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Flint Water Crisis Update

In observing the reporting taking place over the Flint Water Crisis (Flint is my hometown), I’ve noticed a lot of things that are reported that are not helpful and in fact can make the situation in Flint worse.  I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of aspects of the story that are either not reported on or underreported and I wanted to bring people up-to-speed on some of my findings.

The first note comes from the President of Kettering University in Flint.  Kettering is science-focused college located west of downtown. On January 18, University president Robert McMahan released a memo send to parents of students about the situation.  It was a heavily footnoted document that explained what happened and what is going on. He shared a few items concerning the water crisis that we haven’t heard much of. This includes:

Not all of Flint was affected the same way. The image we get from many in the media is that lead contamination is taking place everywhere in town.  Mcmahon notes:

The amount of lead that leached into a given part of the system depended upon a variety of factors, including the age of the system in the area, the specifics of its construction (e.g. are lead service lines present), and the time that water typically spends in that part of the system between treatment and use.

Mcmahon says that service pipes that don’t have lead, there is less a chance of lead contamination. However, pipes constructed in the 1940s and 60s and have not been updated, do have lead.

He also shares that not every household in Flint has high levels of lead. He shares this note:

Of the 853 samples of water from Flint homes tested by the Michigan
Department of Environmental Quality between September 29, 2015 and January
15, 2016, approximately 92% of the samples had measured lead levels below 15
ppb, 79% registered below 5 ppb.16

The Environmental Protection Agency says that action has to take place at 15 parts per billion (ppb). Anything below this means the water is “safe.” The goal is zero of course, but in reality 15ppb is the level where you determine if something needs to be done. None of this is to minimize what is going on, but to put it in a proper perspective.

Flint started-finally-adding corrosion control in late 2015.  One of the problems that lead to lead leaching into the water supply is that the water department of the City of Flint didn’t put corrosion controls  in the water and the state Department of Environmental Quality seemed to not mind.  The water from the Flint River was considered corrosive, something I’ve learned is common in most rivers.  The lack of corrosion control meant that the water ate away at the protective scale that had built up over the years.  This is what caused the lead contamination- once the scale was gone, the lead pipes were exposed and started getting into the water supply. In December of 2015, Flint started adding additional corrosion control additives to the water, to what Detroit ,which is where the water is coming from again, already adds to the water.  The Kettering memo notes that this will again build up scale to coat the pipes again.

Of course, if I were living in Flint, I’d want the lead pipes out because they contain, you know, lead.  But the point is, the scale will provide some protection which is better than none.

The Legionaries-Lead Connection. Recent reports show there was a spike in cases of Legionaries Disease in 2014-15.  This has made people wonder if the lead contamination and Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaries.  This is what the Kettering memo had to say:

It has very recently been reported that there were an unusually high number of cases of Legionnaire’s Disease seen in Genesee County in 2014-2015. It has also been suggested in the media that this increase related in some way to the switch in the Flint water supply. Roughly half of the cases identified are in individuals who live outside of the city and the Flint municipal water service zone, and a possible causal link between the two has not been established. (emphasis mine)

The memo continues:

Legionella are normally found in rivers, lakes, and streams,and they are normally present in the water systems of large buildingsand even in a percentage of residential water systems.Legionnaire’s Disease is primarily contracted by heavy smokers, immunocompromised individuals, and individuals with chronic lung disease39 through the aspiration of water or the inhalation of water mist contaminated with the Legionella bacteria.

So, the switch probably didn’t cause the rise in Legionnaries Disease.

About the Flint River. A number of people, including me, have assumed the Flint River water was corrosive because of pollution from the former auto plants that dotted the Flint landscape or even that lead was in the river.  The Flint River Watershed Coalition notes that there is no lead in the river and explains why the water was corrosive:

Treating river water for use as drinking water is very different from treating Lake Huron water. Compared to large, continuous bodies of surface freshwater, such as the Great Lakes, rivers generally contain a greater — and often varying — concentration of organic materials, such as decaying leaves, fish waste, etc. river. These are naturally-occurring materials found in healthy aquatic ecosystems. It’s the challenge of making that water suitable for people to drink, rather than the health of our local watershed, that sparked the suite of issues with Flint’s drinking water.

