Who Poisoned Flint?

Michigan’s state government took control of Flint with an emergency manager—then shrugged at its water crisis, saying it was a problem for the city to fix.

National Guardsmen distribute bottled water to Flint residents. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)

Why did it take so long for state and federal government to do something about lead in the water in Flint, Michigan? Or, put another way, who is to blame, and who should have fixed it?

There’s a telling moment within the 274 pages of emails released by Governor Rick Snyder’s office about Flint. Dennis Muchmore, then chief of staff to the governor, puzzles over who should be on the hook. He gripes about Representative Dan Kildee, and mentions former state Treasurer Andy Dillon:

Muchmore went on, “The real responsibility resists with the County, city and [Flint’s water authority], but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children, we’re taking a pro-active approach.”

The question of who really is responsible has become suddenly widespread. On Thursday, news broke that the U.S. House will call Snyder to testify. The EPA official responsible for Michigan also resigned on Thursday. Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both called for Snyder to resign. The Wall Street Journal points a finger at every level of government. Disentangling the blame proves to be a difficult task.

Muchmore’s statement may seem a bit callous, but his mention of Dillon is somewhat tangential: After all, Dillon’s role was simply to sign off on the change to taking water from the Flint River, because of the size of the transaction. But Muchmore omitted the reason why Dillon was involved—a fact that also complicates his assignment of blame to the city. The switch to water from the Flint River occurred under the oversight of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder. Under a state law that Snyder signed, the governor can appoint a manager to take over cities in financial emergency.

Prior to the switch, Flint had been preparing to move away from water provided by Detroit’s water service and toward a pipeline that would bring water directly from Lake Huron. (The city council did have a chance to weigh in on that change, and supported it 7-1.) But when Flint made the decision, the Detroit Water Services District announced it would terminate service to Flint a year later. That was legal under the contract, but it put Flint in a bad spot, since the new pipeline wasn’t going to be complete in a year. DWSD shrugged, saying Flint should have expected it. That’s how the emergency manager, Darnell Earley, ended up overseeing the switch to water from the Flint River. Flint residents and leaders blame Earley for the decision; Earley insists it was their idea. (Flint reconnected to Detroit water late last year, but there’s lasting damage to the pipes.)

In any case, the final authority for the decision rested with Earley, the manager. That makes it jarring to see Muchmore write, in the same email quoted above, that the state departments of Environmental Quality and Community Health complained that the water issue had become “a political football”:

For one thing, it had become clear by the time of writing, in September 2015, that Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead. The residents weren’t just angry because they saw a partisan gain—they were angry about brown and apparently tainted water coming out of their faucets. Meanwhile, their political representation had been directly curtailed by the appointment of the emergency manager who oversaw the switch. Officials in Lansing withdrew Flint’s power to govern itself, but when Flint begged Lansing for help, it was told that the problem was Flint’s alone.

There are other cases of the state government getting closely involved with city governance elsewhere in the emails. In one case, officials discussed changing state law to try to outmaneuver a candidate for mayor, after a clerk’s error locked the incumbent out of the ballot:

The emails contain other unflattering moments for Snyder’s office. As early as February 2015, a pastor wrote to the governor that residents were “on the verge of civil unrest.” Even then, Snyder’s aides was impassive. Early on, Flint’s water was treated with high levels of chlorine to combat a bad smell. But that produced high concentration of TTHMs, a type of carcinogen. “It’s not ‘nothing,’” a memo noted. “But it’s not like it’s an eminent [sic] threat to public health.” Even so, the memo conceded communication had been bad.

When the scandal eventually broke out to a wider audience, it was in part due to that pesky political activism. With elected and local leaders continuing to make noise about the dangers of Flint’s water, they were finally able to get state and federal declarations of emergency, bringing with the supplies of water carried by the national guard, as well as the nation’s attention.

Yet it took more than a year and a half from the switch to Flint River water until the present day for that to work. One result of the ensuing controversy may be that Flint finally gets back some level of self-governance. In April 2015, the last emergency manager turned over many powers to the city manager. Now, with the crisis in full swing, Snyder has called for the state to transfer control back to the elected mayor, Karen Weaver. The lead-laden water has been a heavy price for Flint to pay to get back control.