Second thoughts on the Flint water debacle

The story of poisoned water in Flint has grown and metastasized until it threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The national news media have fluttered in. Even the New York Times, noted for its dismissive nose-in-the-air attitude toward the provincials in Michigan and its habit of running urban ruin porn stories about Detroit, has taken notice. Last week’s editorial mixed assigning the blame to Gov. Rick Snyder and airily instructing we locals about how to resolve the problem. I’m told you can’t walk around Flint these days without running into out-of-state TV notables, reporters and political pundits.

It’s no surprise that the punditocracy has been busy pointing various fingers political blame at: Republicans (including Snyder, the state legislature), Democrats (Flint local government, the Environmental Protection Agency), bureaucrats (the Michigan DEQ, Department of Public Health and the folks who run the Flint water system).

For those whose knee-jerk reaction to crises is to search quickly for somebody to blame, I suggest a careful read of last Thursday’s issue of Bridge Magazine. There you will find a 30,000-plus-word, comprehensively annotated timeline of the Flint crisis in all its currently available detail, as well as compelling evidence that the origins of the crisis are widespread and suggest a systemic breakdown of systems of government – local, state and federal. Bridge reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey, who has spent a lot of time in Flint, tells me virtually everybody there has absolutely lost trust in government.

There’s more than plenty of blame to go around, and it might help if people started concentrating on understanding the root causes and figuring out what to do about them.

Decaying infrastructure

The issue of decaying infrastructure in Michigan is not confined to Flint.

Older cities – think Saginaw, Bay City, Jackson – have plenty of lead pipe in their water infrastructure. The research is just starting to be done, but I suspect there will be other episodes of lead in the water, although not likely as dramatic as in Flint.

In Ann Arbor, for example, back in the 1980’s a local high-tech company dumped dioxane, a cancer-causing byproduct of micropore filter manufacturing. The chemical wound up as a plume of pollution slowly advancing through the groundwater toward the Huron River. Local officials are complaining the DEQ, which has oversight jurisdiction, is dragging its heels and allowing the company’s plans to clean up the mess to remain secret, subject to “attorney-client privilege”.

Readers will recall all the the squirming the governor and legislature had to go through for the past several years finally to decide an (inadequate) fix for our deteriorating roads.

It’s beginning to look as though what used to be called “public goods” only begin to have political traction when they have a direct effect on private people – folks who like to drink the water from the tap or drive a car in the winter without repeatedly blowing tires.

Detroit school finances

The next crisis, of course, will be Detroit Public Schools, which face an unsustainable debt load and may well be teetering toward what amounts to bankruptcy.

The district owes $515 million in short-term debt and has a $238 million operating deficit, which is increasing at the rate of around $1 million per day. On top of all that, the district owes bondholders around $2 billion for financing for buildings and other capital assets.

The proximate cause of the financial trouble is the enormous number, something like two-thirds of the historic total of Detroit children, who have withdrawn from their local schools, each taking with them thousands of dollars in state per pupil school aid. Some have switched to charter schools in Detroit, while some have chosen to enroll in nearby suburban districts.

For a number of years now, Gov. Snyder has proposed a long-term solution that would in effect split the district into an old part (with all the historic debt) and a new, operating unit. The legislature, of course, wishes all this would go away. But experts say unless the debt situation is resolved, the district will run out of money this spring.

More than a century ago, English author and humorist, Oscar Wilde, commented that a certain aristocrat, Lord Darlington, “knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

These days, his comment seems more than apt.

Thousands and thousands of kids in Flint are almost certainly suffering from developmental deficits caused by lead poisoning. The damage is irreversible. And after several weeks the lead leaches out of their bodies, so it will be hard to figure out who is affected until they start showing developmental damage in years to come.

In Detroit, where too many within the adult population are functionally illiterate, a generation of kids is growing up facing a choice of attending terrible but local schools or switching to charters, whose financial integrity is secret and whose educational quality is mixed at best.

