In Flint, Michigan, a scandal over lead-tainted water keeps getting darker.
On Tuesday, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency due to lead in the water supply. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it is investigating what went wrong in the city. Several top officials have resigned, and Snyder apologized. But that’s only so comforting for residents. They’re drinking donated water supplies—though those donations are reportedly running dry—or using filters. Public schools have been ordered to shut off taps. Residents, and particularly children, are being poisoned by lead, which can cause irreversible brain damage and affect physical health. It could cost $1.5 billion to fix the problem, a staggering sum for any city, much less one already struggling as badly as Flint is.
The story is horrifying, on a visceral, “this isn’t supposed to happen here” level. While attention has been slow to focus on Flint, the more that emerges, the worse the story seems. The latest question is when Snyder knew about the problem. This week, an email from Snyder’s then-chief of staff to a health-department official was turned over as part of a freedom-of-information request. In July 2015, Dennis Muchmore wrote:
I'm frustrated by the water issue in Flint I really don't think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we're just not sympathizing with their plight).
On Thursday, while declaring the state of emergency, Snyder wouldn’t say when he became aware of the lead problem in Flint. The governor—who likes to portray himself as a can-do manager—reportedly grew testy when asked repeatedly about his own awareness.*
The problem dates back to April 2014, when Flint was under the direction of an emergency manager appointed by the state to try to fix the broken city. (Michigan law provides for the governor to select managers, and the provision has been used in several places in recent years, most prominently Detroit.) To save money, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River, rather than from Detroit’s system, which was deemed too costly. But the river’s water was high in salt, which helped corrode Flint’s aging pipes, leaching lead into the water supply.
The move saved millions, but the problems started becoming apparent almost immediately. The water starting smelling like rotten eggs. Engineers responded to that problem by jacking up the chlorine level, leading to dangerous toxicity. GM discovered that city water was corroding engines at a Flint factory and switched sources. Then children and others started getting rashes and falling sick. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental-engineering professor, found that the water had nearly 900 times the recommend EPA limit for lead particles. As my colleague Alana Semuels noted in a deeply reported feature in July 2015, residents believe the city knew about problems as soon as May 2014. Yet as late as February 2015, even after tests showed dangerous lead levels, officials were telling residents there was no threat.
The July 2015 date on Semuels’ story emphasizes the incredible slowness of authorities to respond. That was more than a year after the switch to water from the Flint River. This week’s state declaration of Emergency comes some 20 months after the switch. How did it take so long to get anything done?
Semuels described the deeply interlocked series of causes in her piece:
But it’s not one emergency manager, or one bad decision about pumping water from the Flint River that has led these problems—and that might be the scariest part of all. Neglected infrastructure is really to blame, but it’s not quite as satisfying to blame old pipes as it is to blame the people in charge. And the city’s financial woes have a lot to do with its shrinking population, but it’s hard to blame the people who left in hopes of finding employment or a better life elsewhere. Eroding infrastructure isn’t unique to Flint. Things just broke down there first.
Even if the causes of the crisis are elaborate and inevitable, the state’s slow response provides ways to think a little bit about how the response broke down.
First, there’s a question of democracy. As Chris Lewis wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, the emergency-manager law raises serious questions about representation. If the manager is appointed by the state, he or she is not answerable to the population at the ballot box, and that means he or she is far less accountable when things go wrong. (This is exacerbated by the fact that the cities with managers are mostly Democratic, largely by virtue of being cities, while Snyder is a Republican.) That’s not just a bug—it's also a feature, since the managers are thought to be able to make painful but necessary choices that an elected official just won’t have the stomach to make. Flint’s water shows what can happen when the link between residents and authorities is broken: months of poisoned water supply.
There is a second, and more fundamental, question to the whole debacle as well. In 2014, a UN Special Rapporteur delivered a scathing attack on the city of Detroit, which was shutting off water services to residents who’d fallen behind on the bill. The city was in a tough spot: It was cash-strapped and deeply in debt, and it couldn’t afford not to get the money. But of course that was the problem the residents were facing too; like the city, they didn’t have the money. “Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity,” the UN said. “Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless.”
There’s a tendency to think of access to clean water as a basic human right—and certainly one in a prosperous, developed nation like the United States. Given how slowly authorities came around to dealing with Flint’s lead poisoning, even after the evidence was clear, can anyone expect the government to guarantee their own clean water?