In hopes of attracting federal public health resources to Flint, where an alarmingly large portion of the population is suffering from lead poisoning as a result of the government’s mismanagement of water resources, the city’s new Mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency last night. This comes just months after Flint’s Hurley Medical Center released research findings which appear to show that, since the decision was made in 2014 to stop sourcing water from Detroit, and instead send water from the Flint River into people’s homes, there has been a significant rise in the blood lead levels of children under the age of five.
Here, for those of you unaware of the history, and the role of the Snyder administration, is a clip from the Detroit Free Press on how all of this came to pass:
…On March 25, 2013, then-state Treasurer Andy Dillon and Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, held a telephone conversation about “Flint water supply alternatives,” according to records obtained by the Free Press under FOIA.
Later that evening, the Flint City Council, which was under a state-appointed emergency manager, voted 7-1 in favor of a switch in the source of its water supply from the City of Detroit to a new Karegnondi Water Authority, a move that would ultimately lead to Flint using corrosive water from the Flint River as an interim source, which produced drinking water with unsafe levels of lead…
This, we were told by the emergency manager placed in control of Flint by Governor Snyder, was done in order to save money. [Clean drinking water was apparently just too expensive for the people of Flint, who were millions of dollars in debt.] In the long run, officials said, the people of Flint would be getting their water from Lake Huron, but, for a few years, while this new system was being built, they’d have water from the Flint River delivered to their homes. Not long after throwing the switch, however, the people of Flint began to realize that something wasn’t right… The following clip comes from a Michigan Radio feature that ran yesterday about the experience of Lee Anne Walters, a mother of four in Flint, who, after being told repeatedly that her sick children were just suffering from scabies, finally had her water tested, revealing lead levels several times higher than the accepted limit. [While no level of lead is considered safe, lead generally isn’t considered a real health risk in water until it surpasses 15 parts per billion. The first test of the water at the Walters’ home was 104 parts per billion. A followup test pegged it at 397 parts per billion.]
…With numbers like that, Lee Anne Walters did what probably any mother would do. She took her kids to the doctor to get tested for lead.
When the tests came back, the diagnosis wasn’t good for Gavin. The doctors said he had lead poisoning.
“After the fact, knowing I was giving this to my kids makes me sick, because we should be able to trust the fact that we’re paying for this service,” she says. “And we should be able to trust the fact that it’s not going to harm our kids.”…
And the effects of lead in these quantities can be devastating. According to the World Health Organization, “lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”
In spite of the growing evidence, the initial response from elected officials was to deny that there was a problem… The following comes from a feature in today’s Washington Post.
…Although city and state officials initially denied that the water was unsafe, the state issued a notice informing Flint residents that their water contained unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases…
Through continued demonstrations by Flint residents and mounting scientific evidence of the water’s toxins, city and state officials offered various solutions — from asking residents to boil their water to providing them with water filters — in an attempt to work around the need to reconnect to the Detroit system.
That call was finally made by Snyder (R) on Oct. 8. He announced that he had a plan for coming up with the $12 million to switch Flint back to the Detroit system. On Oct. 16, water started flowing again from Detroit to Flint…
(P)arents and other Flint residents filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Snyder, the state, the city and 13 other public officials in November for the damages they have suffered as a result of the lead-tainted water. The suit, which claims to represent “tens of thousands of residents,” alleges that the city and state officials “deliberately deprived” them of their 14th Amendment rights by replacing formerly safe drinking water with a cheaper alternative that was known to be highly toxic.
“For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity,” the complaint reads. “The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant.”…
And, over that 18 months, people kept drinking the water… especially those citizens of Flint without the financial resources to purchase bottled water in sufficient quantities. And this might still be the case today, if not for the fact that an EPA researcher sent a draft report this past spring to Lee Anne Walters. Thankfully, because of what he’d seen in the test samples taken from her home, he decided to break protocol and let her know. And that’s when things started to unravel. The following comes from an absolutely brilliant piece that was just published a few hours ago by Michigan Radio on how all of this played out. [I’m sure people are already working on Erin Brockovich-like screenplays.]
…(Waters) immediately forwarded the email to a reporter she had met in the spring. Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter who works for the ACLU of Michigan.
“You know, talking about the ‘hazardous waste levels’ of lead was certainly attention grabbing,” says Guyette.
The draft EPA report showed lead levels at Lee Anne Walters’ house were way worse than she thought.