These days, we’re quarreling over who to blame for infrastructure failures and squabbling over how much fixing specific local problems is going to cost. At some point, we might want to begin thinking about the cost-value equation of mistreating thousands and thousands of poor, mostly minority kids.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 02/09/2016 - 9:51am
There appears to be a substantial level of infrastructure improvements needed to promote the public welfare. This includes not only water pipe replacement but road and bridge replacement. The argument against doing anything is almost invariably that it would cost money. We now see what it will cost to fix the Flint water problem, wiping out by orders of magnitude any savings resulting from source diversion and failure to add anti-corrosion chemicals. I believe the pertinent expression starts with the words: Penny Wise . . . .
Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:23pm
The problem with the Detroit Schools goes back much further than Charter vs. Public. One might question why did all the charter schools develop in Detroit and answer it with the start of a later paragraph in the piece about a generation of functionally illiterate adults. If the previous generation of DPS students was failed to the point of illiteracy it is shocking there is even a DPS at all. How many lives does one failed system get to destroy before the people revolt? Are Charter Schools a band aid or a revolt?
Aldon Maleckas
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 10:06am
You need the North Dakota solution, make a state public bank. Owe the principal and interest to yourself. A little knowledge and intestinal fortitude will go a long way. Yes, there are still a few honest people that can run the bank for you.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 4:23pm
Dream on. Our GOP locked in legislature (through anti-democracy gerrymandering) will never even consider anything intelligent. Just more tax cuts for the wealthy and for business. That will, of course, create 'jobs'. Ha. Nope! Hasn't happened and won't no matter how many times the myth is repeated.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 10:07am
I'm disappointed in the lack of depth of this analysis. How did we get to where we are and how are going to solve the problem? In the 50s my understanding is there were about 80,000 automotive employees in the Flint. Now there are 8,000? We have been buying cars from Japan, Korea and Europe. Now Mexico and China are going to provide cars to the US. Many of these countries do not have fair trade practices which has cost the US millions of jobs. Trump is the only one of the candidates that seems to recognize that we can not solve all of our problems without more of our people working. Many seem to favor policies that would further reduce our work force including more taxation of business that are already taxed more than any other developed country. It would be nice to see more recognition of what is contributing to the loss of jobs in this country. Unemployment rate does not give the right picture. CES
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 10:40pm
I'm in the U P of Michigan My county is 25%poverty things are bad up here but our children scored higher than lower Michigan & out of 7 schools did. But we dont have real big schools. Our teachers know the students. There are some that are taking collage corses their last year. When they graduate they have credites already. Maybe split up your schools Have smaller classrooms Put some money into the kids. Get some trade schools.They could come out of school with a trade. Those companys with their big tax breaks should do something to help
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 10:40pm
I'm in the U P of Michigan My county is 25%poverty things are bad up here but our children scored higher than lower Michigan & out of 7 schools did. But we dont have real big schools. Our teachers know the students. There are some that are taking collage corses their last year. When they graduate they have credites already. Maybe split up your schools Have smaller classrooms Put some money into the kids. Get some trade schools.They could come out of school with a trade. Those companys with their big tax breaks should do something to help
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 10:35am
"The story of poisoned water in Flint has grown and metastasized until it threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room." This quote is a good analogy for what is happening in Michigan, which I predicted last summer. I have been writing to the governor, and the legislators in MI since that time. I recognized back then how devastating this problem would be to the children of Flint and have been writing the same people about the schools in Detroit. Michigan has been invaded by a cancer that is growing exponentially every day. NOTHING right now in MI is working, and those who think they have the answers do not understand the complexity of the problems. ARROGANCE is going to be the downfall of this current administration. This "I will solve this problem" attitude by the governor is so patriarchal and is part of what got this once great state the problem
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 10:45am
(cont). problems it has today. It is going to take a whole new way of thinking to get us out of these problems. If those citizens that are not "poor and vulnerable" think this is not their problem, you need to think again. We are all connected and what happens to the most vulnerable will have an impact on all of us. I can't even begin to imagine the cost of all of these grave mistakes, but it is going to take "generations" to get us out of this. It will take care, concern and compassion for all of our citizens These problems have been brewing for a long time, and now we have a situation where the only ones who must continue to live here are the most vulnerable. Once big business is impacted by the lack of college grads (who are all leaving the state to go where jobs and the quality of life are so much better), then big business will leave too. There is a reality we need to confront. It will take creativity, hard work, collaboration and most of all KINDNESS!! The future of Michigan is not very bright unless some things change.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 11:07am
