The Flint Water Crisis…Another Example of a Government Failure.
One of my all time favorite TV shows was NBC’s Park and Rec and my favorite character from that show was self proclaimed Libertarian, Ron Swanson. For people that have never seen the show and are not familiar with the character of Ron, I usually recap an episode that I feel perfectly explains Ron and his beliefs. In the episode, a 9 year old girl needs to interview someone for a school project and stumbles upon Ron in the office. Her project is supposed to focus on the role of government in society with the topic of “Why Government matters”. This gives Ron the opportunity to share his libertarian views about the government’s purpose which includes eating most of her lunch as an example of the government taking what doesn’t belong to them in the form of taxes. At the end of the episode, the girl’s mother comes to the office very unhappy looking for Ron to confront him about what he taught her daughter and produces the girl’s paper. On the paper of “Why Government Matters” the young girl simply wrote “It doesn’t.”
Stories of government giving you things that are good for you is a tale as old as time, and is often sold to citizens by bureaucrats and politicians around election time. However, these days you now hear more about Government making poor decisions and suppressing issues they caused rather than being honest and transparent. We now live in a world with a 24 hour news cycle and the reality is that news stories with uplifting and positive outcomes don’t sell or get the same publicity as the stories of corruption and conspiracy.
My own personal experiences with Government have me in agreement with Ron Swanson and reading “What the Eyes Don’t See” only provided another example of Government claiming they have the best interest of their citizens at heart, but are in reality only in it for their own self interests and actually hurt their citizens in the long run.
While the original intention of the Flint Government switching it’s water source was to reduce costs, the result not only cost more financially but it also cost the health, welfare, and trust of Flint’s citizens due to cover ups and negligence at both the State and Local levels of government as they denied that there were any issues with the quality of the drinking water. Since findings reported in September 2015 by Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha were made public, more and more stories have been uncovered as evidence of the suppression of information and several charges have been filed against the key players involved.
In her book, Dr. Mona talks about the “red flags” she found in her investigation of lead in Flint’s water. When I started doing some research on the topic, there were even more indicators than she listed in her book and this did not even include the very likely possibility that the water also was the cause of an outbreak of Legionaries disease that started in 2014. Within the first six months of the water switch in Flint, all signs showed something wasn’t right. The water switch occurred in April 2014 and by August 2014 the city announced fecal coliform bacterium had been detected in the water supply, prompting a boil water advisory for a neighborhood on the west side of Flint. Just a few weeks later in September of 2014, Flint issued another boil water advisory after a positive test for total coliform bacteria which is a warning sign that E. coli or other disease-causing organisms may be contaminating the water. In response, City officials communicated to residents that they would flush the pipes and add more chlorine to the water. A month after the second boil order and after the city continued to add more chlorine to the city’s water in order to limit the number of boil water advisories, the General Motors plant in Flint stopped using the city’s water due to concerns about high levels of chlorine corroding engine parts.
By January 2105, the problems were getting more and more difficult to deny or ignore. First, the city of Flint issued a notice warning residents that the water contained byproducts of disinfectants that may cause health issues including an increased risk for cancer over time. They stated that the water was safe for the general population, but the elderly and parents of young children were cautioned and urged to consult with their doctors. Shortly after, Flint Residents brought jugs of discolored water to a community forum reporting that their children were developing rashes and suffering from mysterious illnesses.
It’s around this time that the first opportunity was offered to get Flint out of their mess, but to no avail. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offered to reconnect the city of Flint with Lake Huron water, waiving a $4 million hook up fee to restore service. Flint City officials declined the offer, citing concerns that water rates could go up more than $12 million each year, even with the reconnection fee waiver. The City of Flint put money over public safety.
