Too late to apologize for poisoning Flint’s water supply

After several months of denials and finger-pointing, Republican Governor Rick Snyder finally apologized Dec. 29, 2015 to Flint, Michigan, residents for poisonous levels of lead in their water supply. Still, he refused to accept responsibility and blamed the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) despite clear evidence of collusion between his office and the MDEQ in attempting to cover up the problem since at least last spring.

To be sure, blatant disregard for human life in a majority African American city, by the Snyder administration, by his hand-picked “emergency manager,” and by “smirking” public health officials, is at the center of this story.

On January 5, 2016, Gov. Snyder finally declared a state of emergency on the same day that the Environmental Protection Agency launched its own investigation and that an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office was revealed. Snyder’s decision came more than two weeks after newly elected Flint Mayor Karen W. Weaver announced her own state of emergency for the city.

Snyder’s declaration also comes nearly a full year after a February 2015 test conducted by EPA scientist Miguel Del Toral revealed that the level of lead “was 104 μg/dL and the level of iron in the water exceeded the capability of the instrument to measure.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the presence of lead at levels greater 10 μg/dL can cause severe chronic diseases and neurological impairment in children. It also recommended prompt communication between authorities and families and frequent follow-up testing for victims of lead poisoning.

Many physical and neurological impairments caused by lead poisoning are believed to be irreversible.

Instead of open and immediate communication, the Snyder administration chose to suppress or deny mounting evidence of lead poisoning. According to an NPR story last October, MDEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel (now forced to resign) called Del Toral’s report the work of a “rogue employee.” One Detroit Free Press article described Snyder administration statements about lead poisoning in Flint through the summer and fall of 2015 as full of “inconsistency and obfuscation.”

While Snyder, through his hand-picked Flint Water Task Force, seems intent on blaming everyone else for the problem, his decision to set aside that city’s elections and create an emergency manager for Flint played a central role in the events. As part of an ongoing Republican campaign to eviscerate public sector labor unions, weaken environmental protections and enforcement, and disfranchise African American voters in the state, Snyder signed the controversial Emergency Manager Law. According to one analyst, since the law went into effect in 2012 some 80 percent of Michigan’s African American population has lived under a non-elected emergency manager.

Republican-authored tax cuts, white flight, and deindustrialization have hit Michigan cities hard, but as is typical of suburban and rural Republican lawmakers in Michigan (like Snyder himself), they have blamed African American voters and political leaders unfairly for municipal deficits or dwindling public school numbers. The law gave emergency managers full authority to set aside city laws, undercut the authority of elected officials, ignore labor union contracts, dismantle pensions and retirement savings, and make unilateral decisions about city services like water, public safety, garbage, and schools.

Once the emergency managers took power, privatization of public services, including water, were top agenda items. In Flint, Snyder appointee Darnell Finley, who Snyder considered to be so successful that by October 2015 he was tapped to take over Detroit Public Schools, ordered the city to stop taking its water from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department and to draw its water from the polluted Flint River.

Through the spring and early summer of 2015, Del Toral and Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters struggled with a disinterested MDEQ to get the state agency to address the lead-poisoning crisis. The two collected numerous water samples and repeatedly contacted MDEQ officials. The MDEQ responded by denying a systemic problem with Flint water and falsely claimed that Flint properly followed federal mandates on corrosion control. Flint residents reported that MDEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel simply smirked and laughed at their demands for action.

After this series of events was finally made public in July 2015, Snyder’s office attempted to blame Detroit for the problem. On an ACLU video posted in October, Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel claimed that the Detroit Water and Sewer Department had cut off Flint from its system. On the video, a person can be heard accusing Wurfel of lying. The ACLU obtained and publicized a March 2014 letter from Detroit Water inviting Flint to renew its use of their services.

That the governor’s spokesperson Sara Wurfel and the MDEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel are married to each other intimates a deeper problem in this story. The close connection between the spokespersons of the MDEQ and the governor’s office suggests that, at a minimum, the messaging to the public about the Flint water crisis, especially the blame game, was closely coordinated in both offices.

It was Emergency Manager Finley’s decision (under the auspices of the governor’s office) to refuse Detroit Water services in March 2014. It was his decision to tap into a water source widely known to be dangerously polluted. Once this decision went into effect, the Snyder appointees at MDEQ refused to enforce mandated water treatment procedures. After the poisoning of Flint residents became public, the governor and his appointees chose to try to hide.

Only a persistent campaign by the ACLU, residents of Flint, and honestly concerned public health experts prevented this disaster from being swept under the rug. While state law protects the governor’s office from having to reveal its role in covering up this crisis, Common Cause, a political watchdog group, is campaigning for full disclosure. Melanie McElroy, executive director the group’s Michigan chapter, told the media that Snyder should “drop his executive privilege and submit all documents and correspondence in the executive office on all matters dealing with the Flint water crisis to Freedom of Information Act requests.”

The full story about the administration’s true role in this disaster may have to wait for the outcome of federal-level investigations.

Some important lessons should be learned from this episode. First, anti-democratic emergency managers who have the goal of saving money first above all else will never solve any city’s problems.

Second, pollution in the Flint River and in that city’s water supply was ignored by the state for many years. Serious investment has long been needed to clean up the river and to build up-to-date water treatment facilities. Evidence is mounting that similar problems are gripping several water systems across the state.

Third, the Michigan Republican Party’s disregard for African Americans, its decades-long effort to push the most regressive flat tax in the country, and its disdain for public services and the professional people who deliver them drove this water crisis and generally the political and economic crisis of just about every public service in this state, from the inability to fund new roads to the steep cuts in an otherwise strong public university system. The Republicans as a party and their ideology of privatization simply cannot be trusted to govern anywhere

Photo: Flint, Michigan resident Lemott Thomas picking up bottled water after residents learned the city’s water supply was tainted.  |  Paul Sancya/AP


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).