In last week’s press conference announcing that the city of Flint would finally be allowed to return to Detroit’s water system, Gov. Rick Snyder made it a point to note that placing blame for the lead poisoning of children is not something he intends to do.
He wants to address the current problem, learn what can be done better in the future, and move forward.
Call it the “no-blame” game.
The governor’s spokesperson, Sara Wurfel, is playing it as hard as anyone right now.
In an interview with the ACLU of Michigan following the governor's tightly-managed press conference, Wurfel did the best she could to absolve her boss of any responsibility for the disastrous decision to begin using the Flint River as the city’s source of drinking water in April 2014.
Asked about the governor’s role in that decision, Wurfel claimed that there was really no choice to be made, that the city of Detroit kicked Flint off of its system, thus forcing the switch to river water.
We’re not the only one she’s trying to spin. Wurfel made a similar claim in a statement to the Flint Journal this week.
According to the paper, Wurfel asserted that the city was forced to find another source of water after the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated Flint's contract to continue purchasing water under the terms of its expired contract.
Maybe the Snyder administration is operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough is eventually accepted as fact.
But here’s the truth:
Flint did have a choice. It absolutely could have kept using Detroit water until construction of the Karegondi pipeline, which will bring water from Lake Huron to Genesee County, is completed next year.
Instead, in a decision based purely on cost, the Flint emergency manager appointed by Snyder chose to leave the Detroit system early and begin relying on the Flint River in April 2014.
How do we know that?
Because of a letter the ACLU of Michigan obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
On March 7, 2014, then-Emergency Darnell Earley wrote to the DWSD, saying:
“Thank you for the correspondence … which provides Flint with the option of continuing to purchase water from DWSD following the termination of the current contract …”
Thanks, but no thanks.
“… the City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source while the KWA pipeline is being constructed,” wrote Earley. “We expect the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water…”
As it turns out, the city, under the control of an emergency manager appointed by the governor, proved to be entirely incapable of properly treating water from the highly corrosive Flint River.
As a result of that failure, children were poisoned by lead in the water coming out of the taps in their homes and, quite possibly, the fountains in their schools.
Lead that was present because the river water is many times more corrosive than Detroit’s. Lead that was present because Flint officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality inexplicably stopped adding the same types of corrosion inhibitors Detroit routinely puts in its water just so a public-health disaster such as this does not occur.
As calls for a thorough, independent investigation of this debacle increase, the denials of responsibility by the key players are becoming farcical as they stumble over themselves in an attempt to avoid blame.
Particularly absurd are Earley’s claims that he bears no responsibility for the catastrophe that began while he wielded complete control over every aspect of the city’s government. As the Flint Journal’s Ron Fonger reports, Earley recently sent the paper an email claiming:
"The decision to separate from (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) and go with the Karegnondi Water Authority, including the decision to pump Flint River water in the interim, were both a part of a long-term plan that was approved by Flint's mayor, and confirmed by a City Council vote of 7-1 in March of 2013 — a full seven months before I began my term as emergency manager."
Under the state’s far-reaching emergency manager law, Earley clearly had the authority to do whatever he wanted at that point. So his attempts to shield himself from responsibility are beyond bogus.
But it is even worse than that.
As the Flint Journal’s Fonger points out:, “Although the Flint City Council voted in March 2013 in support of moving to the KWA pipeline … there is no record that the council voted to use the Flint River as a short-term drinking water source.”
Being the current emergency manager in charge of Detroit Public Schools and its 47,000 students, it is easy to see why all this might be a particularly touchy subject for Earley – and the governor who appointed him to both positions.
Fingers are being pointed in all directions, and lies are being told in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
In a recent interview with the ACLU of Michigan, Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft initially tried making the same false claim as Wurfel, saying that Flint was forced to leave the Detroit system and begin using the river as its water source.
When confronted with Earley’s letter, he relented, and pointed the finger of blame at the state, saying the decision to switch came from the governor’s office.
Asked to respond to that accusation, Wurfel tried her best to sidestep the issue. She could have put the matter to rest immediately by simply declaring: “That is absolutely untrue.”
But she didn’t say that. Instead, she trotted out the false claim that the city was forced to make the switch. When pressed on that point, and then asked again about the governor’s role in making the tragically bad decision to force the people of Flint to drink from a dangerous river, she again tried to slip out of giving a direct answer.
““You’re saying that the governor’s office was directly involved? I can’t address that at all because that’s not accurate.”
So she is not addressing a direct question because it is not accurate?
Questions are neither accurate nor inaccurate, but answers should be.
There is usually a compelling reason why evasion and obfuscation are the responses to a yes or no question. And the reason is this: The people doing the evading are afraid to tell the truth, and even more afraid to face the consequences that come with it.