Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A congressional hearing on Wednesday revealed the toxic timeline of the city’s water crisis—and how democracy might be repaired.
Three hours into the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the Flint water crisis Wednesday, a man in the audience raised a hand-made sign: BRING BACK DEMOCRACY TO MICHIGAN.
He lifted it as Joel Beauvais, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water, evaded questions about why the EPA took nearly a year to act on its knowledge of lead levels in Flint’s water, which were seven times the federal standard. The man waved his sign minutes after Keith Creagh, interim director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, stated, “In hindsight, I believe we all share a responsibility for the crisis in Flint water.”
And the man surely would have waved it behind Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and two former state-appointed Flint emergency managers, had any of them been there to face questions from the furious members of the congressional committee.
Maybe that man was from Flint, or maybe he was from Detroit. Busloads of people from both cities came to Washington, D.C., to attend the hearing. He could have been from anywhere, really, his outrage tied not to his provenance but to the dissolution of democracy that ushered Flint toward its present crisis: A toxic water supply, thousands of children potentially facing irreversible lead poisoning, and shattered trust in government.
Arguably, Flint’s troubles began with the collapse of Michigan’s industrial economy over the last several decades. But the fall of General Motors doesn’t directly implicate a failure of democracy.
Here’s what does: One of the first things Governor Snyder did when he took office in 2011 was sign into law an expansion of the state’s emergency manager law. Michigan voters rejected that law by referendum the following year. But one month later, Governor Snyder approved a slightly tweaked version of that same law, which included an appropriation that barred voters from challenging it again.
As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reported earlier this week, at least 18 states have a law that allows them to “take control of cities enmeshed in fiscal chaos.” But what makes Michigan’s law, and specifically its 2012 expansion, so unique is the absolute authority it allows the state to endow to city emergency managers. Emergency managers can intervene in not only financial matters, but all civic matters—including the sale of city assets, the management of school districts, negotiations with police and fire unions, and yes, where a city sources its water.
“We felt helpless from the get-go”
Having struggled with solvency for years, Flint was assigned four different emergency managers between 2011 and 2015.
“We felt helpless from the get-go,” Patty Warner, a longtime Flint resident, says of the city’s succession of unelected leaders. “People were angry about the law, and felt like we had no voice.”
Two of Flint’s emergency managers seem to share responsibility for a pivotal moment in the water disaster. Edward J. Kurtz was there when the city decided to change water sources from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the still-under-construction KWA Pipeline from Lake Huron. The thought of using the Flint River as a cost-saving interim supply came up under his watch. Darnell Earley officially signed off on the switch to the Flint River in 2014. (Earley received a subpoena calling on him to testify at Wednesday’s congressional hearing, but he rejected it.)
“At that point people went, What?” says Warner. It was common knowledge, she says, that the river had problems, having served as an industrial dump site and absorbing contaminants from road runoff for years. As it would turn out, the water was caustic, and right away began leaching lead from Flint’s old pipes.
Faced with mounting debts, and without a state emergency manager in place, would Flint officials have made the same outrageously bad decision? Maybe—but at least they would have had to listen to citizens’ concerns and outrage, or else suffer the political consequences. State emergency managers have no real responsibility to city officials or the citizens they are meant to represent, other than to slash budgets.
“When you abolish democracy, you abolish accountability,” says Michael J. Sternberg, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “And that’s how tragedies such as the Flint water crisis occur.”
The abolition of accountability is certainly a big part of it. There was also a lot of incompetence, namely that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to require that Flint use anti-corrosives with its new water supply. Why did it fail? In the hearing Wednesday, MDEQ’s new interim director, Keith Creagh, said that the department had misinterpreted the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. If the water had been treated properly, the switch to the Flint River “might have been deemed a success today,” says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering whose testing and research helped expose lead levels in Flint’s water.
Citizens ignored, facts covered up
Almost immediately after the switch, Flint residents detected problems. Tap water was brown, yellow, or red. Children were experiencing rashes, abdominal pains, and hair loss. Blood pressure in older adults was going through the roof.
