Killing Flint

by / Jan. 21, 2016 5am EST

Flint, Michigan is about 70 miles from Detroit — about the same distance as Rochester from Buffalo. For half a century, Flint’s running water came from Detroit, but at great expense — about $12 million per year by 2014. That year, a decision was made to supply Flint with drinking water from the Flint River until a long-planned, equally delayed Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline from Lake Huron could be completed. When the pipeline is completed, Flint could expect to save about $3 million per year. 

It was supposed to save the city $5 million per year until the new pipeline comes online. Overall, switching from Detroit water was supposed to save the city of Flint $19 million over 8 years - a no-brainer, on paper. When the Flint city council voted to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, Detroit gave Flint a contractual one-year termination notice, and Flint spent $4 million to update its own water treatment plant in order to handle Flint River waterThe city of Flint made the switch in mid-March 2014, with approval from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality; Flint water began flowing from faucets in April. Complaints, too, quickly began pouring in. The water smelled bad. It tasted bad. It was hard water. The city and state maintained, however, that it was all perfectly safe. 

But four months in, testing revealed excessive bacteria rates, and Flint residents were advised to boil their water. GM wouldn’t use Flint water at its local manufacturing plants for fear of corrosion. By January 2015, testing revealed excessive levels of trihalomethanes — TTHM — in the water. TTHM is a chemical byproduct of water disinfectants, and can cause cancer and other ailments. Flint was slow to react, and when Detroit offered to reconnect its supply and waive the $4 million fee, Flint rejected that, even when Detroit offered to do so with no long-term contract. City leaders appealed to the state for help, and the DEQ said everything was safe and under control.

A water consulting company the city retained also said that the discoloration and sediment was a problem, but that the water remained safe to drink and use. That same company — Veolia — manages the city of Buffalo’s water supply

By March 2015, Flint was forced to spend an additional $4.6 million to add carbon filters and other changes to try and improve the water quality. The city council finally voted to reconnect to Detroit’s system, but emergency manager Jerry Ambrose said Detroit water was “no safer” and opposed the move. 

In early September 2015, researchers from the Virginia Tech found that the corrosive Flint water was damaging the lead delivery pipes, causing lead to leach into the water supply. Soon, local physicians and hospitals recorded a spike in Flint children’s blood lead levels. By October 1st, the county had declared an emergency, and asked people to not drink the water in Flint. Governor Rick Snyder announced the state would spend $1 million for new water filters, but didn’t commit to reconnecting the supply to Detroit’s. Flint’s technical advisory committee recommended immediate switch to Detroit water. By early October, the governor announced a $12 milliion plan to do just that

Today, the city that Michael Moore made famous is back in the spotlight. During the Reagan Administration, Flint became famous as an example of the ugly byproduct of globalization and the deification of profit and shareholder return. It was the city that Reaganomics left behind. Except statistics show that most people and most places have been left behind thanks to Reaganomics — supply-side, trickle-down theory that never worked

Well, that’s not entirely true. 

It worked, alright. It worked for the moneyed elites. It worked for big business. Cutting taxes on the wealthy and big business worked great for them. Carving out special loopholes in the tax code to enable the superwealthy to avoid paying taxes while the rest of us rubes financed wars and deficits and tax cuts worked great for some people. We bail out megabanks and insurance conglomerates but scoff at people on WIC or food stamps. We subsidize massive private enterprise but wonder when “entitlement America” is going to pull itself up by its bootstraps and get a job, already. 

Flint is merely a symptom of a nationwide disease. If people sincerely want to make America great again, then they need to make the middle class strong again, rather than sacrifice it to appease our billionaire gods. 

Flint, Michigan shows that penny wise is, indeed, pound foolish. Switch to the corrosive, dangerous water supply to save a few bucks, and spend far, far more to concoct emergency fixes. End up right back at square one with millions of dollars squandered and thousands sickened. Spend millions more over years to deal with the social cost of poisoning people with lead, a neurotoxin. 

Flint is now a federal disaster area. There are open criminal investigations with the state’s attorney general and the Department of Justice. 

But Flint is special. It’s a city in receivership, administered by an emergency manager appointed by the Governor. The emergency managers maintained that Flint River water was safe from the moment the first complaints came in. When the TTHM problems arose, the city council wanted to switch back to Detroit water, but the emergency manager hired Veolia, instead. When the Mayor pleaded for help, the emergency manager said they were working on it, but resisted switching back to Detroit’s supply

Poison people to save a few bucks. Save a few bucks and end up costing taxpayers exponentially more to fix the unnecessary resulting crisis. 


It was not until Jan. 5 that Snyder declared a state of emergency and Jan. 12 that he mobilized the National Guard to assist with distribution of bottled water and water filters. Although the state helped Flint switch back to Detroit water in October, danger remains because of damage the Flint River water did to the water distribution system. President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint on January 16.

A problem that first manifested itself in 2014 is only now being addressed in a remotely serious manner. It bears mentioning that the population of Flint is largely poor, and predominately African American. These people matter. They deserve better. They deserve better than to be used as guinea pigs in some sick penny-pinching experiment. They deserve better than to be completely let down by government at all levels, which is almost pathologically looking for “cheap” rather than “quality”. The Wal*Martization of the delivery of government services. 

Now, the state’s Republican governor is in full CYA mode. He is pledging $28 million to temporarily alleviate a problem that never had to happen in the first place, but was carried out to save a small fraction of that.  

Flint is the result of bad government, bad governance, and a selective refusal to do the right thing. Flint is what happens when the system breaks down and regulations mean nothing. It is a catastrophe with a massive human toll. 

The thing that’s scary is that if you get in just the right people who worship “smaller government” and are willing to cut corners to save a few dollars, and do so without considering the consequences, it could happen here, too.