Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, under fire for his handling of the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, has offered two main defenses: First, he acted as soon as he became aware of the problem. And second, much of the blame for the crisis rests not with him and the state government, but with either local authorities or the U.S. EPA, which he says failed to catch the contamination.
Now both of Snyder’s defenses have taken a hard blow from the panel he himself appointed to investigate the crisis.
The task force the Republican governor appointed delivered its report on Wednesday, a scathing 116-page chronicle of how residents of the state’s seventh-largest city ended up with high levels of lead in their drinking water—as well as contamination by carcinogenic compounds and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice,” the report declares at the outset.
Taken as a whole, the report places the majority of blame on the state government and its executive branch. In particular, the report blames Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and emergency managers appointed to run Flint by the governor as the primary culprits in the disaster. It notes that Flint was not under the control of elected officials at the time, and confirms it was the city’s emergency manager who made the decision to switch Flint’s water supply. (For why that switch occurred, go here.) And it takes Snyder to task, noting that ultimate responsibility for Michigan’s executive branch rests with him.
Snyder has said that he only learned of the crisis in fall of 2015, at which point he moved quickly to try to fix Flint’s water problems. “It was on October 1, 2015, that I learned that our state experts were wrong. Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead,” he told Congress last week. “On that day, I took immediate action.” The governor’s account has been questioned by critics who note that his chief of staff was aware of problems as early as July 2015, the same month my colleague Alana Semuels published an in-depth feature on Flint’s water crisis.
The task force report doesn’t outright contradict Snyder's version; it simply argues that his ignorance was a product of his own failures. It states, for example, that “in mid-summer 2015, the Governor and senior staff discussed Flint water issues; lead was apparently part of those discussions.” Snyder says he believed that lead was not a problem, acting on assurances from the Department of Environmental Quality. (Two top DEQ officials have resigned and another was fired over the crisis.)
But that in itself is a failure of gubernatorial leadership, the report concludes:
The Governor’s office continued to rely on incorrect information provided by these departments despite mounting evidence from outside experts and months of citizens’ complaints throughout the Flint water crisis, only changing course in early October 2015 when MDEQ and [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] finally acknowledged the extent of the problem of lead in the public water supply. The Flint water crisis highlights the risks of over-reliance—in fact, almost exclusive reliance—on a few staff in one or two departments for information on which key decisions are based.
Furthermore, the task force added, “Official state public statements and communications about the Flint water situation have at times been inappropriate and unacceptable.”
The task force also found major shortcomings on EPA’s part, though not on the scale of the state’s errors. Largely, it finds that EPA biggest flaw was not forcing state authorities to take the steps they should already have been taking. The report states the federal environment watchdog “failed to properly exercise its authority prior to January 2016 … was hesitant and slow to insist on proper corrosion control measures in Flint … [and] tolerated MDEQ’s intransigence.”
In addition to the accounting for how the crisis occurred, the task force laid out some solutions. It suggests a toxic-exposure registry for everyone of all ages living in Flint between the February 2014 switch in water source that caused the contamination and the present. It recommends bureaucratic changes, many of which boil down to improving accountability and communication, and it says the governor’s office must become less “defensive.” Members also called for an overhaul of the state’s emergency-manager law, which was enacted in 2012. It replaced a previous, similar law, which voters had overturned at the ballot box, but Snyder championed and signed its replacement. The report suggests alternatives might be a better fit.
None of the recommendations is especially surprising or revelatory—the slate is generally straightforward and simple. One might wish to believe the Flint crisis represents an unusual and catastrophic failing, when in fact the crisis appears, in this account, simply to represent the banality of an awful environmental injustice.