Flint may have finally reconnected to Detroit’s water infrastructure, but the damage done to its population by the ill-advised connection to the Flint River is irreversible. If Michiganders are looking for someone to blame for the travesty in Flint, they need look no further than Governor Rick Snyder and the emergency manager Snyder appointed who unilaterally made a decision that put thousands of children and adults at serious risk.
Emergency Management Enforces Inequality
In 2011, one of the first actions of the Snyder administration and the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature was to pass Public Act 4 (PA 4), which strengthened the state’s controversial emergency manager (EM) law. To clarify, the EM law effectively erases the sovereignty of local governments by installing a state-appointed autocrat whose decisions can override city councils and mayors.
But PA 4 went a step further by allowing EMs to dissolve hard-won collective bargaining agreements between public sector unions and the state, cut pensions, and unilaterally decide to privatize public assets. PA 4 was so unpopular that the state’s unions successfully banded together, organized a ballot referendum to abolish the law, and got rid of it by a 52 to 48 margin. Just a month later, Snyder signed an entirely new EM bill into law, thumbing his nose at democracy.
While Snyder maintains the EM laws are necessary to save financially-insolvent municipalities from themselves, it’s worth noting that Snyder only enforces the laws in Democratic-voting, predominantly-black communities, even though some white, Republican-leaning cities and towns are in equally dire financial straits. The 2010 Census data shows that just 14.2 percent of Michigan’s residents are black – yet 80 percent of Michigan’s black residents have lived under an EM while Snyder has been governor.
For example, in Handy and Livingston counties, Cindy Denby and Bill Rogers – two Republican state representatives hailing from those districts, respectively – took on millions in debt to build expensive housing developments. After realizing these bad financial decisions put their lily-white districts at risk of being taken over by an EM, Denby and Rogers co-sponsored a bill that would allow a bailout of their towns with state tax dollars should insolvency be declared. Effectively, this means that the EM law creates two governments – sovereign ones for white, Republican-voting towns, and banana republics for majority-black communities, with a state-appointed dictator to make financial decisions on their behalf. Flint falls into the latter category. And that’s ultimately what led to the water crisis that poisoned Flint’s population.
“Irreversible” Damage from Lead in Water
In 2014, Flint’s EM, Darnell Earley, singlehandedly made the decision to switch Flint’s water source from treated Lake Huron water to the Flint River. As the New York Times reported, residents had long been using the Flint River as a dumping ground for “car parts, grocery carts, and refrigerators.” And not surprisingly, lab results of Flint River water samples showed an elevated blood lead level in the city’s children.
In a recent podcast interview, Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, an adjunct science professor at Virginia Tech, said that lead was one of the most heavily-studied chemicals in terms of its effect on the human body, and that Flint residents have a right to be concerned about the elevated levels of lead in their water.
“Most buildings today in the United States have lead-bearing plumbing components that can cause risk to human health,” Limbrinidou said. “Even low-level lead exposure can cause irreversible health harm.”
Limbrinidou cited studies that showed lead can cause developmental problems in children and fetuses. Lead has been known to cause miscarriages and stillbirths for pregnant women, and even adults who ingest lead may suffer from reproductive damage, hypertension, kidney problems and other health issues. The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), a federal regulation issued in 1991, was put in place to reduce the harm of lead poisoning inside the home. The LCR states that no amount of lead in water is safe for human consumption.
According to Limbrinidou, many people still erroneously believe that the only risk of lead exposure in the household is from lead paint and dust. “Lead in tap water is far more common than people think,” Limbrinidou said.
Homes built before 1986 have lead-bearing components, but even homes built from 1987 to 2014 can have lead-bearing brass in their plumbing infrastructure (lead-bearing brass was finally banned last year). Given the already-pronounced danger of lead exposure for Flint residents living in older homes, the damage caused by residents ingesting Flint River water over the last 18 months could be astronomical.
The Unnecessarily High Cost of Switching Water Sources
Flint’s EM switched the city’s water source to the Flint River in order to save an estimated $5 million over two years. But after the public health fiasco that unfolded in Flint, the state will end up paying at least $10.6 million when all is said and done. ACLU of Michigan executive director Kary Moss claimed the crisis in Flint may have been averted were it not for the “short-sighted” decision of then-EM Darnell Earley to make the switch – and if that decision hadn’t been defended by his successor, Jerry Ambrose.
Flint was under EM rule from 2011 to April 2015, so the switching over of water systems for financial reasons rests squarely on those two men's shoulders. But because the EMs were put in place by Gov. Snyder, and were given orders to prioritize cheapskate solutions that would cost the city less money no matter the health consequences, Snyder must also share some of the blame for what happened in Flint.
Flint mayoral candidate Karen Weaver has asked state and federal officials to begin a formal investigation into why Flint’s EM and local government was allowed to greenlight pumping water into Flint homes without undergoing rigorous tests for dangerous toxins. Current Mayor Dayne Walling, who initially supported the switch, has come under fire for handling the water crisis in a “casual, callous, and irresponsible” manner.
As Weaver points out, Flint's local elected officials are partially to blame. But the entire crisis may have been averted if the democratic process had been respected. Imagine if, instead of a state-appointed czar becoming the sole decider about a city's water supply, Flint's residents had been able to vote on whether or not to switch to a new water source. The outcome may have been very different, and thousands of children and adults could have been saved from lead exposure. Flint's crisis should serve as a warning to other cities and states – if an entire population is impacted by a decision, then they should be the ones who decide.