Three years later, and questions surrounding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan remain. The biggest: How did this happen? And who was responsible?
Investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan Curt Guyette points a finger at a figure who has largely remained unnoticed throughout this controversy.
In a story published in the Detroit Metro Times today (April 19), Guyette introduces us to Jeff Wright, the Genesee County drain commissioner and CEO of Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), the company through which the city was slated to receive water. KWA—and ultimately Wright—was a strong force in changing the city’s water source that led to the water contamination, Guyette alleges.
In Wright’s telling, this is the story of a struggle by Genesee County and its communities to free themselves of the price-gouging and corruption of a monopoly water system previously run by the city of Detroit and currently operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), which took over control [in 2016] as the result of a deal struck while Detroit was going through bankruptcy.
But Peter Hammer, an economist and Wayne State University Law School professor, tells Guyette that nothing about the water incident was accidental. He sees a much “darker picture,” Guyette writes. “Flint needs to be understood as a morality play illustrating the dangers of emergency management and fiscal austerity,” Hammer told Guyette. “Flint needs to stand as a profound multi-generational testimony to the dangers of strategic-structural racism in the same manner as the Tuskegee tragedy forever shames medical science.”
Before Flint’s water became contaminated with lead, the city was connected to Detroit’s water system. But they left that partnership to connect with KWA and build their own water system, which involved using an outdated water treatment plant during the transition. City officials initially said this shift to KWA would save money, but the then-Detroit Water & Sewage Department (DWSD) came back to the city with a proposal that would save the city and county more than $900 million compared to a 30-year contract with KWA.
Guyette explains in detail:
On April 17, , Jim Fausone, then director of the DWSD board of Water Commissioners, sent an email to Treasurer Andy Dillon and other state officials saying the newest proposal could save Flint and Genesee County 20 percent over 30 years when compared to KWA. “If the decision is about economics or engineering,” he wrote, “I don’t see how [Flint and Genesee] proceeds with KWA.”
[Michigan Gov. Rick] Snyder chief of staff Dennis Muchmore emailed Dillon asking, “So, if the last DWSD proposal saves so much money, why are we moving ahead with KWA? I take it that Flint doesn’t trust them and is just fed up? Does [emergency manager Ed] Kurtz have his head on straight here?”
“That is the $64,000 question,” responded Dillon. “[The Department of Environmental Quality] is firm that KWA is better. Are they an honest broker?”
That question remained unanswered.
After Detroit’s offer had been further refined, [engineering consulting firm Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc.] President George Karmo emailed Dillon with his analysis of what would be DWSD’s final proposal.
“We have reviewed DWSD’s final offer to Flint/Genesee County of April 24, 2013 and find it responsive to Flint’s concerns and their water demand requirements.”
In Guyette’s piece he attempts to answer why officials ultimately went with KWA when GLWA made the most financial sense for the city. Was it for the city to have control over its water? Would this project allow for water-intensive fracking? Was it to connected to Wright’s agenda—and the money he received for his 2016 campaign for county drain commissioner?
The Detroit Metro Times story details some of these contributions:
An ACLU of Michigan analysis of contributions to Wright’s 2016 campaign reveals that, of the nearly $270,000 he raised during that election cycle, at least $188,000 — roughly 70 percent — came from political action committees and employees of companies doing business directly with the KWA or working on the pipeline in some capacity.
The city is leaning toward leaving behind this original deal with KWA, as Mayor Karen Weaver suggested in a press conference yesterday (April 18). They will likely stay with GLWA. If they do, the city won’t have to deal with its outdated water plant or the KWA, both of which “laid the foundation for the disaster,” writes Guyette.
Read the complete investigation here.