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Opinion | An awful law led to Flint water disaster. Why it is still in place?

Ten years ago, fateful decisions made by a series of appointed emergency managers came to fruition in Flint, when a group of smiling officials raised glasses of water in a toast at the city’s water treatment plant. 

April 25, 2014, was a historic day, marking the change of the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River from the Detroit system, which had delivered safe, clean water to the Genesee County city for nearly 50 years.

Curt Guyette headshot
Curt Guyette is editor at large for the ACLU of Michigan. In 2016, he was recognized as “Journalist of the Year” by the Michigan Press Association for his work in exposing the contamination of Flint’s drinking water.

The reason for the change: money. 

One of the emergency managers said the move would save Flint $5 million over two years while a pipeline was built to bring water from Lake Huron to Flint and the rest of Genesee County.  

Immediately, residents of the majority-Black city of 100,000 people knew it was a horrible move. Water flowing from the taps in many homes was discolored, odorous and tasted foul. 

Repeated boil-water notices to combat E. coli outbreaks were followed by nine months of exposure to elevated levels of a carcinogen, created by the overuse of bacteria-killing chlorine.

Residents knew the city had to return to the Detroit system, but it took many more months for others to notice.

For me, it was not until covering an April 2015 protest, staged by Flint residents on the first anniversary of the switchover, that I became aware of residents’ concerns, which were mostly ignored by officials who insisted the water was safe.

Working with documentary filmmaker Kate Levy, I heard shocking reports of inexplicable hair loss and strange rashes that could neither be diagnosed nor successfully treated  

I wasn’t in Flint because of any expertise regarding water treatment, or the health impacts of improperly treated water. Rather, it was because I’d been hired by the ACLU of Michigan a few years earlier to investigate and write about the state’s so-called “emergency manager” law.  

Democracy denied

Passed during a lame-duck session of the Legislature in December 2012, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act (PA 436) granted unprecedented authority to appointed officials given near-dictatorial control over any county, city or school district the state deemed to be in financial stress.  

The law closely mirrored similar legislation so extreme it sprouted a successful grassroots effort that gathered petition signatures from across the state to put a referendum repealing the law on the ballot. Despite intense opposition from business interests, a majority of voters decided to abolish the law. 

The response from Lansing was to alter the law slightly, and then re-introduce it with an appropriation attached, making it immune from the sort of citizen-led repeal that had nixed its predecessor. 

It was an outrageous affront to democracy then, and seems only more so in retrospect. The law overturned the will of the voters based on the flawed premise that, if governments are in financial distress, it must be because of mismanagement or unwillingness to make hard choices.

In truth, as researchers have found, cities such as Flint are in financial decline because of larger forces like job loss, racial discrimination and state policies. 

Emergency managers are granted vast, unchecked powers, and the racial aspects of their use can’t be overstated. Only one of eight cities taken over by the state was majority white, and all three school districts taken over were majority Black. 

After the Flint disaster was exposed, then-Gov. Rick Snyder created a task force to investigate its root causes. The report was unambiguous: “While other state and local officials were involved, EMs were at the heart of decision-making processes that prolonged lead exposure.”

The report recommended changes to the law. And yet, remarkably, zero action was taken. PA 436 remains on the books, unaltered – despite the massive amounts of physical and emotional trauma inflicted on the residents of Flint. 

Physical harm 

By now, most are acutely aware of the danger of lead contamination. The New York Times reported that 30,000 Flint schoolchildren were exposed to the neurotoxin known to cause “IQ loss, learning disabilities and behavioral problems” even in minute amounts. 

Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and kidney damage, according to the World Health Organization. 

Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight. In fact, fertility rates fell by 12% among Flint women, and fetal death rates increased by 58%, after the April 2014 switch to the river, according to research by assistant professors and health economists David Slusky at Kansas University and Daniel Grossman at West Virginia University.  

Lead wasn’t the only issue arising from the fact that the water from the Flint River was not being treated properly. 

“An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed 12 people and sickened at least 87 in Flint, Mich., in 2014 and 2015 was caused by low chlorine levels in the municipal water system, scientists have confirmed,” NPR reported in 2018.  

Financial catastrophe  

In addition to the deaths, serious health issues and trauma experienced by Flint residents as a result of decisions made by appointed emergency managers, those same decisions – rather than saving money – led to massive financial disaster. 

Between a $626 million class action settlement, more than $60 million in costs and$$350 million spent on everything from investments to improve the Flint’s water system to supplying residents with bottled water for years, the fiasco has already cost Michigan taxpayers more than $1 billion, a number that no doubt will rise.

A 2023 study by economists found that the value of Flint’s housing stock plummeted by at least $520 million since the water crisis was publicly exposed in 2015, resulting in losses not only to homeowners but also to the city as a whole because of the corresponding reduction in property tax revenues.  

When all is said and done, that $5 million in savings using the Flint River for two years was supposed to yield won’t even amount to a rounding error when compared to the financial fallout that resulted. 

Given all this tragedy, both physical and financial, it is unconscionable that a law proven to have caused such immense harm is allowed to remain in effect.

It must go.

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