Who is to blame for Flint’s water crisis?

The situation in Flint, Michigan — the beaten-down industrial city where poor residents were essentially force-fed toxic drinking water for nearly two years — keeps getting worse and worse. In addition to elevated lead levels in a growing number of Flint’s children — a situation that can lead to permanent brain damage — there are concerns that dozens of cases of Legionnaire’s disease, including 10 fatalities, may be tied to the increasing levels of lead and other toxins in the local tap water.

In a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate on Sunday night, candidate Hillary Clinton slammed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for his haphazard response to the crisis while her rival Bernie Sanders went one further and called upon Snyder to resign. Meanwhile, celebrities like Cher and do-gooders like the Muslim communities elsewhere in Michigan have stepped up and donated tens of thousands of cases of bottled water to Flint’s beleaguered citizens. But the big questions remain unanswered. How could this have happened? And why did such a dangerous situation go on for so long without officials taking more forceful action?

On the first count, it seems like petty bickering between Flint and the state managers who had been running the also-troubled and poverty-battered city of Detroit — which had been the source of Flint’s tap water for years — and a desire to save a few paltry (given what we know now) million dollars led to some incredibly bad decision making. Officials who decided to switch to the nearby Flint River as the city’s water source in early 2014 should have known from the beginning that the river was too polluted and would also prove corrosive to Flint’s aging water pipes.

Not surprisingly, Flint residents noticed the brackish, foul-smelling, poor tasting and often discolored water flowing into their homes almost immediately. It is here where the slowness and even lackadaisical approach by public officials — but especially Snyder’s top aides — becomes appalling:

What’s now known is that state environmental officials improperly applied federal regulations to ensure water is treated properly. The governor-appointed task force said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) department bears “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint”.

That task force found that water from the corrosive Flint river leached lead off household pipes and flowed into the system because Flint hadn’t been required by the state environmental body to use corrosion control to treat the water. The report also found that the tone and substance of the state environmental division’s public statements were “completely unacceptable”, the report said.

“It’s unconscionable what happened here,” Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who helped lead a team that tested water samples of nearly 300 homes in the city, told the Guardian last fall of the state’s decision to not require Flint to use corrosion control to treat the river.

And yet emails obtained by the Guardian and other news sources showed that at least some state officials seemed to understand the gravity of the crisis in Flint months before any action was taken:

In early July, in response to the release of an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo raising concerns about Flint’s water source, state officials downplayed concerns.

“Let me start here – anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” spokesman Brad Wurfel said at the time.

Later that month, Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote an email saying Flint residents aren’t “getting the benefit of the doubt” over water issues.

“Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from (MDEQ) samples,” Muchmore said in the email obtained by Edwards. “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

In fairness, the actions by state officials — while unconscionable in hindsight — aren’t the only ones that deserve further scrutiny. There are also serious and legitimate questions about why the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which was sharing data about the water contamination issues in Flint, didn’t speak up or step up sooner and declare some sort of emergency. The first impression is that various agencies passed the buck to someone else, and no one stepped forward to accept responsibility for what quickly became a lethal crisis.

The officials such as Sanders who have called for Gov. Snyder to resign are right on the money — but the push for accountability shouldn’t stop there. There should be a full-blown criminal investigation into what top officials knew, and when they knew it. People have died, and other people have seen their lives turned upside down. It’s important that we make sure this type of situation never occurs again — but that starts with calling the situation in Flint what it really is: A crime.

Read more about how the Flint water crisis developed from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/16/flints-water-crisis-what-went-wrong

Learn more about my fights against polluters in low-income neighborhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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