Our initial results indicate that the Flint River is a suitable source for water to treat. Unfortunately, far too many mistakes were made from the very start of the switch to using the Flint River as our drinking water source. From high bacterial levels, to violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act for TTHM, to the current lead crisis and possible link to the Legionnaires outbreak.

The second thing I wanted to share is a blog post from Greg Branch on the Emergency Manager Law.  Branch is the former mayor of Saginaw, another rust belt city about 40 miles north of Flint. He shares what people might not know about the law.  The first fact is important because this law is seen as usurping the democratic process of Michigan cities.

In Michigan, municipal and county governments are subdivisions Michigan state government. People have considered the EM law anti-democratic and even a coup, because it takes away the power of elected officials who are chosen by the citizens of cities.  But those cities and other entities are not autonomous; they are a part of the state government.  Branch notes:

Municipal governments (and county governments) are subdivisions of state government. They are, in effect, the local branch offices of the state government, established to provide three services that state law mandates they provide.

The Home Rule Cities Act of 1909 allows cities to establish their own charters, develop procedural rules and provide other services. But they remain subdivisions of the state. And that means – ironically enough under the circumstances – that constitutionally, the Michigan governor is ultimately accountable for the actions taken by and the financial performance of local governments.

There’s a lengthy process before a town comes under an emergency manager. In essence, the governor just doesn’t come in one day and take over. Branch again:

There are, as noted above, criteria that must be met before the appointment of a financial manager can even be considered. The process must starts with a request for a financial review, which can be done upon:

  • a request from the governing body or administrative officer – council, mayor or city manager
  • a petition signed by five percent of the unit’s registered voters
  • a request from a major creditor who has not been paid (and there is a threshold for payment size that is based on the size of the municipality’s budget)
  • completion of a fiscal year in a deficit condition (we’ll come back to this)
    failure to file an audit
  • demonstration of any of number of indicators of very bad money juju: not making payroll, defaulting on bond obligations, too low a long-term debt rating

The municipality can appeal the review team’s decision. If the review team says the city should get an emergency manager, the city can appeal the decision. Branch:

The review team will make a recommendation. The municipality has an opportunity to appeal the determination. The appeal process was also contained in the predecessor law, PA 4 of 2011. Flint, for example, was found in a state of emergency under that law, but the mayor and council declined to appeal the finding of emergency or to request, as they could have at the time, a consent agreement.

Detroit entered into a consent agreement under the old law, then promptly failed to live up to its end of the bargain. Only then was an EM appointed.

There is more to talk about here, but you can read the rest. The point is, the law is not the anti-democratic monster it is usually portrayed as in the media.

Now to Governor Snyder. It goes without saying that his legacy will forever be tarnished by what happened in Flint. And I will agree that he moved to slowly to deal with this crisis. But when people want to take a break from calling for Snyder to resign, they might want to look at what Snyder is doing now-which seems to be a lot.  I get a daily email from the governor’s Water Response Team that shows what Snyder’s administration has done.  This is an example from January 24:

Yesterday, Flint Water Response Teams visited 13,684 homes providing free bottled water, filters, water replacement cartridges and water testing kits. The teams were composed of city, county and state personnel, American Red Cross and volunteers, as well as National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. More than 300 volunteers took part in Saturday’s activities.

Since January 9, 2016, the following resources have been distributed to residents, both at the water resource sites and by water response teams:

  • 148,866 cases of water

  • 86,843 water filters

  • 25,586 water testing kits


There is also a website on the State of Michigan website dedicated to Flint with tons of information.

As I said before, Synder will be known for the debacle in Flint.  But it seems that he wants to show the public that he is on top of this now and make things right.  This is a politician that has apologized time and again for his handling of this. This is something we don’t normally see from politicians. It’s too bad that some ignore this and make him the prime villain. I highly suspect if this happened under a Democratic governor, we might not have near the info and the media and public would be more forgiving.

