1 on the decision, which was later signed off on by the city’s EFM.
The very next day Detroit’s water and sewer board notified Flint that it was exercising its right to terminate Flint’s 50-year-old contract in one year. Two years before their new source would be completed.
Why did Detroit do this? Because they were pissed off and thought, apparently, it would a nice F-U with which to send off their largest water customer.
Flint, realizing it was high and dry, needed to find an interim water source to keep things going until the new system was up. They hired a consulting firm, which looked at several options. One of them was to continue with Detroit, and there were negotiations over interim rates. The only news report of that process simply says “negotiations broke down.” Which tells me that Detroit wasn’t offering enough K-Y for what they were asking Flint to take when it bent over.
The study concluded that the best bet was to draw from the Flint River.
The Flint River, where the water gets drawn from, isn’t terribly “polluted.” As Michigan rivers go, it’s fairly typical. A little industrial pollution, but a ton of silt and agricultural runoff – it’s draining more than 1,300 square miles, most of it farmland. But it’s water that’s very treatable with modern treatment technology. And it’s always been the backup source.
The final decision to use the Flint River as an interim source rather than Detroit appears to have been made by the EFM (at this time, Darnell Earley. He claims the decision was made by the state; former Mayor Walling says it was made by Earley). Earley note at the time that it would save Flint $12 million over the two years of the contract. Not much of a bargain in hindsight, but nobody had foreknowledge of the screw-up and cover-up to come.
So Flint’s water department is asked to start treating its own water – something it hasn’t done regularly in at least 40 years, if ever. The water guys told the mayor and Council and Earley, “sure, we can do that.”
The First Screw-Up
Apparently, they couldn’t. I’m speculating here: They had little or no experience in treating raw water. I don’t know if they read a book, took a seminar or watched a how-to on YouTube, but either way, they started treating the water as if it were being run through a modern distribution system of plastic and copper pipes.
It’s not. It’s running through a 100-plus-year-old system of cast iron mains and lead service lines.
This is common. It’s what nearly every older city in Michigan has. I have a lead service line in my house – probably in every house I’ve lived in, in fact – but have never shown elevated lead levels, nor have my kids.
And that’s because something interesting happens with lead water lines. The inner surface of the lead pipe builds up a layer of lead oxide — the “lead” that makes “lead crystal” as clear and brilliant as it is. While still toxic itself, it is less prone to leaching. It coats the inside of the pipe and prevents elemental lead from leaching into the water.
But only if the pH balance of the water is just right. If it’s not (and I’ll not go into the chemistry involved except to say pH is an indicator of free ions that can create the galvanic activity), metals will start to corrode.
There are well-documented protocols for corrosion control for municipal water systems. They were not followed in this case – from what I can see, because the agency charged with monitoring that activity, the Michigan DEQ, simply didn’t require it.
As soon as they started running that water through the system, the free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions started eating the lead oxide from the lead service lines, and causing the iron mains to rust. That’s why you see so many pictures of brown water from Flint – it’s rust from the iron service. When it leaves the tower, it’s perfectly clear (and perfectly, safely drinkable). It’s just either too acid or too alkaline.
Evidence suggests the DEQ did not check to see if a corrosion control program was in place. When people started complaining, the DEQ shrugged. Maybe somebody knew they had screwed up. Maybe nobody did, although the chain of evidence seems to suggest they were just too arrogant to pay attention to anyone who had anything to say about it. This isn’t surprising, coming from an agency whose director has a degree in food science, an MBA in finance and spent the previous few years of his career managing a entrepreneurship incubator. That’s what happens when you give important cabinet-level jobs to people who help you politically … but that’s another story.
DEQ is responsible for overseeing testing of water supplies. And when Flint tested its water, DEQ staff made Flint fudge the results. They threw out samples that had high lead levels.
And, I’m going to guess, told the Governor and his staff, all along, that everything was fine, this was much ado about nothing: “Look, Mr. Governor, Flint’s testing says the water’s fine.” The US EPA, charged with oversight of the whole shooting match, also dropped the ball.
- Flint’s elected leadership makes what is actually a solid, sound decision that will, in the long run, save the city millions of dollars and give it more control over its destiny – and, because it positions Flint as a wholesale supplier of water, possibly enhance revenues for them.
- Detroit Water Board decides to be spoiled and pissy and leaves Flint with no good options for the two years before its pipeline is built.
- Flint’s leadership and GOP-appointed EFM make a well-deliberated decision to draw water from the Flint River.
- Flint’s water staff – the people in Flint who are the experts on this sort of thing – apparently aren’t up to the task. And the people they count on to oversee and help them …
- The Michigan DEQ, is completely asleep at the switch. And once they discover their mistake, they lie about it and ask Flint to help them lie.
- US EPA is aware of a problem, but apparently trusted the kids playing in the DEQ sandbox to fix things.
Personally, I think Detroit needs to be held accountable for starting the snowball down the hill. And I think there are people in the DEQ who should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment and fraud.
The Governor? His accountability lies in the creation of the corporate culture that allowed DEQ’s hubris to let it happen.
The Detroit Water Board members, I’m guessing, aren’t Republicans. The Flint water department staff who were in over their heads weren’t Republicans. The DEQ staff is probably a mix.
The Even Larger Tragedy
This is a huge public health disaster. And we Americans like our big, bad disasters in black and white. We want to blame it on one bad guy and reward one good guy. We’re not real good at nuance and chains of events … especially if they clash with our political beliefs.
Every Democrat in the country is calling for Gov. Snyder’s head and blaming it purely on the Republican governor and his emergency financial manager law. And not only are they ignoring the guys in the black hats who actually caused the problem, they’re really ignoring the victims. Worse, they’re using them as a tool to gain a political advantage. And that’s even larger tragedy.
That’s not what Flint’s children need right now. People need to focus on them, and not on their hatred of all things Republican.
This has been updated to reflect new information. And let me be very clear: I am not paid to be an investigative reporter, and this is not a news outlet. This is strictly my opinion, and it is based on news accounts. Some facts are not known, in large part because of the lack of transparency in the office of a governor who promised to be transparent. And as I learn new facts that contradict information I had in here, I will so note them.
None of this changes my overall point. There is a big difference between blame and accountability — and which you use will have a lot to say about the results you get in the end. Blame and outrage will help Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and it will help Michael Moore sell his next film. But the people of Flint can’t drink blame, and they can’t bathe their kids in outrage. We know exactly what the problem is. Let’s get the best people to work on fixing it. After that, we can start the floggings. And there are people here who should be flogged.