When Gov. Rick Snyder and a clutch of other officials stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Flint on Thursday to announce that the city would soon be returning to the Detroit system for its drinking water, a few important points were either glossed over or missed completely.
The first and most important is this: This decision to abandon using the Flint River did not come about because of what the Gov. Snyder likes to refer to as his “relentless positive action” approach to governance.
Rather, a monumental mistake was made when a state-appointed emergency manager decided to try and save money by switching to the Flint River. And the state and local officials responsible for that – and for the lead poisoning of children that resulted – did everything they could to avoid admitting the full extent of their failure to protect the public.
In fact, the response for months was to continue to maintain that the water was safe, even in the face of mounting evidence that it wasn’t
What eventually propelled the change, first and foremost, were the relentless efforts by a small group of Flint residents who refused to believe official claims that the smelly, discolored water being pumped into people’s homes was safe.
It was citizens who, earlier this year, contacted noted environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who then connected them with water expert Bob Bowcock. Bowcock came to town early this year and explained why there were clearly problems with the river water and with the city’s chemical treatment of it.
It was citizens who kept pushing until they found a bureaucrat who cared, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water specialist Miguel Del Toral. After investigating on his own, Del Toral did two things:
First, he connected resident LeeAnne Walter with Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards.
And then, after Edwards detected lead at levels more than twice what it takes to be classified as hazardous waste, Del Toral wrote a memo explaining why – based on science -- the river’s corrosivity was the root of the problem, not just for the Walters family, but for the city as a whole.
That memo, obtained and published by the ACLU of Michigan in early July, should have set off alarms at every level of government. Instead, the official reaction was to downplay its significance. The word coming out of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was that the people of Flint should just “relax” when it came to concerns about lead in their water.
Undeterred, the citizens kept pushing. A unique collaboration was formed, with members of the Coalition for Clean Water teaming up with an Edwards-led research team at Virginia Tech and with the ACLU of Michigan to conduct a comprehensive test of the city’s water.
Over a two-week period in August, water from 277 homes was collected for analysis. When the study was concluded and the results released in mid-September, the findings were dire. But, once again, the official response to downplay and discredit.
And when doctors at Flint’s Hurley Children’s Hospital quickly followed up on the Virginia Tech research by studying the blood samples of children, finding that the number of Flint kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood had doubled since they began drinking river water, the governor’s administration ineptly tried to undermine those results by saying the Hurley data didn’t comport with numbers collected by the state.
That claim was quickly proved false.
Since then the situation has quickly evolved. When Genesee County declared the situation to be a public health emergency, the crisis could no longer be ignored. But even then, city and state officials were only supporting half-measures, such as stepped-up blood testing and distribution of water filters.
It was not until Oct. 8, following a recommendation from experts sitting on the city’s Water Advisory Committee, that Snyder deemed a switch back to the Detroit system to be necessary.
So any claims by the governor and his administration, or by Flint city officials, that they were diligent in their oversight and responsibly proactive is nothing more than a desperate public-relations spin job.
They didn’t want to admit to having made a horrendous mistake, and had to be dragged to the point where they even acknowledged a problem existed. Even after that, it took mounting public and political pressure to finally force them to take all the actions necessary to ensure the public’s health would be protected.
That brings us to the second significant issue raised by Snyder’s announcement that Flint would return to the Detroit system until completion of a new pipeline bringing Lake Huron water to the city sometime next year.
Brushing aside the notion that blame should be affixed, Snyder blandly promised an “after-action report” will be produced to review the process so that any problems that occurred could be corrected going forward. Because that’s really where the “focus” needs to remain, he said, on the future.
In that sense, the governor’s response is pitifully inadequate.
We are talking about irreversible damage done to children as the result of actions taken by public officials responsible for protecting the health and well-being of Flint’s residents.
As the headline for a blistering Detroit Free Press editorial recently declared, the Flint water crisis represents an “obscene failure of government.”
The very people responsible for this failure cannot be trusted in any way to now issue some “after-action report” that actually identifies the culprits who created this disaster, and exposes the full extent of their culpability.
As we’ve asserted previously, an independent outside authority with subpoena powers is the only acceptable response to investigating and holding fully responsible everyone who had a role in scarring for life the children of Flint.