The following constitutes Part I of a multi-part Special Report on the current water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Part II was published several days later.
The Flint water crisis begins with the decline of the manufacturing cities of Detroit and Flint; and with the “water war” between those cities over Flint’s water supply. That “war” was escalated by the Republican administration of Governor Rick Snyder, whose entire tenure has been powered by corporate financiers. Snyder’s administration has been a long, sordid tale of privatization of public goods such as education, municipal services, and utilities. Taking advantage of poor cities like Detroit, Plymouth, and Flint, Snyder has appointed “emergency managers” empowered to overrun elected municipal governments across the state (some, like Flint and Detroit, with large Democratic majorities and therefore hostile to the governor), and to transfer public services to private profiteers.
Both Flint and Detroit have suffered from the loss of automotive and other manufacturing jobs to non-union southern states and to low-wage foreign markets. The cities have therefore also lost their principal revenue source: middle-class manufacturing workers. Snyder has pushed these cities and others into selling off their public services to the private sector that has backed his elections (including his re-election in 2014, with less than 21% of the voting-age public supporting Snyder). In both 2014 and 2015, Detroit was plagued by its own water crises, which were financial problems involving tens of millions of dollars of unpaid water bills. Detroit’s response was to cut off water to delinquent accounts. However, with a major portion of delinquent accounts being owned by about 40 major businesses (including major Detroit sports arenas like Joe Louis Ice Arena and the Comerica Park baseball stadium), Detroit left intact its services to the major debt holders and instead targeted the small-debt holders, the poor families of Detroit.
Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) also sought to reduce its deficits by raising the price of water sold to other municipalities, such as Flint, whose water costs almost doubled between 2004 and 2013. The DWSD had been the principal supplier of water to the city of Flint, a smaller city even harder hit by globalization. In November 2011, Snyder began appointing “emergency managers” to run Flint’s financial affairs. The managers often overruled the decisions of the elected city council. Snyder’s managers in Detroit and Flint began working in parallel to privatize city services in both cities, with the DWSD a major target. Too big to be sold outright, Snyder’s corporate appointees worked to parcel out the DWSD into more easily digestible portions. After Flint ceased acquiring water through Detroit, Snyder’s administration and managers broke up the DWSD into a smaller version of itself (keeping its old name), and a new semi-private, autonomous corporate entity, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).
The Republicans’ desire to break-up the DWSD, and the city of Flint’s need to cut their growing costs for water, pushed the two into a search for alternate means of supplying the city’s water needs. A consortium of city and county water officials, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), was created from drain and water authorities in Genessee and Lapeer counties. The KWA proposed to build a pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron to Flint, with construction to be completed around the end of 2016.
With a major source of its revenue threatened, the DWSD and the city of Detroit argued that Flint was initiating its own “water war” against them. They also argued that construction costs and risks would make the new pipeline water more expensive than the costs of Detroit’s water. In several attempts by the two cities to come to terms, and with Snyder’s office running interference, the DWSD apparently offered to cut costs back. Detroit proposed to cut prices by as much as half, which would have made Detroit water cost 20% less than the construction and operation of a new pipeline system; but Snyder’s office killed the deal. Finally, in March 2013, the city council approved the plan for the KWA pipeline. The DWSD retaliated, issuing a cut-off notice to take effect the following April.
With the cut-off to take place at least two years before the completion of Karegnondi pipeline, Snyder’s emergency manager for Flint, Ed Kurtz, pushed the city council into tapping the Flint River, according to reports by both Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Both the WSJ and Michigan blog Bridge MI deny that the city council were given any choice in the process. Both organizations cite sources within Flint’s city council saying that the decision was made solely by the state (the emergency managers and the State Treasurer, Andy Dillon).
The Flint River, once contaminated by factory waste disposals into the 1950s, continues to suffer pollution problems from winter-time run-off of road salts and other ground contaminants. Road salts themselves are heavily corrosive, containing chloride and other corrosive chemicals which have bled into the Flint River, the principal drainage system of the region. In April, 2014, Flint disconnected its municipal water supply from the DWSD. Almost immediately after the shut-off of Detroit water, in the spring of 2014, Flint residents noticed a change in the taste, odor, and color of their municipal water. That summer, Flint doctors recorded unusually high incidences of rashes, hair loss, and other ailments. In the fall, Flint schools began bulk purchases of bottled water. In October the GM plant in Flint ceased using municipal water after corrosion damage was detected in parts exposed to water from the municipal system.
