Commentary: Who’s To Blame for Flint? (March, 2016)

John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Last month Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton made an urgent pilgrimage to Flint, Michigan to assure voters that as President, she would never stand by, as she said Gov. Rick Snyder did, and “allow children in Flint to drink poison water just to save a buck, as if their lives weren’t worth even that much.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, from afar, was quick to demand that Gov. Snyder resign.

This is a noteworthy example of candidates politicizing a tragic event for their own advantage. There are innocent victims – especially black children. There are public officials who were responsible for the lead in the water supply to possibly blight those children’s lives. And most conveniently, the governor of Michigan happens to be a white male Republican, who Clinton suggested would have sprung into action far earlier had the problem arisen in white, upper income Bloomfield Hills.

It’s worthwhile to go beyond the political grandstanding for a moment and look closely at what caused the contaminated drinking water tragedy in Flint.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

Flint, long known as the “Buick City”, now has a population of 99,000, 42% of it black. It took a serious economic beating when General Motors downsized its production. Its shrunken tax base couldn’t support its generous public sector union benefits. One result is its $1.1 billion in unfunded financial liabilities. Another is having a state-assigned emergency manager to try to get the downward-spiraling city back on its economic feet.

Decades ago Flint’s government thought seriously about drawing its municipal water from Lake Huron 67 miles away. Ultimately it agreed to buy water delivered by pipeline from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). That contract expired in 2014. Although DWSD offered Flint a new 30-year contract, the city council decided that the city would be better served by joining a new public water authority called KWA, which would build the pipeline to Lake Huron.

A big plus for Flint, so it seemed, was that the company that won the bid to lay the pipe would locate in industry-poor Flint and create lots of new unionized jobs. Who cared if the (probably low-balled) long term cost of the KWA pipeline would be 20% higher than the DWSD cost? Jobs now!

Unfortunately for Flint, KWA couldn’t build and deliver water until late 2016. How about a $10 million two-year extension with DWSD? Flint didn’t like DWSD’s terms, and it had an alternative: reopen the old Flint River water system for two years.

But the Flint River water had high bacteria problems, which required heavy chlorine disinfection. This produced high levels of trihalomethanes that caused corrosion in the lead service lines and plumbing in the older part of the city. The $50,000 a year solution was to add phosphorous to protect the pipes, but somehow Flint didn’t think to do that. So the corrosive water flowed into around two percent of Flint’s homes, sopping up lead on the way.

This problem was not caused by a Governor.  After the city council voted 7-1 to join the KWA system, the state-appointed emergency manager – needing an interim source of water – set about to revive the old system for two years. The council members apparently knew little about water treatment and didn’t object to resurrecting the old system. They were drawn onward by the opportunity to rebuff DWSD, and to take credit for all those new construction jobs.

The governor had no part of the decision to switch Flint’s water supply.  His vulnerability arose when the state Department of Environmental Quality seemingly overlooked Flint’s water quality problem, and the Department of Health and Human Services dismissed Flint’s lead levels concerns as a “seasonal anomaly”. This sluggish behavior left the governor to face partisan cries of “racism” and “poisoning poor people”.

Another contributor was Obama’s EPA, which dragged its bureaucratic feet apparently out of concern about embarrassing the (Democratic) city council. (The Democratic Mayor didn’t help, by assuring citizens that there wasn’t a problem.)

Admittedly the governor took far too long to catch on and act, but the greater part of the blame should fall on the people who made bad or no decisions, and especially the three agencies that were supposed to protect the public’s health.

Shikha Dalmia, a Reason Foundation senior analyst who lives near Flint, has explored every dark corner of this sad story. Her conclusion should be absorbed by people who have the great idea that government can do no wrong. “The Flint water crisis is the result of a Keynesian stimulus project gone wrong….this is not the fault of government austerity – but government incompetence, negligence and rank stupidity on the very part of those agencies that are entrusted with public health.”

- John McClaughry is Vice President of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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