How we make the call
Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized to the people of Flint in his State of the State address Tuesday, but there are still questions about how much of the public health crisis the state is accepting responsibility for. In recent weeks, state officials and a state appointee have made comments or released background information that appear to deflect blame from the state at a critical juncture of the crisis. Just who made the disastrous decision to switch Flint’s water supply from the Detroit water system to the highly corrosive Flint River? State officials imply one culprit, but documents suggest another. (Truth Squad will likely look at more public comments about the Flint water crisis in the future.)
|Who:||Gov. Rick Snyder|
|What:||Flint water crisis timeline|
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized to the people of Flint and laid out a series of actions to address the Flint lead poisoning crisis in his annual State of the State address Tuesday night. He also offered a timeline for how the crisis unfolded – an abbreviated version in his speech, and a detailed version sent to reporters during the speech.
Statements under review
“City of Flint decides to use the Flint River as a water source”
In his speech, which also touched on the chronology of events, Snyder noted a key development – a Flint City Council vote in March 2013 to switch water service from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the Karegnondi Water Authority, a regional water authority that was in the process of building a pipeline from Lake Huron. Snyder told the statewide audience that this action is where “the crisis began.”
The crisis timeline distributed to reporters and now available online states that in June 2013, “City of Flint decides to use the Flint River as a water source,” a phrasing similar to what the governor used in his State of the State speech, (“Flint began to use water from the Flint River as an interim source”) suggesting that the city, not the state, drove the interim decision to use the highly corrosive river water for city residents.
Here’s the problem with that: City officials did not make the decision to take water from the Flint River. There was never such a vote by the city council, which really didn’t have the power to make such a decision anyway, because the city was then under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.
The council’s vote in March 2013 was to switch water supply from Detroit to a new pipeline through the Karegnondi Water Authority – but the pipeline wasn’t scheduled to be completed for at least three years. (And even that decision was given final approval not by the council, but by then-state Treasurer Andy Dillon, according to Snyder emails released Wednesday.)
Snyder also said that Detroit, after being informed of the Flint council vote, sent a “letter of termination” of water service. Actually, Detroit sent a letter giving Flint one year on its existing contract, but that didn’t mean Flint couldn’t get water from Detroit after that date. In fact, there was a flurry of negotiations between Detroit and Flint to sign a new contract that would carry Flint through until it could connect to the under-construction pipeline. That new contract was going to cost Flint more money.
This distinction is important to note because merely stating that Flint received a “letter of termination” makes it sound as if a thirsty Flint had no choice but to stick a straw in the Flint River. Flint could have elected then to sign a new contract with the the Detroit water system (indeed, Flint eventually reconnected to Detroit water after the situation in the city became a full-fledged, hair-on-fire crisis). Flint was disconnected from Detroit because it was cheaper to take water from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed. Here’s a letter from then-emergency manager Darnell Earley saying Flint was choosing to use Flint water instead of Detroit water.
Which brings us to the state’s timeline statement: “June 2013: City of Flint decides to use the Flint River as a water source.”
Flint officials, under state emergency management, didn’t make that decision. State-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz made that decision. Here’s the document from June 2013 signed by Kurtz authorizing an engineering contract to figure out how to draw water from the river.
It may seem like this is deep in the weeds, but this is why it’s important: This is a major health crisis for the state, and it’s a crisis that is man-made. There’s no doubt that a series of actions all played a role in the elevated lead levels in the bloodstreams of some Flint children. When the governor’s own timeline says the “City of Flint decides to use the Flint River,” it can’t be dismissed as shorthand for the truth. The wording conflates an earlier city vote to transition from Detroit to the KWA with the later decision by a Snyder-appointed emergency manager to use the Flint River as an interim source of water. Truth Squad calls a foul.
|Who:||State Rep. Al Pscholka and former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley|
|What:||Statements about who’s to blame for the Flint water crisis|
Statements under review
"This was a local decision to take themselves off the Detroit system and join this pipeline, and that's what started this whole series of events."
Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, was asked Monday about using the state’s projected half-billion-dollar budget surplus to help fix Flint’s damaged water infrastructure. He’s an important person to ask, because he’s chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Pscholka, quoted on the WKZO-AM website, said he had reservations about using the surplus for Flint. That’s a fair policy debate. But the reason Pscholka landed in Truth Squad was the justification he offered for his decision. According to the article:
He (Pscholka) says the state shares only some of the blame for the water woes, because "this was a local decision to take themselves off the Detroit system and join this pipeline, and that's what started this whole series of events."
Pscholka is using a line of argument also espoused by Darnell Earley, the former state-appointed emergency manager of Flint, who was in charge of the city of 100,000 for part of the time the crisis was unfolding. Earley recently penned a guest column in The Detroit News, in which the former emergency manager said he is blameless. Earley's column provides us another...
Statement under review
“It is critically important that the record be set straight about the decision-making and approval processes that led to Flint joining the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) with the use of Flint River water as the interim water supply. The fact is, the river has served and been used as the back-up supply for decades, and this was the rationale given to me by staff and (then-Flint) Mayor Walling, who also serves as chairperson of the KWA board. Contrary to reports in the media and rhetoric being espoused by individuals, the decision (to use Flint River water) was made at the local level, by local civic leaders.”
Pscholka and Earley reference one segment of the public record chronology of the crisis, while leaving out parts that show the state (and Earley) were neck-deep in the decision-making.
Indeed, in March 2013, while under a state-appointed emergency manager, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to stop buying water from Detroit and switch to a new pipeline that took water from Lake Huron by joining the KWA. But the Flint City Council never specifically voted to start taking water from the Flint River in the interim.
That decision was made later, as a result of Detroit raising the rates it would charge as Flint unhooked from the Detroit water supply and connected to the new KWA pipeline – which wasn’t going to be completed until sometime in 2016.
The Flint City Council, which had no real authority anyway because the city was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager, did not vote yes or no on connecting to the Flint River. That decision was made by emergency manager Ed Kurtz, Earley’s predecessor, who hired an engineering firm to study taking water from the Flint River and subsequent emergency manager Earley, who sent a letter to Detroit water officials informing them of Flint’s intention to use Flint River water once the Detroit contract expired.
Yet another state agent, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, signed the April 2014 permit allowing the city’s drinking water to be drawn from the Flint River.
Perhaps the definitive chronology of the decisions that ultimately led to Flint children drinking contaminated water was published in December by Michigan Radio, whose reporting also suggests state officials tried to conflate the city’s decision to switch to the KWA water system with the state’s decision to use Flint River water until the KWA was up and running.
As in many statements considered by the Truth Squad, there is just enough truth here to mislead. It’s true that city officials voted in 2013 to switch to a new water supply when the KWA pipeline was completed in 2016. But more relevant is the documented evidence that the decision to use Flint River water in the interim was made by state-appointed emergency managers, not democratically elected city officials. To cite the initial council vote without mentioning the state’s role in switching to Flint River water is a transparent attempt to deflect blame – and possible financial responsibility – for a man-made tragedy.
Earley and Pscholka’s remarks also minimize the indisputable (and more damaging) role that state officials played in failing to properly treat Flint River water, and in failing (along with the feds) to quickly alert the public to rising lead levels.