When city tests found E. coli and other types of bacteria in the water, Flint officials issued a boil advisory, but otherwise assured residents the supply was safe. In January 2015, the city issued another advisory about high levels of chemical byproducts in the water—but still said it was OK to drink for most residents. As it turned out, the city was testing for lead all along, but doing so improperly: Inspectors would flush the water for several minutes before sampling, essentially removing all the toxins.
In January 2015, LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident and mother, showed up at a city council meeting. All four of her children had been experiencing worrisome health symptoms, she told city officials and MDEQ engineers. She showed them bottles of rust-colored water taken from her home taps. According to Walters, they were indifferent, explaining to her that she was a “liar.” “I was publicly humiliated by the state,” she said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Walters persevered, and eventually got the city to test her tap water in February 2015. What they found was astounding: The lead levels in her family’s water measured nearly 400 parts per billion, nearly 27 times the federal limit. The city told that her own household plumbing was to blame. Days later, Governor Snyder's office told residents: "Flint's water system is producing water that meets all state and federal standards."
But behind the scenes, according to emails obtained by Progress Michigan, state employees in Flint had already been given the option to drink from water coolers, rather than from water fountains. They knew the water was hazardous, and yet they kept that information private. Other FOIA emails reveal further indifference about residents’ concerns exchanged by officials at the MDEQ and in Governor Snyder’s office, as well as by EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, whose resignation took effect this week.
Here, it’s important to note that Michigan laws exempts the executive branch from all FOIA requests. Even though Governor Snyder publicly released his emails related to Flint, the very first one was fully redacted, and they don’t include memos exchanged within executive staff. So it is still largely unclear what Governor Snyder knew, and when—especially since he wasn’t invited by U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz to the hearing Wednesday for what appear to be political reasons.
As Walters searched for the truth about what was causing her family to suffer, city, MDEQ, and EPA employees continued to fail to help her. “Everybody but Mr. Del Toral,” she said Wednesday, referring to Miguel Del Toral, a regional EPA water manager, who helped her get proper lead-testing results. He blew the whistle within his agency about the city water’s lead levels in February 2015 with a memo sent to both MDEQ and other EPA officials, only to be chided by the EPA and largely ignored by the MDEQ. Karen Tommasulo, an MDEQ public information officer, wrote to a colleague about lead-level-related questions from the media in July: "Apparently it's going to be a thing now."
All told, it wasn’t until October 2015 that Flint and MDEQ officials confirmed that Flint’s water wasn’t safe to drink. Results of water tests by Edwards (the Virginia Tech professor) and children’s blood tests by a local pediatrician were too blunt to ignore. MDEQ admitted it had made mistakes in October. It wasn’t until November 2015 that the EPA publicly aired that memo from Del Toral. It took another two months for that agency to admit that it, too, had erred in its response to Flint’s situation.
Today, Flint remains in a state of emergency. The interim director of the MDEQ still cannot guarantee that the water is safe to drink. Even now that the city has reconnected to Detroit as a water source, the city’s pipes are still dangerously corroded. Walters’ children, like thousands of other children in Flint, have been exposed to lead, which can have irreversible neurological and cardiovascular affects. Nine people are dead from a Legionnaire’s outbreak that medical professors believe is tied to the water. And a city’s trust in government has been broken.
Can democracy be repaired? Maybe. The 2012 emergency manager law must be repealed, and open government must be restored. That means no more laws Michiganders did not pass, no more leaders that they did not elect, and no more blanket FOIA exemptions. No more secret water coolers, no more hidden EPA memos, and no more callous dismissal of citizens’ concerns. The state of Michigan, the EPA, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform must continue to dig to find who is accountable. Pipes must be fixed, water bills should be repaid to customers, and fund should be set up for children whose lives will be forever affected by by this government-made disaster.
BRING BACK DEMOCRACY TO MICHIGAN, the man’s sign read. In Flint most of all, that is going to take some time.