Finally, a note about Flint- all of Flint. Whenever Flint is in the news it always seems to be bad.  But while Flint is facing hard times, it is not without its success stories.  One commenter on Greg Branch’s blog reminds us of all the good that is taking place in town:

How about some good news for Flint? Like: have you been downtown recently? The new lofts, the new businesses, the new restaurants. Back to Bricks that draws about 1/2 million people! U of M ( University of Michigan-Flint) going gangbusters and expanding each year. Look at Kettering University, another school going gangbusters. Look at the School of the Deaf and it’s new campus, look at Powers High School’s new campus. All big and long term investments to the City. Look at Diplomat Pharmacy’s new HQ. Look at the CEO of Diplomat last year donated a couple million $ to U of M Flint. Landaal Packaging, they opened up a tech office downtown. The list goes on. Did you know, if you add up all the college students enrolled in Flint.. (U of M, Kettering, Baker, Mott and others) Flint is a college town. Flint has more colleges students enrolled over all than EMU! Look at the re investment of General Motors. Look at the Mott Foundation that has never left Flint.

This is not to make light of the many problems Flint faces, a dwindling tax base, rising crime, urban blight, but it is to show that Flint isn’t a barren wasteland either.

Which leads me to my final thought.  While I am thankful to see celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Mark Whalberg and Diddy donate water bottles to help citizens, Flint needs more than just a bottle of water. The reasons Flint is in this mess is because of loss of tax revenue or loss of jobs.  What we need more than water is investment.  What Flint needs are people like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to do more than give money for water but find ways to create new startups or support ongoing incubators like Co+Work. We need young people who want to come and live (the housing is cheap!) and start new businesses like the two the cobblers who started Sutorial Boots and Shoes. We need other kinds of manufacturing to help employ the vast unemployed in Flint.

Flint was a great city and it isn’t as much now.  But it does not have to live in its past if people are willing to invest in its future.Image by abarndweller Flint Water Crisis Update


Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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85 thoughts on “Flint Water Crisis Update

  1. I have to admit that I find Mr. Sanders’ continued defense of Gov. Snyder mystifying. A year of willful neglect, and now we should pat him on the back for trying to take care of a problem that never should have existed in the first place? Further, Snyder is congratulated for doing the same thing that celebrities are castigated for: bringing in safe drinking water and providing filters.

    What efforts have been made to entice Craig Newmark to do business in Flint? Companies like Craigslist are not just going to say, Hey! Here’s a downtrodden place that could some financial uplift. Let’s relocate to this bankrupt city with crumbling infrastructure, with a populace with high wage expectations, and see if we can make a go of it. Incentives need to be put in place, and it’s only government that can provide them.

    Perhaps Snyder’s administration is going balls to the wall with efforts such as these. I don’t know because I don’t live in Michigan, but I’m going to guess not.

    Let’s not try to soft pedal what has been an epic failure of a government to provide one of its most basic services, clean water.


    • We can actually assume the celebrities aren’t logistics experts, and are doing the “first thing that occurs to them”. Without coordination and logistical knowhow, disaster relief tends to be rather idiotic. (This can also be read as “It’s the state’s job, let them do it”)

      Of course, the State’s response here is CYA for kids who are already dead, they just don’t know it yet.

      Perhaps radiation would have been kinder? At least that’s a quicker death.


    • “Let’s not try to soft pedal what has been an epic failure of a government to provide one of its most basic services, clean water. ”

      There’s nothing inherently governmental about water utilities, even though publicly owned and operated ones are the majority in the US.


      • This is true. Water utilities tend to be a duty of municipal governments for various reasons, but providing running water is not some inherent duty of government. Otherwise government would be on the hook for drilling wells for homes built outside of municipal networks.

        I still haven’t seen anything explaining who made the decision to not treat the river water?


      • Considering that governments have taken it upon themselves to provide water to their citizens, people, subjects since at least antiquity for a variety of reasons, I’d argue that providing clean water is one of the most basic services of government. The idea that government should provide material services and utilities for it’s citizen is actually rather old.


