How Government—and This Columnist—Failed Flint

Michigan officials poisoned the city's drinking water, the EPA covered it up, and I took my eye off the ball.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder delivers his State of the State address in 2015. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

FLINT, Mich.—As I was knocking around Flint, a city neglected and ultimately poisoned by every level of government, my thoughts kept drifting to two phrases: “refreshing approach” and “in nothing we trust.”

The first phrase is my description, in a column last month, of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s leadership style. What was I thinking? More on that later.

The second is the headline on an April 2012 cover story I wrote for National Journal magazine about a decades-long trend that threatens the nation’s soul: the failure of nearly every American institution to adapt to rapid social change and maintain the public’s trust. The story was told through the eyes of Johnny Whitmire, an unemployed construction worker who I met in a Muncie, Indiana, courthouse. He was fighting a $300 fine for failing to cut the lawn of a home he had forfeited to the bank.

Whit­mire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skep­tic­al of President Obama: non­col­lege-edu­cated white males. He feels be­trayed—not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the in­sti­tu­tions that were sup­posed to pro­tect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton, which couldn’t res­cue homeown­ers who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the cor­rect pa­per­work or warn him about a po­ten­tial mort­gage hike; his city, which pen­al­ized him for some­body else’s er­ror; and even his em­ploy­er, a con­struc­tion com­pany he likes even though he got laid off.

Taking a break from mowing his bank’s weeds, Johnny told me, “You can’t trust any­body or any­thing any­more.”

Flint is a hard-bitten industrial town filled with Johnny Whitmires. People too proud to give up and too poor to matter. People who play by the rules and get played—played by their bosses and banks, their unions and preachers; played by small businesses and big media; played by cops and judges and juries; and, of course, played by those damned politicians.

The latest indignity to plague this city of nearly 100,000 is lead poisoning via their drinking water, a man-made disaster created by the arrogance and incompetence of government officials in Flint, Lansing, and Washington—Democrats as well as Republicans.

Anybody angry enough to call for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation should also want the scalp of an Obama appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency who sat on lead test results.

“The EPA buried this,” said Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, whose water analysis in 2015 helped expose Flint’s contamination.

The tragedy began in April 2014, after the city stopped getting its drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and switched to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority, which uses Lake Huron as a source. There is no pipeline yet built to Flint, so the city used water from the Flint River as a cost-saving stopgap.

For months, Flint residents complained about the foul smell and dirty look of their water, and reported assorted health problems. Independent testing at Virginia Tech showed elevated levels of lead in the water in April 2015. Still, nothing was done until September, when researchers at Hurley Medical Center in Flint reported that blood tests showed a doubling of lead contamination in children younger than 5.

Children younger than 6 are most susceptible to lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even low levels can cause permanent brain damage.

Who’s to blame? Let’s start at the bottom, where the city government in Flint is so fiscally mismanaged that Snyder appointed a string of emergency managers who mostly usurped the elected city council and mayor. (In Michigan, local governments are given power by the state, and that which can be given can also be taken away).

It was a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who made the fateful decision to switch the city source, one reason why Democratic critics want the governor to resign.

Dayne Walling, the Democratic mayor at the time of the decision, said he feels “betrayed” by city, state, and federal officials who withheld information from him. While the emergency-manager system dramatically reduced his authority, Walling said he’s haunted by his failure as a leader.

“I think about it every day,” said Walling, who narrowly lost reelection last year over the water crisis. “I wish I would have realized that I had to dig deeper into what I was being told—and not being told.”

Having appointed the emergency manager is only half of Snyder’s problem. His appointees at the state departments of health and environmental quality botched the execution of the water-source switch, violating federal regulations requiring anticorrosion treatment for the city’s ancient water pipes. That lapse caused the lead poisoning, but went unreported until two nongovernmental watchdogs—Virginia Tech and Hurley Medical Center—blew the whistle.

Both the director and chief spokesman of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were forced to resign, and Snyder has taken several steps—albeit belatedly—to help Flint identify the extent of the contamination and to respond to it. He plans to reveal more action in Tuesday night's state of the state address.

In a wide-ranging conversation with me Monday, Snyder conceded that his administration’s handling of the Flint water crisis is a stain on his legacy, reflects poorly on his leadership, and is aptly compared to President Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. He knows he squandered the public’s trust. (You can read the full interview here: "Snyder Concedes Flint Is His 'Katrina,' a Failure of Leadership.")

Snyder accepted responsibility for the lack of adequate follow-up with his department heads, but the twice-elected GOP governor said he would not heed calls for his resignation.

“I want to solve this problem,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to walk away from it.”

In February 2015, months before Edwards helped expose the contamination, an EPA water expert named Miguel Del Toral identified potential problems in Flint’s drinking water. He confirmed his suspicions in April and summarized the crisis in a June internal memo. The memo was kept under wraps by EPA Midwest chief Susan Hedman, and the analyst was forbidden from making his finding public, according to Edwards, who secured an embarrassing batch of EPA emails via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Hedman concedes that her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water supply, but said her hands were tied by interagency protocol.

“Protocol?” Edwards told me. “She buried the memo and gagged the analysis while kids were being poisoned.”

Even Walling, a Democrat like Hedman, said he doesn’t understand why somebody at Obama’s EPA didn’t give him a heads-up about Del Toral’s finding—even off the record—before Walling publicly testified to the water’s safety, chugging a glass of the poisoned liquid on television.

He rolled his eyes at Hedman’s suggestion that she needed a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action.

“They hid it,” the Democrat said. “They knew and used the law as a shield against the truth.”

There is no love lost for Snyder in this largely Democratic city, but there is also little doubt that the problems are deeper than one man or one party. Of all the people I talked to in Flint, nobody expressed the sense of utter betrayal better than Lawrence White, a 43-year-old state employee and owner of a small security firm. He spent the weekend delivering water through tears.

“I’m not just singling out Governor Snyder,” said the Democrat, an African American. “All the politicians including the EPA are playing tit-for-tat, playing games at our expense. It’s everybody. It’s Republicans. It’s Democrats. It’s a globalization of not caring for the people of Flint.”

Like the story about Johnny Whitmire, the scandal in Flint is a reminder of how government and other institutions fail.

—Arrogant leadership, with a lack transparency, follow-up, and singular attention to mission.

—Lack of power at the bottom of society’s brutal pecking order. This would not have happened in a wealthy city like Traverse City, Michigan, or Snyder’s hometown of Ann Arbor.

—Finally, a lack of oversight from traditional institutions. Where was the state legislature and Congress? Where was the media? Why did a scientist in Virginia crack the case with a FOIA request, rather than an investigative journalist?

For that matter, why did I write a column about Snyder’s leadership that didn’t even mention Flint? There’s no good answer, no excuse. I took my eye off the ball. I blew it.

Now that I’ve caught up, I still think Snyder wants to bring refreshing change to Michigan politics. Even as he acknowledges a catastrophic lack of leadership, I believe he cares about the people he serves. So does Obama, for that matter, and most other politicians I know.

That’s what my gut tells me. But can I trust it?