Between February and March of 2015 more issues with the water were unveiled. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) disclosed a buildup of TTHM, a cancer-causing byproduct of chlorine and organic matter in the water but claimed that elevated TTHM levels were not an immediate health emergency because the risk of disease increases only after years of consumption. Then a Manager from the EPA, Miguel Del Toral, notified the MDEQ that dangerous levels of lead in the water at the home of Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters had been detected. Walters had first contacted the EPA with concerns about dark sediment in her tap water possibly making her children sick and testing revealed that her water had 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, nearly seven times greater than the EPA limit of 15 ppb. Del Toral also identified that corrosion control was not being used in the treatment of Flint water. When he published his memo he was reprimanded and the issue was not investigated as it should have been.
By the end of March, there was a potential breakthrough. The Flint City Council had finally had enough and the members voted 7–1 to stop using Flint river water and to reconnect with Detroit. Then, state-appointed emergency manager Jerry Ambrose stepped in and overruled the vote, calling it “incomprehensible,” claiming that Flint water was safe by all standards, that costs would skyrocket if switched back, and that “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.” Again, the Government not wanting to admit they were wrong and putting cost over public health.
By June 2015, a group of clergymen and activists filed a lawsuit against the City of Flint, charging that the river water is a health risk. The case ended up dismissed; another failure.
At this point, the spokesperson for the MDEQ starts playing an game of misdirection.
The memo from Miguel Del Toral about the lead found in Lee-Anne Walters house was leaked to the public in early July of 2015. The MDEQ spokesperson, Brad Wurfel commented that, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax” and explained initial testing on 170 homes indicated that the problem was not widespread. However, the following month the MDEQ ordered Flint to optimize corrosion control treatment in the water supply after state testing from the first six months of 2015 revealed elevated lead levels. Despite the evidence that lead was discovered in Flint’s water supply by the state, Brad Wurfel said that although Flint’s water system had it’s problems, it was “meeting safe water standards based on its water sampling” and he questioned the findings of Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, an expert on water treatment and corrosion. So the MDEQ admits there’s a problem in the same breath they say there isn’t one. How is this helping Flint’s citizens? If the MDEQ’s test samples show the water is safe, prove it!
Then Flint utilities administrator Michael Glasgow filed a lead and copper report to the MDEQ showing that the city had collected 71 water samples to test for levels of lead and copper, although that was fewer than the MDEQ’s requirement of a minimum of 100 samples needed for an acceptable test. The following month, Glasgow filed a revised version of the document that was altered. The minimum number of samples required had been changed to 60 and the number of samples taken had been changed as well, to 69. The report notes that those changes occurred following a conference call that included MDEQ staff. “Two samples were removed from list for not meeting sample criteria, and due to population the number of samples required was reduced to 60,” Glasgow wrote. The two samples that were dropped were two of the highest recorded by the city of Flint, including a sample from the home of Lee-Anne Walters.
This brings us to August 2015 which is where Dr. Mona’s story starts in “What the Eyes Don’t See” and how she becomes the driving force in proving to the world that the water in Flint was tainted with lead and finally got the Government to take responsibility and appropriate action to start making corrections of making the water safe again. The original goal to save $200 million over 25 years was not met by any means, it wasn’t even close. The lawsuits alone will cost $600 million dollars and another $55 million to install lead-free pipes throughout the city. Nothing was gained, peoples lives were compromised, nine people were arrested, all because the voices of Flint’s citizens fell on deaf ears. Any actions to get the issue addressed and resolved quickly were just dismissed. Government failed, plain and simple.
My first experience with dealing with local government was not for any issue that was life threatening or had even had to do with public health or safety as was the case in Flint, but that experience left a lasting impression that I have carried with me over the decades and has left me with a perpetual grudge and a permanent chip on my shoulder.
In the early 90's, I was in my early 20’s and I still lived with my parents in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago in a primarily middle class neighborhood. Behind my parents house, there were a pair of hills that all of the families in the area would frequent to sled on in the winter, have Easter egg hunts on in the spring, and roll down in the summer. They were free entertainment. The hills were erected in the early 1960’s when a local school was bulldozed and rather than dispose of the building materials it was decided to bury them into 2 hills on the Park District land. When my parents bought their house in 1968 they were told because that land behind the house was owned by the Park District, it would never be built on so they wouldn’t have to worry about houses being built directly across from them. Also, that park land was prone to flooding and building anything there would have been a terrible idea anyway. After one such flood, my mom took an inflatable raft out into the newly formed “lake” and had a leisurely boat ride that I took pictures of.