      • Likewise, while there are places where fire departments are non-governmental, I don’t think that’s particularly relevant while discussing a municipal fire department that’s been taken over by its state government, which decided to save money by purchasing papier-mache hoses.


      • “There’s nothing inherently governmental about water utilities”.

        Yes, actually it is inherently governmental. The reasons include: (a) delivering retail water is a classic monopoly, because no one is going to pay to run a competitive line to each house; (b) most voters feel that potable water should be provided universally within the utility’s service area; (c) financing local water infrastructure is complicated and tends to need the backing of taxpayers or obligated ratepayers; (d) financing regional water infrastructure has even more complex issues of financing and free-riding.


          • All of which (in California and, I’ll bet, in your state) are regulated utilities. A regulated utility is a lot of things (most of them not terribly complimentary) but “private sector” is most certainly not on the list.

            When your business plans (and profits!) have to be approved by a bunch of commissioners who are appointed by the state government, following public notice and comment, you don’t get to call yourself ‘private sector’.


        • If you add sewer to the water (which is done in most communities) then you do have a public health reason for providing the infrastructure, see the Ghost Map for details on a 19th century outbreak in London. But in most places with public infrastructure it is water and sewer combined.


        • There is a significant public interest, but the fact that a good many of them are operated by people not directly employed by the state means that the service is not inherently governmental. (Which, as you probably know, is also a term of art, at the federal level, in determining what can be contracted out and what must be done by GS peeps)


    • Slade,

      First off, it is no secret that I like the governor, but I’ve also held him accountable as well. A lot of the media reports have been focused soley on the governor. While that is part of the story, it isn’t the whole story. What happened in Flint happened because of a lot of little errors that led to one big one. It was a chain reaction and not the machinations of a Republican governor.

      As to your complaint about his letting people know what water he’s given, I share that because people and especially some in the media have given the immpression that the governor hasn’t done much. No, it’s not more than what celebrities are doing, but it is something that government should be doing and he is doing it.

      I am from Michigan orginally and my hometown is Flint. I still keep up with things in Michigan and I can say that the state government is doing a lot. It could have done it earlier, but it is doing it.

      Finally, yes government can provide incentives for businesses to move to cities. But frankly, governments have been doing things to help rust belt cities like Flint for decades and the results have been poor. Government needs to provide infastructure, but for that to happen, you also need tax revenue which means you need business and people. If you don’t have that, then you aren’t going to get the roads and sewers that are needed for a thriving city.

      Flint is my hometown, so I know this is an epic failure of government, not just the state, but local officials and the federal government as well.

      This is not a simple “Republicans-don’t-care-about-government” story. It would do you well to read and learn more.


      • From Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan?

        The transfer from Detroit to Flint water was just another bottom-line move. Flint was switching over in 2017 to a new pipeline that would serve the middle of the state with water from Lake Huron. (The city council cast a symbolic 7-1 vote in favor of the new pipeline. The state would later try to use this as a protective fig leaf to claim the city had approved drinking river water.) Detroit’s emergency manager asked the state to intervene in the switch, and when that failed, the utility told the city of Flint that its contract would be terminated in one year. The problem then was what to do between 2014 and 2017. Snyder’s Flint emergency managers – four cycled in and out like scrubs in an AAU hoops game – chose the Flint River rather than renegotiating with the petulant Detroit water utility. The initial results were not promising. One resident described her water to me as “the color of morning pee.” When an aide to [state Sen. Jim] Ananich complained to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, she says she was told, “It’s called the Clean Drinking Water Act, not the Tasty Drinking Water Act. We’re doing our job.” Acceptable water standards had become a fungible term in Flint.

        Let’s not forget that Lansing was aware of complaints a full year before the story broke nationwide. If the state government wants to take responsibility for governing one of its subunits, then it has to take governing seriously, which means doing more than making sure the budget is balanced at the end of every year.


