Remember last September, when your EBMUD water tasted a little hinky? Outrageous, right? Well then, you have one more reason to be glad that you don’t live in Flint, MI.
Like many folks, I’ve been horrified by the slow-motion catastrophe that is that city's actual water crisis. There seems to be enough angst for everybody in that clustered debacle, which turned a rust-belt town into a Third World hovel (“don’t drink the water!”). But what conclusions might we take from it?
In case you’ve been out looking for that new ninth planet, here’s a recap. Flint is a gritty, impoverished auto town (Vehicle City, it proclaims itself – it was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers) of about 100,000 souls, north of Detroit. That is about half its peak population. Michigan has a tradition of unstable local governments, dating from Hamtramck’s travails in the late 1980s and including Detroit’s bankruptcy. Flint, too, has been in dire financial straits, and was governed by a succession of Emergency Managers appointed by the Governor under state law, from 2011-early 2015.
For the seventy years before 2014, Flint’s water was sourced in relatively pristine Lake Huron, then treated, and provided under contract with Detroit’s Water Department. In a cost-saving measure ordered by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, Flint’s water supply was diverted to the Flint River, an industrial slough the best thing about which that can be said with confidence is that it has never caught fire.*
It did, however, come with its own salad of “organics,” by which is meant fecal coliform (yes, That fecal) and other bacteria in abundance, and including the dangerous E Coli. The solution to that technicality was chlorination to such an extent that the local GM plant stopped using the treated water because it was corroding engine parts. The chlorination also created a carcinogenic by-product (TTHM for scorekeepers), and degraded the internal pipe coatings that previously kept lead from leaching into many residents’ drinking, cooking and bathing waters. They complained early, bitterly and often, about the new stinky, nasty, discolored tap water. Nobody listened.
A carefully comprehensive sampling from residential taps demonstrated high levels of lead contamination (EPA ‘level of concern’ is 5 PPB, Detroit and surrounding areas were less than half that, Flint was 27 PPB with a highest sample of 158 PPB) and blood tests showed corresponding lead levels in children above the CDC threshold for health danger, exactly where it would be expected. The City falsely accused the researcher of cherry-picking samples, then did their own consciously biased testing to minimize the problem, and kept pumping out toxins into the populace.
Only recently has the water supply been switched back to Detroit -- but the health effects will endure, the affected pipes may be ruined, and the City has no idea from its sketchy records which pipes are most at-risk. A blizzard of resignations has begun.
A variety of conclusions may be drawn from this record of abject failure, and as usual, where you come out has a Lot to do with where you come into the analysis on the Lefty-Righty continuum.
1 – All governments are corrupt and incompetent. After all, at least three levels of government – local, state and federal – each failed to prevent or timely address this catastrophe. This dystrumpian conclusion is pretty obviously overstated – Flint is news precisely because it is an extreme outlier. If you truly believe this charge, I hope you are boiling your own tap water, wherever you live.
2 – Okay then, all bureaucracies are corrupt and incompetent. This charge would be slightly closer to the mark, as there is evidence that various environmental officials dithered for months over trivially divergent interpretations of relevant regs, rather than somebody-ANYbody taking actions that could have been as cheap as a few hundred bucks for phosphates to neutralize the acidic brew they were passing-off as H2O. Ridiculous, but also still an admittedly terrible outlier when you consider all the water, delivered everywhere else.
3 – And this is part-and-parcel of the political dysfunction that infects our entire system, to the detriment of its citizens. There’s some truth to that, too, at several levels. First, Flint is a heavily Democrat city in a state with a Republican Administration. There is evidence that the Governor and his senior advisers were slow on the uptake here, characterizing the citizen complaints as coming from the ‘Against Everything Brigade.’ Query whether they’d have turned such a deaf ear to the affluent denizens of Grosse Pointe?
It’s also true that there was no love lost ‘twixt the enviro feds and the staties who were arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a corroded pin. Partisan rancor contributed distraction and lousy prioritization that delayed response times and responsible solutions.
4 – Howsabout racism that transcends the economic and political contrasts? Do black lives, health and brain function matter less? This conclusion will be particularly controversial in some quarters, and it is always difficult to fraction-out this element from others, but yes – I think it was in-play. In addition to my general assumptions about the world, I also base that position on the conclusion of a Pro Publica interview with the Flint-based reporter who has covered this tragedy since its inception.
There is also something to be said about the right-wing trope machine pumping out disinformation that blames the impotent City Council, complete with a photo that demonstrates their majority ‘otherness.’ The beat goes on.
5 – Anything else? Well yeah, I think the most important conclusion here goes to the role of government. We may argue about new programs, and nice-to-haves, and high-speed rail, but part of government’s fundamental job is to provide what the econ mavens call “public goods.” At the state and local level, these are services precisely like sewer and water, police and fire protection, street lights, etc.
Those baseline services are nearly sacrosanct; while nothing is immune from the economics of its provision, these ‘got-to-haves’ need to be respected, and changes addressed with evident caution against the possibility of error.
That wasn’t done here, and I suspect that the failure relates importantly to a flawed conception of government as The Problem. If your goal is to starve the beast at every opportunity, you won’t make the distinction between the fundamental and the optional, the needs from the wants, the vital organs of the body politic from the fat. It wasn’t done in Flint, and the consequences are both tragic in the present – and hugely, unnecessarily expensive for the future.
So, next time you and your kids drink, or cook, or bathe in our tasty, healthy local waters, recognize that they are so because providers and policymakers remembered their duty to the rest of us.
* "Now the Lord can make you tumble
Lord can make you turn
The Lord can make you overflow --
But the Lord can’t make you burn,
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on."
(-- Randy Newman)