This week, the emergency is officially over following the Flint Water Crisis. One year ago, the city of Flint, Mich., joined the ranks of Sandy Hook, Ferguson and other previously obscure cities that became a metaphor for man-made tragedy. In Flint the trauma came not at the barrel of a gun but through the faucet of a sink, as the infrastructure that was meant to provide life-sustaining water was made toxic through a negligent cost-cutting measure that altered water sources and treatment procedures. Flint entered a Federal State of Emergency to respond to the crisis, and that emergency expired this week.
First, the good news. Reports have showed significant improvements to water quality in a large number of Flint homes. State money amounting to $25 million and additional federal money is under consideration to address the temporary and long-term needs of residents, while charges have been brought against nine past and current state employees for their involvement in the crisis.
However satisfying one's reaction to this might be, the reality is that the water emergency in Flint continues. The ending of the state of emergency and the felony charges have a mollifying effect on the accumulated outrage, but no amount of federal appropriations or scape-goated employees can begin to address the root of the crimes that transgressed human rights in Flint.
Before considering the charges now being brought again Michigan employees, consider the true crimes of the Flint Water Crisis. First, there was the poisoning of the water itself, which involved switching from treated Detroit water to improperly treated water taken out of the industrial and highly polluted Flint River. Second, there was the failure of local and state governments to identify the problem or heed the immediate vocal outcries coming from residents and local businesses for over a year. Third, there was the capitalization of government that started with “emergency management” and ended with single-bottom-line decisions like the water conversion.
The charges brought against these individuals address a small aspect of issue number two: specifically, that government officials destroyed emails with incriminating evidence of lead level tests. Those emails revealed that the information about the low water quality was known and not acted on. According to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, “Each of these individuals attempted to bury … information that contradicted their own narrative… and their narrative was ‘there’s nothing wrong with Flint water.'”
There appears to be convincing evidence of a coordinated effort between Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) employees (those who received the lead reports) and Department of Environmental Quality employees (those who issued the lead reports) to delete emails that contained alarming and actionable data showing high levels of lead in the blood of Flint residents.
What reason could these people have for deleting emails that contained such alarming information? A person is not guilty of neglect unless s/he fails to act, yet these emails contained new and vital information that the recipients could have conceivably acted on and avoided any need for burying information. The destruction of the emails suggests that either the employees already considered that they had previously ignored information, or knew that they would be unable to correct the problem (since that would involve acknowledging the city's failed water system). Righting this kind of wrong would be terribly expensive, and the whole premise of Flint’s new water system was to cut costs. Delete.
As offensive as the willful neglect of these individuals has been, the fact is that the charges against those people refer to events that took place in July 2015, when the water crisis had already been ongoing for more than a year.
Conspicuously absent are charges against the engineers of the water switchover plan – including Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the architect of Flint's subverted democracy, and Gov. Rick Snyder – not to mention the premise that these individuals represent government-as-business and profit-over-people. Those pillars will go unshaken regardless of whether a few middlemen take the heat. A recent report by the Water Advisory Task Force placed the responsibility for the crisis on the state (specifically the DHHS). Note: This task force was appointed by Gov. Snyder.
Michigan can lock up the guys who buried the dirt, but people should not be distracted from the individuals who created the mess in the first place. The cognitive leap here, for the Attorney General’s investigation, is not to necessarily uncover hidden actions but to consider the crimes that took place in broad daylight. The decision of Flint leadership to switch from Detroit to Flint water sources was a financial one, made under the guardianship of emergency management. (“Emergency” in this case refers to a financial emergency, not a human one, which only came later). In this crisis, it is clear that decisions to prioritize money over people were not incidental, but rather inherent in the emergency management process.
Much has been said about the destruction to the physical infrastructure of Flint in recent years. But just as important was the destruction to the political infrastructure that began deteriorating not when the water sources were switched, but when emergency management was declared. The checks and balances between government and constituents were dismantled across cities in Michigan, with a direct hierarchy that led all the way to the governor. While a total of nine former state employees spend time awaiting trial, the architects of democratic deconstruction rest easy. Meanwhile, the rest of Michigan dreams of a world where “emergency management” is only used for human crises, not financial ones – in which case it may be about time find an Emergency Governor.