        • It’s also important to note that the complaints were about the color and smell of the water. The lead complaints came later. Not that the state shouldn’t have taken the complaints even then.

          Part of the problem that you are exemplifying is looking at this only from an ideological viewpoint. You can argue that ideology has its place in the argument, but there are other factors at work. It’s easy to look at this as nothing more than Republicans who only care about the government or are racist or what have you. I also think it’s too easy to come at this from a conservative viewpoint that blames Democratic policies. Ideology might play a role, but a lot of what happened was more bureaucratic than ideological. But there are a number of issues going on here as I’ve explained.

          I will also add that the media hasn’t done a good job of totally explaining this situation, leaving out certain things or trying to get things to fit into wild theories.

          There is a lot to be mad about. But it is not so easy as “let’s be mad at Republicans.”

          I don’t expect you to agree and that’s fine. But I wish you were willing to take into account that things are not so simple as black vs. white hat.


          • When you’ve got a systemic problem that you can’t fix because you broke it that fucking badly, sure, pull up all the floorboards and find all the problems.

            Mind you, I expect Republicans to be doing that just as much as Democrats (playing the two against each other is fine, particularly on small matters, but… we just lost a city’s worth of children. that’s no longer “who screwed up the 9-11 calls?”).


          • I most certainly am not approaching this from an ideological viewpoint, and I don’t really see where you’re getting that from what I wrote. My ideology is sound government. The Republican led state government appointed a city manager to run the affairs of a city that democratically elected people to run it, no doubt Democrats. If you’re going to usurp power then you’d better be good at what you do. In this case, the only thing that changed was the party of the people mismanaging Flint.


          • There is a lot to be mad about.

            Mad…at who?

            If you are asserting that we all should be mad, just not at the governor, or mayor, or city council, or emergency manager, or legislature, then who should we direct our fury at?
            The Goddess of Fortune?

            Or are you saying that this was the fault of no one in particular, but each had a small portion of blame?

            Of course that’s what happened. That’s what happens in every single catastrophe, always and everywhere. Every plane crash, train derailment, ship sinking, battlefield loss, bridge collapse is always the result of a confluence of factors, a sequence of events which needed to align perfectly.


            Yet we create chains of command and metrics of responsibility and organization charts, precisely to assign responsibility and blame.

            This is what the word “accountability” means- so we can know who is to account for what outcome.

            Someone was in charge of all these nuanced details, someone was at the tip of the organization pyramid, someone sat at a desk and had all those dozens of people reporting to them.

            I swear to God, this is what caused me to become a conservative back in the 1970s, when I saw things like this and heard nothing but dull bureaucratic buck passing, and thought to myself, “if this were a business, heads would roll- but in gummint, they just pass the buck”.


          • Dennis,
            if you’re getting complaints about the color of the water…
            Well, I don’t know Flint, but I do know pittsburgh. When the power goes off, our water runs red with rust. (I suppose they’re using an electromagnet to pull the rust out the rest of the time).

            Wouldn’t you worry?

            We have Multiple Complaints of things Going Dreadfully Wrong, including a boil advisory, before the lead was found. At some point, someone ought to have gotten sacked. Even GM was pulling out of using city water, for god’s sakes! And they weren’t drinking it!


            • Actually only the engine plant pulled out because of the high chlorine (added by the Flint Water Treatment later) in the water as it was rusting the engine parts…the other two locations stayed on the same system as everyone else.


      • “I’ve also held him accountable as well”.

        No, you haven’t. Only the voters and the US Attorney’s office have that power. At best you’ve written extraordinarily mild criticisms that do a fine job of sharing the blame around.


    • “In Michigan, municipal and county governments are subdivisions Michigan state government. People have considered the EM law anti-democratic and even a coup, because it takes away the power of elected officials who are chosen by the citizens of cities. But those cities and other entities are not autonomous; they are a part of the state government. ”

      Some autonomous are more autonomous than others.


      • Michigan, like many states, has a combination of Dillon’s Rule and home rule for cities. How power is divided between the state and local governments in that situation varies. This draft paper (PDF) makes an argument that whether a state is a Dillon’s Rule state or not has little to do with the actual degree of local authority.


