Who’s Accountable for the Flint Water Crisis
The city of Flint Michigan, current population less than 100,000 people, has been referred to as “Vehicle City”. Many Flint residents reminisce of a time when 200,000 people made Flint their home, and General Motors was a major employer that paid employees very well. Most of those jobs are gone now, many neighborhoods that were once comfortable and welcoming, are now ran down and plagued with abandoned homes.
In April of 2014 Darnell Earley, Flint’s Emergency Manager at that time, had made the decision to change the municipal water source from DWSD to the Flint River. Soon as that summer, residents complained about the poor quality of water to city leaders, many people also said it was affecting their health. In September E. coli and coliform bacteria were discovered in the water and citizens were instructed to boil the water before drinking. General Motors stopped using the water in October because it was corroding car parts.
To eliminate the E. coli and coliform bacteria in the water, the city engineers added large amounts of chlorine to the water, which resulted in raising trihalomethanes levels in the water to dangerous levels. Trihalomethanes can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. The city of Flint issued an advisory, January 2, 2015, warning that there were high levels of trihalomethanes in the water and that sick or elderly people may be at risk, …but otherwise the water is safe.
On January 12, 2015 DWSD offered to reconnect Flint to its water system at no cost; but Darnell Earley made the decision to continue using Flint River water. Later Mr. Earley would claim that his decision to use Flint River water was based on a 2013 city council meeting at which there was a vote to use Flint River Water. There was never a council vote to use Flint River water. Governor Rick Snyder replaced Mr. Earley on January 13, 2015. Gerald Ambrose was appointed the new Emergency Manager.
A document prepared for the Michigan, Department of Treasury by the firm of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc. and titled “CITY OF FLINT WATER SUPPLY ASSESSMENT” dated February 2013 states that the Flint River was not being considered as the water source at that that time. In a November 24, 2012 meeting attended by Ed Kurtz, the Emergency Manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at that time, and other city executives. Several items stand out as noteworthy. Discussion Item No. 9 asks: Is there a transition plan and cost during construction of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) system identified? Response: Flint is looking for an agreement with DWSD for back-up supply from the 72-inch main at the Genesee border. There is no mention of the Flint River. Discussion Item No. 11 asks: The latest plan shows only a 5 million gallon ground reservoir is planned for balancing between Lake Huron Pump Station (LHPS) and Intermediate Pump Station (IPS). How is redundancy maintained? Response: In cases of emergency, Flint indicated that the back-up for the KWA system will be the same as it is now with DWSD; they will use the Flint River as the source water. Flint currently operates their Water Treatment Plant (WTP) plant four times a year. Clearly, any use of water from the Flint River was to be temporary. The Flint River would serve as a backup supply only.
Governor Rick Snyder, on February 3, 2015, awarded Flint $2 million in grants. One grant, in the amount of $900,000, was for the city to hire a contractor to perform a leak detection survey of the city water lines. The project also covers the expense of conducting a water pipe line wall thickness assessment on a portion of the city’s pipes. Another $1.1 million grant was to be used to shut down its current Water Pollution Control Facility incinerator and replace it with new facilities which will allow for the disposal of waste in landfills. However; neither of these projects addressed residents’ concerns about water quality. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling commented on the grants, ” … two projects that mean long term cost savings for the City of Flint.”.
In late February and early March the city tested water in various homes and in some cases found lead levels at almost 400 ppb, the threshold for EPA enforcement action is only 15 ppb. The MDEQ blamed the high lead level on the individual homes plumbing.
On March 23, 2015 a resolution submitted by Flint City Councilman Eric Mays, to change the water source back to DWSD, was voted on and passed 7-1. The only no vote coming from Council President Josh Freeman. Neither Gerald Ambrose nor Dayna Walling were present during the vote. Eric Mays, at that time, said “People in the community asked me to make this motion. Residents have suffered too long.” Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose said, the next day, that switching back to Detroit Water was, “incomprehensible” and that the Flint River water was safe by all standards.
In February Lead levels of 104 parts per billion were found in the tap water of LeeAnne Walters, a Flint mother of four who demanded the city test her water for contaminants after her kids showed troubling symptoms. Mrs.Walters contacted the EPA. She informed Miguel Del Toral, a manager at the EPA’s Midwest water division, that Flint was not treating its water with standard corrosion controls, which is critical in old water systems, in order to prevent old pipes from leaching lead and copper. In late March of 2015 Blood test results showed that all four of Mrs. Walters’ children had been exposed to lead, and that Gavin, four years old, was suffering from lead poisoning.
Flint’s 5Th Ward Council Vice President Wantwaz Davis, on April 6, 2015, told the Flint Journal, “I feel the emergency manager and governor should be held more accountable… I do believe maybe five, maybe 10 years from now, some people are going to contract a disease… they cannot ever get rid of.” The Councilman has always opposed the decision to switch to the Flint River as the water source. A decision which was made by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley before Mr. Davis was elected. Mr. Davis sent a letter to then Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the federal Government intervene. The response he received, after several months, told him to contact the state police.
A professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead corrosion, Marc Edwards, conducted tests on LeeAnne Walters home and found lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb, more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. Mr. Edwards has said, “There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened.” He also has pointed out that for $100 a day the water could have been treated with phosphate, which would have eliminated the corrosion problem.
Dennis Muchmore, then chief of staff for Gov. Rick Snyder, wrote in an email to a Department of Health and Human Services staffer: “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint…These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.” This email was sent in July of 2015; obviously Governor Rick Snyder was aware of the problem, at least as early as July.
Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, in September, released her research which said that there were Twice as many children under five years old with elevated blood lead levels, and in some cases three times as many, since the change to Flint River water. Dennis Muchmore, chief of Staff for Gov. Rick Snyder, sent an email to his boss, which, indicated his biggest concern was politics: “The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and [Department of Community Health] feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football.” In early October, just before the change back to DWSD, Gov. Snyder’s office released a statement that said: “The water leaving Flint’s drinking water system is safe to drink, but some families with lead plumbing in their homes or service connections could experience higher levels of lead in the water that comes out of their faucets.” The City switched back to DWSD about a week later.
MDEQ director Dan Wyant stated on October 19, 2015: “It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint,” “Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not.”
In December of 2015, a task force, created by Gov. Rick Snyder, issued a report that was very critical of the way responsible authorities had responded to the Flint water crisis. MDEQ director Dan Wyant and spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned.
January 2016 has been very busy. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for the entire Genesee County and the city of Flint. Gina Balaya, spokesman for U.S. Attorney office Eastern District of Michigan, announced an investigation into the handling of the crises. Rick Snyder on January 12 deployed the Michigan National Guard to distribute bottled water and water filters. Ten people died of Legionnaire’s disease, possibly due to the toxicity of the water.
In mid January 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency for Flint, allocating $5 million in federal relief, later he announced that his administration would give $80 million in aid to the State of Michigan. Susan Hedman, head of EPA Region 5, resigned her position.
The crisis and fight are not over. One activist who heads up a relief organization said its like riding a train and not knowing what your destination is until you get there.
Copyright ©Doyle Edwin 2016