The people of Flint became “lab rats” for the oppression and politics of a corporate-backed and very secretive regime of a man who denies his constitutional oath (loyalty and fealty to the citizen of Michigan) to instead firmly state his not Michigan’s governor, but unquestioningly its actual CEO. 30,000 words in Bridge TIMELINE, no mention of Gov Snyder until October 2, 2015 (also no Andy Dillon, no KWA project with investors DTE, CMS/Consumers Power or ITC ALL Bridge Magazine and Center for Michigan sponsor. Also Missing, Fix it. This assignment of authority to himself is more than Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s personal delusion, it’s his modus operandi, and the very way he has framed and conducted his administration. Snyder has “reinvented” as much of the various aspects of state government into the mold of corporate operations as possible. Right from the point he was hand-picked by the Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) (and personal friends like Bill Ford Jr. of Ford Motors) using to unusual “no platform, campaign platform” secrecy has been predominate in his style. Snyder has judiciously avoided rendering his intentions; yielding up major surprises like 2012’s Right-to-Work passage. The list of known and unknown out-of-state, original contributors allowed Snyder to ensconce his long-crony/fixer, Richard Baird (the N.E.R.D. Fund), in a private office inside the state’s official gubernatorial suite. There Baird operated secretively for two years until public pressure eventually smoked him out. Then, in an act of temerity, Snyder succeed in making Baird, his “Transformation Manger,” part of the inner workings of state affairs with a greatly enhanced state paid salary and range of power and influence in private service of Snyder. Much of what is done in the name of Richard Snyder bears the impress of Richard Baird. The insider deals and shenanigans enacted by Baird/Snyder and other mega-bucks backers and heavies, such as Amway and John Engler’s Mackinac Center have been legion and a controlling factor in the direction Michigan has taken during the Snyder tenure. Left to the purview of these forces, hell and high water may not prevail to bring the ugly details as to the actual methods and intentions of Snyder’s Corporate-leaning cabal to the public. Flint is in this sense a major insight into how very wrong and evil the mania of Snyder to be controlling and CEO-esque can be—how deadly. The suppression of local and state officials at a multitude of levels state, legislative, local; to suppress reports, diddle the details and test results, to cover-up the tragic errors in the Flint River tragedy via prescriptive ridicule, personal harassment, and undermining the credibility of local activists (who broke the Flint River with their anecdotal, persistent stories and revelations of the water problems) is criminal. Blended into all of this barrage of Snyder inspired damage control (scientific evidence suppression) is the fact that science is a favorite punching bag for radical Republicans statewide and nationally,) Radical Republicanism has been discounted and pooh-poohed in a clearly designed professional PR campaign to exonerate Snyder et al from all responsibility and criminal liability for their wrongful behaviors and actions. Embarrassingly, it takes an out-of-state, independent scientist, honest broker, from Virginia Tech to quantify the chemical facts at the heart of the Flint River poisoning and infrastructure decimation. The very fact that the world-class Michigan Universities were not alert to this humongous civic and engineering infrastructure failure is very telling about the probity and independent intellectual/scientific authority of those institutions, before, during and now after the fact.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:56pm
Ridiculous to do a rant against corporations when the whole Flint problem is clearly governmental failures.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 4:26pm
A 'governmental failure'? No, a REPUBLICAN failure. And the Republicans designed to be that way so folks like you can blame 'government'. Government is us - all of us. And when purposefully make it fail it costs all of us and future generations. And destroys our country.
Mon, 02/15/2016 - 10:07pm
All you do is spew your partisan crap instead of offering anything of subsistence. There is enough blame to go around, so why can you not accept that? It is happening all over this country, either get with the program or shut up.
Wed, 02/10/2016 - 1:59pm
QUOTE: "And after several weeks the lead leaches out of their bodies, so it will be hard to figure out who is affected until they start showing developmental damage in years to come"-Phil Power FACT: Lead doesn’t “leech out of their bodies.” Rather it leaves the blood stream and settles, lifelong, in their bones. Get right Phil, or don’t publish it, because misstating lead’s impact and importance as a neural toxin, etc, misleads Bridge readers and promotes a politically useful yet “incorrect” factoid, which, if taken at face value, diminishes and vastly understates the actual science facts and life-long consequences on humans, especially children, fetuses, and infants; all of which is the deadly result of an egregious and monumental civic crime connected to the politics and corporate doings integrated behind the scenes (by State Treasurer Andy Dillon, Emergency Manager Kurtz, and Snyder’s Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore) implementing the flawed corporate-backed choice to temporally “switch” to Flint River’s corrosive and ultimately “hazardous waste” water to “save money”; part of the greater KWA project. @Nancy: Google KWA and figure out for yourself who gained from pushing Flint off DWSD and into KWA. Also, who went forward with the Flint "River switch" to save money, who signed the legally binding documents both for funding and executive "authorization", despite the option being rejected by the Flint City Council? The Michigan State Treasurer's office, and Snyder appointed Emergency Manager(s). Furthermore, it is just a matter of time before the communications between MI Treasury and KWA deal supporters (DTE, CMS & ITC to name a few) comes out.
