In October, Michigan governor Rick Snyder commissioned an independent task force to review the Flint Water Crisis—and the factors that birthed it—at the ground level. Yesterday (March 23), that body pointed the finger at state officials.
The Flint Water Advisory Task Force announced the details of its final report at a press conference, and its five members found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality should shoulder most of the blame for actions that lead to the city’s predominantly Black residents drinking and bathing in lead-tainted water. It also charged other agencies and people with dropping the ball, including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Flint Water Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, Governor Snyder and his office, and the state-appointed emergency managers.
The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health. Both agencies, but principally the MDEQ, stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss others’ attempts to bring the issues of unsafe water, lead contamination, and increased cases of Legionellosis (Legionnaires’ disease) to light. With the City of Flint under emergency management, the Flint Water Department rushed unprepared into full- time operation of the Flint Water Treatment Plant, drawing water from a highly corrosive source without the use of corrosion control. Though MDEQ was delegated primacy (authority to enforce federal law), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delayed enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), thereby prolonging the calamity. Neither the Governor nor the Governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the Governor’s office, in part because of continued reassurances from MDEQ that the water was safe. The significant consequences of these failures for Flint will be long-lasting. They have deeply affected Flint’s public health, its economic future, and residents’ trust in government.
The Flint water crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making. Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD once water quality problems were encountered. Given the demographics of Flint, the implications for environmental injustice cannot be ignored or dismissed.
The group also applauded the citizens who have worked to expose the shortcomings of their elected officials.
The Flint water crisis is also a story, however, of something that did work: the critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals both inside and outside of government who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership, and by members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism. Without their courage and persistence, this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.
The task force made 44 recommendations, 25 of which the governor’s office says are already underway. Chief among them:
- Refocus MDEQ on its primary mission to protect health and the environment
- Incorporate input from health experts and scientist for MDEQ and MDHHS policy and procedure decisions
- Re-establish the Michigan Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission
- Create culture in state government that isn’t defensive about concerns of citizens and works to address them
- Consider alternatives to the emergency manager policy, such as adding an ombudsman that factors in citizen concerns
- Issue an executive order that mandates environmental justice across all state agencies