We’re talking simply jaw-dropping numbers.
Let me put it this way: If you have a glass of water, and it has a lead level of 5,000 parts per billion, the EPA considers it hazardous waste. One sample from the Walters’ house had more than 13,000 parts per billion. And that’s not even the scary part. The scary part is this report said there was reason to believe that the Walters’ home could be a canary in the coal mine.
“It’s not this individual home. It’s not coming from inside the home. It’s coming from outside the home. We know now, from emails and other records, that, for months, the EPA had been warning state officials that something was wrong with Flint’s water,” says Guyette…
But, even with this, officials still weren’t taking significant action. The following is from Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith.
…So back in July, I turned to Brad Wurfel, the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. Wurfel agreed to talk to me about the EPA report. The first thing I asked him was: what responsibility does the state have in making sure lead isn’t getting into people’s drinking water?
“Let me start here. Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
“Let me start here,” Wurfel said. “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. There is no broad problem right now that we’ve seen with lead in the drinking water in Flint.”
It turns out, there was a broad problem, and it turns out, the MDEQ is exactly the agency responsible…
The tests were bad enough that at that point, they should have informed the public about the broad lead risk, but that’s not what happened. Instead, state and city officials kept telling residents there was no lead problem in Flint’s water; that this EPA report was wrong; that the report was written by a “rogue employee.”…
And that’s when Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards got involved. Edwards, an environmental engineer who researches the corrosion of older water systems, upon hearing about the situation in Flint, loaded up his van with lead test kits and four students, and drove the 15 hours to Flint. And what he found shocked him. The water being delivered to the homes of Flint’s citizens was essentially eating away at the the city’s lead pipes.
This past September Edwards demonstrated what was happening with two bottles of water, both containing nails. One, filled with untreated water from the Flint River, was dissolving the nail. The other, which had been treated with chemicals to stop corrosion, left the nail untouched… According to Edwards, this is something that people in the municipal water business know all too well, but, in spite of this, the water in Flint wasn’t treated to keep it from happening. “Flint is the only city in America that I’m aware who does not have a corrosion control plan in place to stop this kind of problem,” Edwards told the assembled members of the press.
So, to summarize, Flint was taken over by the state, and, in an effort to cut costs, the decision was made to give people water from the Flint River. And, going against all standards in the industry, this water was not treated to prevent corrosion, leading to, among other things, unprecedented levels of lead poisoning among Flint’s children. And, when citizens began to raise concerns, bringing bottles of their discolored drinking water to public meetings, they were told that nothing was wrong, in spite of the fact that officials knew otherwise… Or at least that’s how it appears.
According to our Governor, though, we still don’t know all of the facts.
This past Sunday morning, I saw Governor Snyder being interviewed on the local Detroit CBS affiliate. When the subject of Flint’s water came up, he said, “It’s premature to come to conclusions” on the matter. Saying that we should wait for the report from his task force, he added that it might not just be a water problem. “We should remember that a lot of lead issues can happen because of lead-based paint in someone’s home,” he said… So, in Snyder’s opinion, it’s not necessarily that he and his administration were pumping untreated water through the city’s infrastructure that caused the problem. No, it could be that, at the same time that he gave the go-ahead to start using untreated water from the Flint River, the children of Flint just coincidentally started eating lead paint chips at a higher rate.
[If you would like to hear Snyder responding to questions about lead levels in Flint, follow the last link, and jump to the 10-minute mark in the video.]
Later in the same show, responding to a question about elevated lead levels in Flint’s public schools, Snyder said that, while it’s true that people are finding some high concentrations, the problem isn’t systemic, but more the result of just a few underutilized water fountains. “It usually is a case of not even the plumbing, all of the plumbing in the school, but we have found specific problem areas, involving, say, a drinking fountain or a fawcett, that can be the problem itself,” he said. “And what you’ll find typically is that it’s where it hasn’t been used. If it’s been flushed and been used, usually you’ll find very low levels of lead, but if it has sat there for some time, and, again, this can go back for years… It’s actually so specific that you have to narrow it down to particular fixtures.” I would have loved it if the woman conducting the interview, who looked to me like a Kristen Wiig character, had offered Snyder a glass of water from a Flint public school water fountain, assuring him that it had been recently flushed, but she didn’t take the opportunity.
Detroit schools… Flint water… What will our “tough nerd” of a Governor fix for us next? Where will he next apply his brilliant MBA mind and the principles of free market capitalism? One can only imagine.