Bridge book on Flint crisis offers lessons on government failure

Journalism has been called the first draft of history, and Bridge journalism is now among the literal first drafts of the historic Flint water crisis, with the publication this week of a book-length chronicle, based on Bridge reporting, of the government ineptitude that led to that city’s lead-poisoned water.

The book, “Poison on Tap: How Government Failed Flint, and the Heroes Who Fought Back,” was officially launched at an event Wednesday in Flint at Mott Community College.

Published by Mission Point Press in Traverse City, “Poison on Tap” offers a portrait of almost unthinkable government mismanagement pieced together from thousands of emails and other government documents released by the office of Gov. Rick Snyder, along with interviews with a heroic band of researchers, activists and ordinary residents.

Indeed, a portion of the book fleshes out the stories of courageous people, inside and outside of government, who refused to accept the soothing, wildly inaccurate assurances of state officials who continued to insist, despite mounting evidence, that Flint’s drinking water was just fine. It was not until last October, more than a year after residents began complaining, that state officials acknowledged Flint’s drinking water was heavily contaminated with lead, a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to young children.

Bridge and the publisher will contribute $1 from each book sale to a Flint charity focused on helping children who were lead poisoned.

“The Flint water crisis is the most extraordinary release of public documents that I’ve seen in 25 years in journalism,” said John Bebow, president of The Center for Michigan, which publishes Bridge, and who did much of the work of combing through and compiling the government records into an exhaustive timeline of the crisis.

Bebow said that reading through the emails chronologically reveals how a decision to change Flint’s source for drinking water from Lake Huron to the more corrosive Flint River, intended to save money for the cash-strapped city, led to a cascading chain of bad decisions at all levels of government. The state’s failure to ensure the river water was properly treated allowed lead in city pipes to leach into the water.

Potentially thousands of children face a lifetime of health challenges as a result of the poisoning, which cannot be reversed.

“If you care about how government works, you can really learn a lot from the records explained in this book,” Bebow said.

The lead poisoning has already led to firings and resignations in the state Department of Environmental Quality, as well as charges against three members of that department, with more promised by state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Other investigations are being conducted as well. On Wednesday, Schuette announced civil litigation against two private companies, claiming fraud, criminal negligence and public nuisance against the companies, which were hired to help the city make the transition from buying treated water from Detroit to treating water from the Flint River.

Chastity Pratt Dawsey, a Bridge staff writer who contributed reporting to “Poison on Tap,” noted the book’s resemblance to a textbook, and said she hoped it would be used as such by those seeking to understand the events that produced the crisis.

“This is the first real reference-type material you will get,” said Dawsey, whose writing in the book focused mostly on the mood and sense of betrayal among city residents, who remain deeply distrustful not only of the officials whose behavior and decisions prompted the crisis, but also those who are trying to help untangle it.

She said her understanding of the story began the way many others’ did, with “the people holding up the bottles of brown water” at city meetings, complaining about its taste and smell. “They are the ones who made (the revelation of the crisis) happen,” she said.

For every copy of “Poison on Tap” sold, Mission Point Press and Bridge will donate $1 to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, launched by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Among the founding donors to the fund is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician whose research findings of high lead levels in Flint children helped convince government officials to finally acknowledge the toxins in city water.

Ann Marie Van Duyne, vice president of philanthropic services for the community foundation, said the fund now stands at $8 million, and is dedicated to supporting the health of children exposed to lead via their drinking water. Van Duyne said that the fund will likely need $50-$100 million to serve these children through their lifetimes, and all contributions are needed.

“Every single person who has been exposed to lead will manifest it differently,” she said.

Bob Campbell, a retired Detroit journalist now living in northern Michigan, edited the book and compared the Flint crisis to the PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) contamination of cattle feed in 1973. But ultimately, he said, “I can’t think of anything that approaches this in terms of dysfunction at every level of government.”

Campbell stressed that the Flint story, while no longer on the national radar, will continue to develop as time goes on, and “Poison on Tap” will likely be revised. With a limited print run, the book will mainly be sold as a print-on-demand edition, allowing the text to be updated and otherwise refined as events dictate. An e-book edition is in the works as well.

For now, it’s available from Amazon and direct from Mission Point Press, with copies expected to appear soon in bookstores around the state.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 06/24/2016 - 1:17am
Will the nerds 2 outside lawyers have to dig into their $1.2 million from the citizens of Michigan to buy a copy or will they seek a donation of 2 books for their review? Or wait for the movie?
Dennis L. Green
Fri, 06/24/2016 - 9:53pm
I haven't read it yet, but I can see from the samples on Amazon that this book merely is chapter two of a bigger story yet to be told to the public. Whether or not chapter 3 is the fix or the next failure in a string of failures depends on telling the whole story, because chapter 1 is the story of how things worked in the past and why they stopped working. The story of the KWA is deja vu from the late 1950's. A separate system was proposed back then by the Genesee County Drain Commissioner, and he was none other than the father of the present one behind KWA! A bribery scandal pushed Flint to the Detroit system even though the engineering facts should have been enough to settle it. I joined the DWSD Engineering Division in 1969, and that era before 1975 became know as "the glory days" of the department. I saw visitors from as far a Japan touring the halls to learn how the most respected department in the country did it. First major outsourcing had already begun, the design of the system to serve Flint. The Northeast Water Treatment Plant had been designed in-house, but the department was growing too fast to repeat that task. Then came the influx of EPA grant money, and that was too much temptation for the political powers. The 1974 charter revision commission restructured the department as DWSD, and great was the fall when the engineering project became a political entity. All of the issues over water stem from politicians fighting over control of the billions of dollars in contracts being let, and serving the customers has been reduced to a means to an end. The errors in the Lake Huron project and the administration of the system never got fixed or remediated. Instead, they just got rid of the complaining engineers and hired consultants who would tell them what they wanted to hear, and part of the greatest water system spun off into the greatest failure. The GLWA is cast from the same mold as DWSD, and it is doomed to repeat the failure. I've tried to tell this story since I retired in 2010, especially after hearing that the KWA was on the governor's desk for approval, but have yet to meet an interested reporter, and I don't have the resources to verify the facts in my senior neurons. I took an oath to protect the public health and safety to get my Professional Engineer license, and I continue doing so and keep my license active now as a hobby. I submitted 28 pages of notes to the Detroit City Council's Budget Committee regarding the high costs at DWSD, so the details won't fit in this comments box. Dennis L. Green, PE DWSD Head Water Systems Engineer (Retired)
Mon, 06/27/2016 - 11:27pm
Appreciate Mr. Green's comments and also hope they get looked into.
Jim H
Sun, 06/26/2016 - 8:52am
Great letter from Mr Green. I think Bridge needs to pick up on this and interview Mr Green (and others) and compile " Chapter 1" of this saga. Sad to hear about a state of the art department doing great things deteriorating due to political games. I grew up in the Detroit area in the 50s, and it was a time of great confidence and competence. What happened?