      • I think he’s talking about the idea of sovereignty. I think there are a few different things here.

        First, when states want to perform services at a localized level, they set up branch offices (like the DMV). OTOH municipal corporations are set-up with the expectation of having a degree of independence and a more generalized portfolio.

        Dillon’s Rule tells us whether the municipal corporation has a power to do something. If the question is “Can my city go into the business of supplying drinking water?” Then Dillon’s Rule says there has to be state legislation that specifically authorizes this activity. In state’s that give municipalities home-rule authority, essentially the question is reversed: “Is there a law that prevents my home rule government from supplying drinking water?”

        What I think is the more important point is that local governments, unlike state and federal government, lack sovereign power. Whatever power a local government has, it can be taken away by the state. The City of Flint could be dissolved by the State, split up into different towns, or have its name changed if the right state laws were passed.


        • The City of Flint could be dissolved by the State, split up into different towns, or have its name changed if the right state laws were passed.

          Is that really the case in Michigan? As I noted elsewhere, things vary from state to state. Here in Colorado, where I’m more familiar with some of the details, the people in a given unincorporated area can elect to create a city, draft a charter, and file it with the Secretary of State. At that point they exist, and the General Assembly can’t dissolve them or forceably merge them with another city, because the basic home rule city provisions in the state constitution forbid them from doing that. Counties, OTOH, are pure and simple creatures of the state government. When I was on the staff for the state legislature, I was involved in a project involving the counties and had/got to read the dozen principle state supreme court opinions on the matter. Over a period of decades, every few years one or more of the counties would attempt to claim some form of sovereignty, and eventually get smacked down by the court.


          • The state government can dissolve the municipality by amending its Constitution. Maybe that’s a banal point, but the states can do anything they want with local governments, but they can be subject to whatever process imposed on itself. They may need to amend the Constitution, pass enabling administration, or exercise some administrative authority.

            In the new in Illinois has been the fact that all local school boards (except Chicago’s) can be determined by the state board of education to be insolvent, which means they can be taken over by the state, have their elected board members removed, district merged or divided, etc. Its a precondition for bail-out money. Republicans want the Chicago school district to be brought into this program as a condition for a bailout; Democrats see the vast and potentially radical powers that such legislation would give a Republican governor. A law will not be passed, though in theory it could.


  2. The kids are already dead, they just don’t know it yet.
    Why throw good money after no money?

    Likewise, is saving Flint a good idea? I don’t know the cost of fixing all the plumbing, but it’s gotta be large.


  3. Nice post Dennis. It’s very interesting comparing this to the recent NPR post, which ignored a lot of what you wrote, and where the Mayor of Flint was interviewed, who basically blamed the problem on their racist governor and the racist EM law and that he should resign.

    Who’d a thunk it?


  4. I first heard about this case via Sanders here at OT, so many thanks for that.

    I wonder how the Republican candidates will address this issue at the debate tomorrow. I would be shocked if they don’t even bring it up. I also imagine many of their responses will follow this line of reasoning:

    “See, government can’t do anything right!”

    No reflection on why government did this and why it happened in a poor, mostly black city like Flint. Just lots of anti-government talking points.


  5. Just a quick question – did or will the people of Flint have an opportunity to democratically remove and replace the people that made this decision? Will their voice be heard, maybe through some type of voting action, as to their future going forward? Or will an authority continue to be imposed on them by a higher branch of government?


  6. Really, this seems more of a excuse-making than explanation. This sounds exactly like one of the bureaucratic blame shifting and fogging of responsibility that ironically was used to justify the EM process in the first place.

    The thrust here is that
    1. It’s complicated.
    2. It’s filled to the brim with detail. And nuance! Loads of nuance!
    3. There were strange anomalous factors, completely unforeseeable and freakish.

    But really, would anyone here accept this from a subordinate?

