How Government—and This Columnist—Failed Flint

Michigan officials poisoned the city’s drinking water, the EPA covered it up, and I took my eye off the ball.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder delivers his State of the State address in 2015.
AP Photo/Al Goldis
Jan. 19, 2016, 12:13 a.m.

FLINT, Mich.—As I was knock­ing around Flint, a city neg­lected and ul­ti­mately poisoned by every level of gov­ern­ment, my thoughts kept drift­ing to two phrases: “re­fresh­ing ap­proach” and “in noth­ing we trust.”

The first phrase is my de­scrip­tion, in a column last month, of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s lead­er­ship style. What was I think­ing? More on that later.

The second is the head­line on an April 2012 cov­er story I wrote for Na­tion­al Journ­al magazine about a dec­ades-long trend that threatens the na­tion’s soul: the fail­ure of nearly every Amer­ic­an in­sti­tu­tion to ad­apt to rap­id so­cial change and main­tain the pub­lic’s trust. The story was told through the eyes of Johnny Whit­mire, an un­em­ployed con­struc­tion work­er who I met in a Muncie, In­di­ana, court­house. He was fight­ing a $300 fine for fail­ing to cut the lawn of a home he had for­feited to the bank.

Whit­mire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skep­tic­al of Pres­id­ent Obama: non­col­lege-edu­cated white males. He feels be­trayed—not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the in­sti­tu­tions that were sup­posed to pro­tect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton, which couldn’t res­cue homeown­ers who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the cor­rect pa­per­work or warn him about a po­ten­tial mort­gage hike; his city, which pen­al­ized him for some­body else’s er­ror; and even his em­ploy­er, a con­struc­tion com­pany he likes even though he got laid off.

Tak­ing a break from mow­ing his bank’s weeds, Johnny told me, “You can’t trust any­body or any­thing any­more.”

Flint is a hard-bit­ten in­dus­tri­al town filled with Johnny Whit­mires. People too proud to give up and too poor to mat­ter. People who play by the rules and get played—played by their bosses and banks, their uni­ons and preach­ers; played by small busi­nesses and big me­dia; played by cops and judges and jur­ies; and, of course, played by those damned politi­cians.

The latest in­dig­nity to plague this city of nearly 100,000 is lead pois­on­ing via their drink­ing wa­ter, a man-made dis­aster cre­ated by the ar­rog­ance and in­com­pet­ence of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Flint, Lans­ing, and Wash­ing­ton—Demo­crats as well as Re­pub­lic­ans.

Any­body angry enough to call for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s resig­na­tion should also want the scalp of an Obama ap­pointee at the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency who sat on lead test res­ults.

“The EPA bur­ied this,” said Vir­gin­ia Tech re­search­er Marc Ed­wards, whose wa­ter ana­lys­is in 2015 helped ex­pose Flint’s con­tam­in­a­tion.

The tragedy began in April 2014, after the city stopped get­ting its drink­ing wa­ter from the De­troit Wa­ter and Sew­er­age De­part­ment and switched to the re­gion­al Karegnondi Wa­ter Au­thor­ity, which uses Lake Hur­on as a source. There is no pipeline yet built to Flint, so the city used wa­ter from the Flint River as a cost-sav­ing stop­gap.

For months, Flint res­id­ents com­plained about the foul smell and dirty look of their wa­ter, and re­por­ted as­sor­ted health prob­lems. In­de­pend­ent test­ing at Vir­gin­ia Tech showed el­ev­ated levels of lead in the wa­ter in April 2015. Still, noth­ing was done un­til Septem­ber, when re­search­ers at Hur­ley Med­ic­al Cen­ter in Flint re­por­ted that blood tests showed a doub­ling of lead con­tam­in­a­tion in chil­dren young­er than 5.

Chil­dren young­er than 6 are most sus­cept­ible to lead pois­on­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, and even low levels can cause per­man­ent brain dam­age.

Who’s to blame? Let’s start at the bot­tom, where the city gov­ern­ment in Flint is so fisc­ally mis­man­aged that Snyder ap­poin­ted a string of emer­gency man­agers who mostly usurped the elec­ted city coun­cil and may­or. (In Michigan, loc­al gov­ern­ments are giv­en power by the state, and that which can be giv­en can also be taken away).

It was a Snyder-ap­poin­ted emer­gency man­ager who made the fate­ful de­cision to switch the city source, one reas­on why Demo­crat­ic crit­ics want the gov­ernor to resign.

Dayne Walling, the Demo­crat­ic may­or at the time of the de­cision, said he feels “be­trayed” by city, state, and fed­er­al of­fi­cials who with­held in­form­a­tion from him. While the emer­gency-man­ager sys­tem dra­mat­ic­ally re­duced his au­thor­ity, Walling said he’s haunted by his fail­ure as a lead­er.

“I think about it every day,” said Walling, who nar­rowly lost reelec­tion last year over the wa­ter crisis. “I wish I would have real­ized that I had to dig deep­er in­to what I was be­ing told—and not be­ing told.”