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 11:06am
Excellent analysis please continue with such information.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:02pm
Bridge Magazine is providing an important public service. I feel better informed because of it. Keep up the good work. I regularly forward Bridge to my friends and encourage them to subscribe.
Dennis Smith
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:18pm
Cool. I'm glad you've caught up with the rest of us, Phil, and realize there were many levels of failure leading to the crisis in Flint. That is the typical pattern I've seen among people who support Snyder as they come to grips with the facts about the crisis. I agree that we need to look for solutions and I wish our governor and legislature shared our concern, but they've demonstrated over and over that waiting will somehow fix this failure. Snyder and his cronies have turned out state into the very backwater that the New York elite assumes we are.
Geoffrey Owen
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 3:47pm
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 4:29pm
The failure is the lack of leadership by a governor out of touch with reality and not leading. As they say: 'Lead or get out of the way'- Snyder should resign along with his inept, criminally incompetent 'team' and let some adults clean up the mess as Obama had to after the Bush GOP mess.
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 4:53pm
Mr. Power is absolutely right when he says the timeline offers " compelling evidence that the origins of the crisis are widespread and suggest a systemic breakdown of systems of government – local, state and federal." Hopefully, we have the insight and will to fix our local and state governments. More troubling, he is also right about our unwillingness to provide "public goods". It may be that our citizens lack the civic mindedness to provide the public goods that we all need. I'm not at all sure how we set about solving that problem.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 6:36pm
Emails from local health dept, environmental inspectors from Genesee county are starting to come to light. Sounds like they were concerned early on and trying to get attention but were "scolded" for communicating with CDC regards spike of Legionaires disease because state was not responding to them. Some very damning comments. Early warnings ignored or minimized by state officials. I'm glad to see these coming out. As a nurse I learned to document especially when things were going bad. I certainly hoped the local health dept had been trying to get action. Public health shouldn't be a political issue.
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 8:04pm
I've read the timeline and it doesn't spread the blame around. The city council, mayor, EMs, local water department, state treasurer and even Snyder were bit players in this drama. The principle, the organization that made all the final fatal decisions, was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It was the MDEQ that Issued the permit for the water source change. Approved the plan for changing the water source. Specified the water treatment and testing protocols. Specified that corrosion control could not be done until a year of testing and a corrosion study was done. Blew off and tried to discredit all the citizens complaining about foul smelling and discolored water. Blew off and tried to discredit Miguel del Toral, the EPA expert who told the MDEQ that corrosion control needed to be done. Blew off and tried to discredit Marc Edwards, the Virgina Tech export who told the MDEQ that corrosion control needed to be done. Didn't verify or specify exactly how local water sampling needed to be done. Blew off and tried to discredit the epidemiological work Dr. Mona presented to the MDEQ and MDHHS There's blame to spread around alright, but once you factor in the incredible incompetence of the MDEQ and MDHHS, there isn't much blame left to spread.
John Grant
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 5:53pm
EB -- Who do you think runs the DEQ and Health Dept,?? Snyder. Snyder picked an accountant to run the (newly combined) health depts (Mr. Lyon). Why an accountant? Because cutting funding matters so Snyder can cut taxes for his corporate buddies. Right? We will prove our ideology that government is bad and doesn't work by making government not work. Next time you're sick, go to see an accountant. Who gutted the funding for the DEQ??? Snyder, Engler and the Teabag Lickers. Michigan's nationally respected EPA was busted up by Engler, and the DEQ (part of the old MI EPA) has been starved of funds and told by the Republic Party that science doesn't matter, God does. The Engler/Snyder administrations didn't want environmental protections because they were bad for PROFITS!!! How is it that the Flint River is so polluted that it can not be used in GM factories -- if we had a functioning DEQ??? Start with a toxic river because companies are dumping all their waste in it -- and then add lead. The federal EPA has no jurisdiction unless requested by the state, and the local DEQ workers know that Snyder and his Republic Party cronies don't want to know about it. So they let the DEQ they don't want to know about it, and then when things go bad, they blame the DEQ. Let me repeat: Before the Republicons got their hands on it, the Michigan EPA was considered one of the two or three best in the nation. Good for people -- not good for profits. By the way, the Flint EMs were hand picked by Snyder. Snyder is not evil, he's not a criminal, he is a prisoner of his party's ideology that wouldn't raise taxes to fix our roads, that believes that Lansing is awash in taxpayers' money, that government is the problem (not a representation of us, the citizenry), and the common weal is second to God and Profits. . Who picked the