    They, the state and municipality, had access to all the information and technical experts they needed;
    They had all the legal power they needed to get things done.
    Other comparable municipalities all over the world have mastered the astounding feat of providing clean water, for centuries.

    Seriously. These guys have no excuse. They didn’t use the tools at their disposal, and failed at their most basic and essential metric.


  7. Interesting update. But what I’ve not seen discussed anywhere, as someone familiar with Illinois environmental regulations, is the licensing requirements. All community water supplies in Illinois have to be operated by a certified drinking water operator. Providing drinking water services, like treating sewage or abating asbestos or operating a landfill is a technical activity that is conducted under the supervision of someone with a technical background. In most states I would assume there is licensing. And when something goes back, the state and feds go looking for that person who signed-off as the operator.


  8. Actually the yellow/orange color suggests iron in the water. A lot of older homes also have galvanized pipes and the differing chemistry of the water would affect that. As the Kettering letter suggests part of whether lead is a problem may be dependend on where you tap into the water main relative to where it taps the next larger main. If far away (say you were the last house on the main) water would sit far longer than if you were right next to the the tap. With the number of vacant homes and lots in Flint, it could be that water sits takes a long time to get thru the system. (Note the letter suggests it took over a month for the Lake Huron water to displace the Flint River water in the system which does imply a significant residence time for water in the system)


  9. I’ve stated a few times that I’m curious as to who decided not to treat the water from the river. I think I have an answer.

    First off, it is pretty clear that switching to the Flint River as a source of water was not, in itself, a bad call. The water was safe according to both the EPA and the MI DEQ (Dept. Environmental Quality). So there is nothing untoward about that decision.

    The problem, from what I can tell from the links provided, is that there was a disagreement between the EPA and the DEQ regarding what kind of treatment the river water needed. The EPA wanted corrosion control added, the DEQ didn’t think it was necessary, and the two agencies got into what amounts to a pissing match for far too long (there were other things they disagreed about as well, like testing protocols, etc.).

    Now, the DEQ, being a state agency, the governor is ultimately responsible for their actions (and I agree with that we are far too willing to let the people in government wiggle out from taking responsibility, either because of political alignment, or because we let them drag it all out until it all blows over), but I can see that the governor had a quandary (assuming he was even paying attention to this issue), does he listen to his people on this, or the feds?

    Clearly, in this instance, he should have listened to the EPA, but that is obvious with the benefit of hindsight. The fault lies not with Snyder choosing to listen to his staff, but with him choosing a person who was more interested in politics than sound science to run an agency that depends heavily upon said science for decision making.

    Either way, this is on Snyder, but not because he is an evil republican, but because, much like the Challenger Disaster from 30 years ago, he placed politics over science.


    • The relationship between EPA and state environmental agencies is incredibly complex. To simplify, federal environmental laws impose a joint relationship where EPA largely acts as an advisor, financier and back-stop. States, after all, are always arguing that they are co-equal sovereigns unless there is a clear invocation of federal supremacy. This is reflected in the various laws that EPA implements. In the area of water delivery, EPA can act unilaterally only after it makes certain findings that boil down to a determination that the state agency is acting so incompetently that it is putting its own citizens at imminent risk.

      As you might imagine, this is not a step that EPA takes lightly, especially with a Democratic president and a Republican governor. Governors can be very prickly (to put it mildly) about EPA take-over of state operations.

      So the EPA emails Joe Sal pointed to above are entirely consistent with my experience. EPA is telling the state agency to get its act in gear. But consistent with the deference that is owed to the states, EPA is letting the state agency to continue to make its own decisions.


    • Either way, this is on Snyder, but not because he is an evil republican, but because, much like the Challenger Disaster from 30 years ago, he placed politics over science.

      That might well be the case, but how many pols pick people for departments for no other reason than they contributed to their campaign?

      Not saying it was right, just that it isn’t that unusual.


    • I think the thing that has been bugging me since the beginning is that we want to make this very complex crisis very simple. So all the focus has been on what the governor knew and when he knew it instead of pulling back and seeing the wider picture. I do agree with Oscar that Synder does get some of the blame correctly- not because he was heartless- but because of not choosing an effective head for DEQ and in some ways not really paying attention to this until it was too late. But it runs off the rails when that is all we focus on and not the actions of the City or the federal government.

