When news of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis made national headlines, it sounded a lot like a struggling community’s attempt to save money that turned into a terrible accident. As time rolls on, and more details of the events leading to the present are unveiled, it’s become apparent that this was no accident at all. Although the full story has yet to be told and some facts are still buried within the shelter of government offices, much of the evidence that has been made public paints a disturbing picture that nobody expected. Flint’s water source was switched to the Flint River in early 2014 not to save money, as the public was told at the time, but for mysterious yet-unknown reasons. The unhealthy concentrations of a variety of toxins – including lead – was no secret at upper levels of state government, and yet officials repeatedly told the public that the water was safe, the situation was under control, and there was nothing to worry about – even as they stocked their offices with purified water. Nobody knew how wrong they were until it was too late.
In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its water source from Detroit water to the Flint River. The move was supposed to save $5 million, or at least that’s what the public was told. In fact, just 16 months earlier in December 2012, Flint’s emergency manager rejected the idea of sourcing water from the Flint River, citing an evaluation conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which suggested that the river was too polluted. The decision to move forward with the river as the new water source was ultimately made at Governor Rick Snyder’s office. But the switch wasn’t done to save money, because Detroit actually offered a deal in 2013 that would have saved Flint an estimated $800 million over a 30-year contract. Flint rejected that offer and started pumping water from the polluted river just a few months later, without the anti-corrosion agents recommended by the environmental agency. The water quality problems became apparent almost immediately and now the city has a $1.5 billion (and counting) repair bill on its hands.
Acting as advocates for the residents of Flint, the group Progress Michigan obtained state government emails related to the water debacle, some dating back to 2014. Although it’s tough to reconstruct a complete timeline of events, or infer their meanings, many troubling facts have come to light. When Michigan leaders admitted to the public that something was awry with the water supply in December 2015, they left out a very important piece of information: they had, at that point, known about the problem for nearly a year. In fact, employees working at Flint’s State Office Building were supplied with purified water because officials knew the tap water wasn’t safe. Yet, it would be many more months before that message would be issued to the public.
The City of Flint issued a health notice to employees in December 2014 or January 2015 which, among other troubling points, suggests “the public water does not meet treatment requirements.” Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the agency that manages state office buildings, told the Detroit Free Press that employees were never told the tap water wasn’t safe. Instead, he says, the purified water was provided to give employees a choice of water sources.
The problems with Flint’s water aren’t limited to lead contamination, either. Drawing water from the polluted Flint River resulted in positive tests for coliform bacteria, which prompted the city to issue three boil alerts in August and September 2014. Near the end of that year, a state water quality test revealed higher-than-acceptable levels of trihalomethane (TTHM), which is leftover from the chlorine used to kill bacteria in the water. Although neither of those are as dangerous as lead, which is said to have exceeded 4,000 ppb in some samples. Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous in children, as lead collects in the bloodstream and leads to a host of neurological disorders.
Last month, officials finally decided to admit what many have known for almost two years. Flint’s tap water isn’t just undrinkable – it’s dangerous. After Snyder declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5, aid organizations began distributing bottled water and water filters to the public in a half-hearted attempt to improve the health risks. Even after Obama signed an emergency order to clear the way for additional support, residents say there isn’t enough water to go around. And what’s worse, some are saying that the faucet-mounted water filters distributed to combat the lead contamination are inadequate for the high concentration in the water. The provided filters are rated to 150 ppb for lead. With samples ranging from 153ppb to 4,000ppb, the discrepancy is one more indication that the governor’s administration isn’t taking this public health emergency seriously in the slightest.
In the wake of the unfolding controversy, many people involved have been fired, placed on unpaid administrative lead, or have stepped down, including the regional head of the EPA. Many are critical that the parties truly responsible have yet to admit any wrongdoing, namely Governor Snyder himself. State Rep. Diane Russell of Maine is one of many calling for the governor’s resignation, specifically based on the fact that Snyder knew about the water’s dangerous lead concentrations for at least a year prior to taking action, which means he knowingly put the children of Flint at risk for lifelong health conditions. Russell has sponsored a petition calling for Snyder to resign. Governor Snyder’s administration has worked hard to insulate him from repercussions of this terrible ordeal, but the jig is up and, slowly but surely, the truth is coming out.