The corrosion at GM was caused by high levels of chloride in the municipal water (having some eight times that found in Detroit water). While most municipalities add safe corrosion inhibitors, Flint water was not treated. The chloride corroded the old lead pipes of the city’s water system, leaching lead into the water coming out of the pipes. The lead quickly reached extremely hazardous levels. While federal law considers 15 parts per billion (15 ppb) as a minimum “action level,” requiring responsive action, EPA tests of Flint residential water reached levels as high as 13,200 ppb, almost 900 times the minimum action level.
Further problems in the river water were detected by researchers called in to investigate increasing medical concerns. The water had untreated biological issues, with both E. coli and Legionnaires’ virus detected shortly after the water switch. While the city quickly recommended the boiling of water to combat E. coli, the Snyder administration still refuses to accept a connection between two independent medical reports of Legionnaires in the water, and some 87 recorded cases of Legionnaires in Flint after the water switch. So far, ten of the Flint Legionnaires patients have died from their ailments.
While the EPA essentially kept quiet on the issue, instead pressuring the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other state authorities to take action, the MDEQ refused to accept the validity of the increasing evidence of large-scale problems in the water supply. Both city and state governments largely treated the greatest problem cases as isolated local incidents not demonstrating a greater problem. Meanwhile, medical institutions in the Flint area recorded the average level of lead in the blood of local children as doubling since 2013, and in some areas tripling. In January, 2015, Genesee county declared a public health emergency, and urged Flint residents not to drink the water.
Almost a year later, in December, 2015, a Snyder-appointed task force to look into the problem finally criticized the MDEQ for failing to “properly interpret” federal guidelines on water lead levels, and for failing to require corrosion-control treatment for Flint river water. Following this criticism, MDEQ director Dan Wyant resigned from his post. His successor, Kevin Creagh admits to his agency’s “tone-deafness” to the problems.
With ten residents dead, numerous children showing cognitive and physical impairments indicative of excessive lead poisoning, and various rashes and infections plaguing many more residents, public activists attempted to reach the voters and motivate public officials of the state to take responsibility for their actions and fix the problems they caused. Protesters from across the state marched in Flint on January 8; and then again in front of the governor’s condominium in downtown Ann Arbor on January 18. The next day, hundreds more protesters poured into Lansing, marching to the steps of the capital building as Snyder delivered his annual “State of the State” address inside. The United Auto Workers union (UAW) was there in force, representing the aggrieved auto workers whose loss of jobs and income has served as an economic trigger for these events. Protesters from Flint and other Michigan towns called for justice; for the resignation, impeachment, or even arrest of the governor; as well as for a substantive solution to the Flint water crisis.
In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder finally apologized for the crisis, saying, “I’m sorry and I will fix it… You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.” Two weeks before, the governor had declared a state of emergency in Flint and in Genesee County. On January 12, he also mobilized small units of the Michigan Army National Guard, to provide water supplies and security. On January 16, in response to the governor’s request for federal support, President Obama declared Flint to be a federal emergency area. Although the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requires that federal “states of emergencies” be for natural catastrophes, FEMA has funding for lesser “emergency areas” such as the Flint crisis. The federal government allotted an initial relief package of $5 million, with FEMA coordinating relief with multiple agencies. In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder requested $28 million from Michigan’s state budget for emergency relief.
A full year after Genesee County declared an emergency and told residents not to drink the water, the governor’s office finally noticed and also declared an emergency. That was almost a full year of tens of thousands of poor families knowing that their water was poisoning them and their children, but lacking the resources to buy enough bottled water for their daily household needs. Only after a year of repeated complaints by dozens of residents at city council meetings and with bottles of poisoned, discolored, and foul-smelling water from their homes, did the governor finally declare an emergency.
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