Hav­ing ap­poin­ted the emer­gency man­ager is only half of Snyder’s prob­lem. His ap­pointees at the state de­part­ments of health and en­vir­on­ment­al qual­ity botched the ex­e­cu­tion of the wa­ter-source switch, vi­ol­at­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions re­quir­ing an­ti­cor­ro­sion treat­ment for the city’s an­cient wa­ter pipes. That lapse caused the lead pois­on­ing, but went un­re­por­ted un­til two non­gov­ern­ment­al watch­dogs—Vir­gin­ia Tech and Hur­ley Med­ic­al Cen­ter—blew the whistle.

Both the dir­ect­or and chief spokes­man of the Michigan De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Qual­ity were forced to resign, and Snyder has taken sev­er­al steps—al­beit be­latedly—to help Flint identi­fy the ex­tent of the con­tam­in­a­tion and to re­spond to it. He plans to re­veal more ac­tion in Tues­day night’s state of the state ad­dress.

In a wide-ran­ging con­ver­sa­tion with me Monday, Snyder con­ceded that his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the Flint wa­ter crisis is a stain on his leg­acy, re­flects poorly on his lead­er­ship, and is aptly com­pared to Pres­id­ent Bush’s mis­hand­ling of Hur­ricane Kat­rina. He knows he squandered the pub­lic’s trust. (You can read the full in­ter­view here: “Snyder Con­cedes Flint Is His ‘Kat­rina,’ a Fail­ure of Lead­er­ship.”)

Snyder ac­cep­ted re­spons­ib­il­ity for the lack of ad­equate fol­low-up with his de­part­ment heads, but the twice-elec­ted GOP gov­ernor said he would not heed calls for his resig­na­tion.

“I want to solve this prob­lem,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to walk away from it.”

In Feb­ru­ary 2015, months be­fore Ed­wards helped ex­pose the con­tam­in­a­tion, an EPA wa­ter ex­pert named Miguel Del Tor­al iden­ti­fied po­ten­tial prob­lems in Flint’s drink­ing wa­ter. He con­firmed his sus­pi­cions in April and sum­mar­ized the crisis in a June in­tern­al memo. The memo was kept un­der wraps by EPA Mid­w­est chief Susan Hed­man, and the ana­lyst was for­bid­den from mak­ing his find­ing pub­lic, ac­cord­ing to Ed­wards, who se­cured an em­bar­rass­ing batch of EPA emails via Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quests.

Hed­man con­cedes that her de­part­ment knew as early as April about the lack of cor­ro­sion con­trol in Flint’s wa­ter sup­ply, but said her hands were tied by in­ter­agency pro­tocol.

“Pro­tocol?” Ed­wards told me. “She bur­ied the memo and gagged the ana­lys­is while kids were be­ing poisoned.”

Even Walling, a Demo­crat like Hed­man, said he doesn’t un­der­stand why some­body at Obama’s EPA didn’t give him a heads-up about Del Tor­al’s find­ing—even off the re­cord—be­fore Walling pub­licly test­i­fied to the wa­ter’s safety, chug­ging a glass of the poisoned li­quid on tele­vi­sion.

He rolled his eyes at Hed­man’s sug­ges­tion that she needed a leg­al opin­ion on wheth­er the EPA could force ac­tion.

“They hid it,” the Demo­crat said. “They knew and used the law as a shield against the truth.”

There is no love lost for Snyder in this largely Demo­crat­ic city, but there is also little doubt that the prob­lems are deep­er than one man or one party. Of all the people I talked to in Flint, nobody ex­pressed the sense of ut­ter be­tray­al bet­ter than Lawrence White, a 43-year-old state em­ploy­ee and own­er of a small se­cur­ity firm. He spent the week­end de­liv­er­ing wa­ter through tears.

“I’m not just singling out Gov­ernor Snyder,” said the Demo­crat, an Afric­an Amer­ic­an. “All the politi­cians in­clud­ing the EPA are play­ing tit-for-tat, play­ing games at our ex­pense. It’s every­body. It’s Re­pub­lic­ans. It’s Demo­crats. It’s a glob­al­iz­a­tion of not caring for the people of Flint.”

Like the story about Johnny Whit­mire, the scan­dal in Flint is a re­mind­er of how gov­ern­ment and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions fail.

—Ar­rog­ant lead­er­ship, with a lack trans­par­ency, fol­low-up, and sin­gu­lar at­ten­tion to mis­sion.

—Lack of power at the bot­tom of so­ci­ety’s bru­tal peck­ing or­der. This would not have happened in a wealthy city like Tra­verse City, Michigan, or Snyder’s ho­met­own of Ann Ar­bor.

—Fi­nally, a lack of over­sight from tra­di­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions. Where was the state le­gis­lature and Con­gress? Where was the me­dia? Why did a sci­ent­ist in Vir­gin­ia crack the case with a FOIA re­quest, rather than an in­vest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ist?

For that mat­ter, why did I write a column about Snyder’s lead­er­ship that didn’t even men­tion Flint? There’s no good an­swer, no ex­cuse. I took my eye off the ball. I blew it.

Now that I’ve caught up, I still think Snyder wants to bring re­fresh­ing change to Michigan polit­ics. Even as he ac­know­ledges a cata­stroph­ic lack of lead­er­ship, I be­lieve he cares about the people he serves. So does Obama, for that mat­ter, and most oth­er politi­cians I know.

That’s what my gut tells me. But can I trust it?

NOTE: Lawrence White’s name was mis­spelled in the ori­gin­al ver­sion of this post.

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