John Grant
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 5:58pm
Sorry about some run-ons and other grammatical mistakes, I thought I could edit... No such luck.
John Q. Public
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 10:17pm
Most often, participants who sanctimoniously claim they aren't interested in playing the blame game are the very ones who are to blame. Knowing whom to blame is essential if for no other reason than to remove them from positions of power in crafting and implementing solutions. Why perpetuate kakistocracy?
Wed, 02/10/2016 - 8:46pm
Phil good job...looking at the "roots" of the problem is always a good way to figure out how hard it will be to resolve. In the case of Flint, Detroit,and many large, medium size and small school districts and communities in Michigan, the roots of the problems can go almost as deep as you want to dig as you look. I often start with the 1973( ?) Arab oil embargo which raised the issue of American "gas guzzler's" to a crisis level. We survived, but it was with a smaller Big 3 presence from a lot of plant closing impacting the Big 3 and suppliers large and small across much of the state. We thought we survived that crisis, but it was just survival, with a smaller, less robust manufacturing sector, with much less upside for spillover to other sectors. The Baby boom generation (including me in the leading edge group) is now aging out, with smaller and smaller school age cohorts following along. We did a temporary "fix" in 1994 with Proposal A, basing funding on per pupil. Sort of worked for a while, but...K-12 (and higher ed) turn out to be high-fixed costs businesses, with only so many kids that can be managed in a classroom (more flexibility in college, but once you get much past 20 or so kids, early elementary grades get seriously challenging!) Tax cuts and tax reform were supposed to fix our economic problems, but while they may have slowed the declines, they certainly haven't been clear drivers of economic progress..despite the fact that we are clearly a below average tax state today, and despite the fact that we are running Billions of $$$ below the Constitutional Revenue Limit based on Fiscal 1979, whose sponsor Dick Headlee said at the time that he thought the size of state government was about right, and that his goal was to make sure it didn't grow as a share of state personal income. Look at the official calculations that are part of the recent Revenue Consensus Conference...and the gap has been approximately that large for decades....Meanwhile... ..our roads crumble ;;our communities and schools struggle ...our college tuitions soar ...our overall infrastructure is breaking down (I've recently driven across a good chunk of Southern MIchigan roads (local and state), and few of them are anywhere near as good as the roads in Wisconsin and Minnesota I drive on visits to my grand-kids and their partents),anyone for a drink of water in Flint...and many, many other communities in the state have aging water and sewer systems... There are some specific folks, in Flint and Lansing who really messed up in the Flint water crisis, and they should be held accountable, but all of us in Michigan need to realize that when we start looking for simple, cheap solutions to complex problems, we're really looking at trouble around the next curve or two..
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 12:57pm
I see a lot of outright hatred of the political parties on both sides, that is the problem, no politician can do anything without the haters and the press that loves the discourse, hammering them, a lot of good ideas die on the vine because of this. The biggest problem seems to be the politicians, republicans buying votes with tax policies, Democrats buying votes of unions with jobs and raises, the only people that are ignored are the working stiff taxpayers who fund all these giveaways the politicians promise.
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 8:39am
Just a few random thoughts -- where are the lead pipes in Flint? Are they on the city side of the shutoff valve or are they on the homeowners side? If on the city side, then it is governments job to fix. If on the homeowners side, then it is the homeowners job to fix. One may say that some / most could not afford to fix their house, but there could be programs like low / no interest loans or government assistance. Is it required that lead pipes be disclosed upon sale of a house? Lead paint has been on disclosure forms for some time. I would think lead in pipes and asbestos should also be disclosed.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 12:36pm
Pay now or pay later.
Carl E. Ver Beek
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 5:09pm
I am frustrated at all the finger pointing at everyone but the family structure of several generations of Detroit and Flint residents ( and many other cities) who have made bad decisions of several types. There has been a lack of forethought about what it means to have children and the need to educate and raise them. The willingness to accept victimization, rather than stop the cycle of single family mothers, has created a generation of people who believe they are entitled to much, but have little to offer. The consequent shift of responsibility to others is hampering the progress of Michigan. It seems too convenient to blame the Governor rather than those who are really responsible.