      As much as people want to see it in red vs. blue terms, in reality there were many actions by many people that lead us down this road. The question is how does government do better? How do you help once the damage has been done?

      Snyder has a role and his legacy will be tarnished. But if that is all we focus on, then we aren’t helping society, especially the people of Flint.


      • Indeed Dennis,and as I said somewhere else, your posts have brought more nuance to this story than has ever been reported in mainstream national media. This is a warning to those who would believe the national media as always getting the facts right. They almost never get the whole story.

        The governor does indeed share blame, but the real blame goes to the decades of city administrations that failed to address this problem and, by getting into a fiscal down spiral, never would have been able to correct it without untenable political consequences.

        People are much happier with the “simple” solution, whether that’s blaming it on the feds, the gov, the city, racism (either side), but it never is.


      • “I think the thing that has been bugging me since the beginning is that we want to make this very complex crisis very simple. ”

        No, *you* want to make a simple crisis complex, to allow your favored group to dodge the blame.


  10. This story gets uglier and uglier every day.

    I look forward to hearing how no one could have known there was a problem despite this.

    But concerns raised over water quality were enough for officials in the state’s capitol of Lansing to decide to give state employees the option to drink bottled water from coolers, rather than from water fountains. Coolers were placed next to the fountains on each occupied floor, according to the documents, and were to be provided “as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements.”


  11. Also, too. The switch from Detroit was NOT a simple cost saving measure.

    But an email obtained by the Bill Johnson group and first reported by Motor City Muckraker suggests that the move might not have been necessary to reduce Flint’s water costs. Then-Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Sue McCormick proposed to continue providing water to Flint at a savings of $800 million over 30 years, or 20 percent less than the switch. In other words, Flint could have kept the Detroit water and still saved more money than it did. A spokeswoman for McCormick confirmed the email and reporting to ThinkProgress on Monday.


    • From my understanding and I don’t have documentation is that Detroit sent over 6 proposals and the price kept coming down keeping in mind Detroit was also in financial trouble and were part of the problem….so I think it is important to go to the City of Flints website to read about them changing to the Flint River..which has been their back up water source for a very long time.

      CLICK ON THE FAQ to see the meeting notes and the documentation of their decision

      The Reason We Changed…

      The decision to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority as the City’s permanent water source was made following extensive research and in-depth engineering studies. After entering into a contract with KWA and the subsequent termination of the existing water service contract by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the same diligence was given in determining what source water to use while waiting for the community supported KWA water to arrive. The City concluded from this work that the Flint River presented a safe and financially responsible alternative water source. The decision to use the Flint River as an intermediate water source was approved by state regulatory officials in 2014 whereby the City was permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to proceed with treatment of water from the Flint River.

      The document below features questions presented by concerned citizens and the city’s responses to those questions:

      Click on FAQ to see who attended the meeting..

      City of Flint Water System FAQ



  12. Dennis Sanders:
    It’s also important to note that the complaints were about the color and smell of the water.The lead complaints came later.Not that the state shouldn’t have taken the complaints even then.

    Part of the problem that you are exemplifying is looking at this only from an ideological viewpoint.You can argue that ideology has its place in the argument, but there are other factors at work.It’s easy to look at this as nothing more than Republicans who only care about the government or are racist or what have you.I also think it’s too easy to come at this from a conservative viewpoint that blames Democratic policies. Ideology might play a role, but a lot of what happened was more bureaucratic than ideological. But there are a number of issues going on here as I’ve explained.

    I will also add that the media hasn’t done a good job of totally explaining this situation, leaving out certain things or trying to get things to fit into wild theories.

    There is a lot to be mad about.But it is not so easy as “let’s be mad at Republicans.”

    I don’t expect you to agree and that’s fine.But I wish you were willing to take into account that things are not so simple as black vs. white hat.


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