The scale of government neglect in the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, could place the city alongside some of the most infamous environmental disasters in U.S. history, from New York’s Love Canal to the Hinkley, California, saga of Erin Brockovich fame.
Local, state and federal officials – including the top Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Midwest and Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder – are accused of ignoring, denying or covering up problems that left thousands of children exposed to toxic lead in their drinking water for about 18 months.
“Nobody was owning the problem, not the [state Department of Environmental Quality], not the EPA, not the governor’s office,” said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which revealed that damning passages had been removed from a government specialist’s report on Flint’s water contamination.
The debacle ranks among the worst on numbers alone, said Paul Mohai, who studies environmental-justice issues at the University of Michigan. With a community of 100,000 people, largely poor and minority, unable to drink from their taps, Flint is “one of the biggest environmental justice disasters I know” – and perhaps unprecedented, Mohai said Friday.
Months after activists first called for the EPA’s intervention, the agency used its emergency powers Thursday to demand action by the state and city. Its regional leader, Susan Hedman, resigned – as the state’s water quality director had done just weeks before. The National Guard is handing out bottled water, and water filters have been distributed.
State and federal investigations are underway, and there have been calls for Snyder to resign. He has apologized twice, most recently at his State of the State address Tuesday, when he told Flint residents that “government failed you at the federal, state and local level.” President Obama has weighed in, too, sharply criticizing the pace of Michigan’s response.
But none of that will quickly repair the deep, pervasive damage to the public’s trust in government, say experts and others involved in the crisis.
“People have realized they’ve been lied to, and EPA knew about this, and the state knew about this,” said Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, a national authority on municipal water quality whose tests exposed the extent of Flint’s lead contamination. “What you really have as it spun out of control is a total loss of trust in government, which failed [residents] miserably. They don’t believe a word that anyone tells them.”
For decades, the once-thriving industrial city bought its water from Detroit. It was piped from Lake Huron, with anti-corrosion chemicals added along the way. But in early 2014, with the city under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder, officials switched to Flint River water in a bid to save money.
The state, however, did not ensure that corrosion-control additives were part of the new water supply. And that allowed rust, iron and, most dangerous, lead from aging pipes to flow into residents’ homes.
State water quality officials first insisted they had taken proper safety steps, then privately acknowledged to federal officials they hadn’t, then publicly explained that they had misunderstood the required protocol for protecting the public’s health.
“It started innocently when someone forgot to follow the law,” said Edwards, who seven years ago played a crucial role in the discovery of lead in Washington’s water supply and the testing controversy that followed. “No one gets up in the morning thinking they’re going to poison some kids and destroy a city.”
Adding the chemicals isn’t expensive and usually saves water providers money by prolonging the life of underground pipes, he said. Besides, filing an anti-corrosion plan is required by law. Edwards estimates that the city and state may spend $100 million to repair just the water infrastructure, plus more to replace lead-pipe connections to individual homes.
People began complaining almost immediately after the switch to the Flint River. Their tap water was discolored and foul-smelling, they said, and skin rashes appeared after bathing in it. Although state officials responded that the water was safe, emails released last week by the governor’s office show how those complaints were minimized. Among others in state government, one top Snyder aide said that some in Flint were trying to turn the issue “into a political football” and shift blame to Lansing.
Residents “were forgotten and neglected by every agency in the country that was supposed to protect them,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician whose research demonstrated dangerously high lead levels in children’s blood.
On June 24, EPA scientist Miguel del Toral internally circulated a report about his concerns over high lead levels in a Flint resident’s home. He noted that the state had no corrosion-control effort in place and contended that its environmental quality department had conducted lead tests in a way that would minimize the findings: Residents were instructed to flush their taps for five minutes before samples were taken.
Del Toral’s report wasn’t released until November – with many of his concerns removed. The agency chose instead to quietly try to persuade the state to take action. Hedman, the EPA’s regional leader, later conceded that the agency had been aware of the corrosion problem in the spring, but said her hands were tied by interagency rules, according to the Detroit News.
She “buried the memo and gagged the analysis while kids were being poisoned,” Edwards has charged.
EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison told The Washington Post in an email prior to Hedman’s resignation that del Toral’s memo was not publicly released “because it contained confidential personal and enforcement-sensitive information – but it was immediately circulated to the entire EPA Region 5 team that was working to require Flint to implement corrosion control.”
But others were going public with equally incriminating data. In August, Hanna-Attisha looked back at the lead tests of 1,750 children taken at a local hospital. She and colleagues released the results at a news conference in September.
“We found that when we compared lead levels before and after the [water] switch, the percentage of kids with lead poisoning doubled after the switch,” she said last week. “In some neighborhoods, it tripled. And it all correlated with where water lead levels were the highest.”
There was again a backlash. State officials questioned the findings and accused Hanna-Attisha of causing unnecessary hysteria. The state has since agreed that her data were accurate. Lead can irreversibly damage brain development in children.
The episode, Hanna-Attisha said, has caused a “community-wide trauma” in a city ravaged by crime, poverty and widespread unemployment. Flint lacks a single grocery store.
“Our families are already riddled with every possible stress,” she said. “Every obstacle to a kid’s success, we already had. . . . And then they gave a population lead poisoning.”
The aftermath of such disasters is uneven. With those at Love Canal and in the California desert town of Hinkley – both involving small communities where groundwater was contaminated by industrial waste over a period of years – multimillion-dollar legal settlements were reached.
Yet Edwards noted that nobody has won a lawsuit against the District over its past lead-tainted water. Almost a decade later, five cases are pending. The children who were affected are nearly old enough to graduate from high school.
In Flint, which is again using Detroit’s water, what’s left is the fallout. Which additional heads will roll? Who will pay for the damage, most immediately to the municipal infrastructure and over the long term to children’s health? Will Michigan’s emergency manager system – used mostly to take over poor, black cities and school districts – continue in the state?
And will Flint residents ever trust their government again? That may take a very long time.
The ACLU’s Moss blames the crisis on miscommunication, dysfunction and worse: “It was a combination of indifference . . . of absolute power and the arrogance that comes with that.”