Then the news came that the Park District wanted to erect their new Recreation Center Building right there in our backyard on that park land that were were told they would never build on. Needless to say, we, and the neighbors were outraged. Our town had a ton of empty space on one of the main roads that made far more sense for a large Rec Center. Having a building the size they proposed in a residential neighborhood and in an area that floods seemed preposterous, so on to the Park Board meetings we went.
We went to meeting after meeting pleading our case of why that building didn’t belong there and why the main road through town was a far better location. After several months the decision finally went to the Building Commissioners Board along with the Village Board and I brought the photos of my mother in the inflatable raft as evidence that the land was prone to flooding. At the end of that meeting there was a vote and they voted in our favor; the new Rec Center should not be built on that land. We rejoiced and celebrated, but sadly it was short lived. We learned from one of our neighbors who was on the Village Board that the Park District threatened to sue the Village unless they got their way to put the building on that location and the Mayor caved and instructed the Village Board to “make it happen”. A new meeting was scheduled for the Village Board to “reconsider the proposal”. We promptly started running around the neighborhood getting signatures on a petition to bring to that meeting even though we knew that based on the Mayor’s insistence the odds were not in our favor. What we could not figure out was why the Park Board was not considering any other locations. Why was that particular land so important to the Park Board? Why were they not listening to us? Why weren’t they even looking at one of the locations we had suggested? Why didn’t they provide us some justification as to why the locations we proposed wasn’t as well suited for such a large building as the one behind our house? Why didn’t they at least try to make the argument as to why they felt so strongly that that land was best for the new building? But no reasons were ever provided.
As predicted, in the “Reconsideration Meeting” enough members of the Village Board followed their orders from the Mayor and voted for the deal to go through. We lost. When my mother protested to one of the Park Board members as the meeting ended, he looked her directly in the eyes, shook his finger at her and said, “Lady, it’s a done deal and there’s nothing you can do about it.” She’ll never forget that moment.
When they started plowing down the hills the first thing they ran into was asbestos from the old school that had been leveled inside of it; that was their first unexpected cost. Then, as we predicted, the foundation of that monstrosity of a building started sinking during construction which added to the price tag and cost an enormous amount of taxpayer money to correct the foundation and it still had flooding issues after completion that had to be addressed. It also caused flooding in the basement of the Catholic Church that was next door to the new Rec Center, which I heard cost them a half a million dollars to fix. All of those issues were preventable had they just selected another location and heeded our warnings. Like in Flint, we yelled at the top of our lungs but were ignored and ended up paying an extremely large bill. Luckily our problems were minor compared to what happened in Flint.
Even after the Rec Center building opened we were bitter and angry. The new building changed the traffic patterns on our street and car accidents became more prevalent. The next election cycle my mother and our next door neighbor both ran for the Park Board and won by a landslide, bumping out two of the members who had played a part in getting that building put in. Once my mother was on the Park Board she found out why that land was the only location entertained for the building site. One of the largest concerns for the new building in that space was parking and since the location was a residential neighborhood there were limits as to what could be done to accommodate the number of spaces needed. There was a backdoor deal made between the Catholic Church next door (the same Catholic Church that had its basement flooded thanks to the new building) and some members of Park Board, who happened to be members of said Catholic Church, for a shared parking lot which solved the parking space issue. In exchange the Park Board members promised free gym memberships for the church members in an unwritten handshake deal. That is why no other locations were considered as they had already made their arrangement and did not want to renege on it. As nothing was in writing and there were no contracts about the free gym memberships for the church members, my mother inquired in a meeting why only one church in the city had that perk just because they happened to be next door to the Rec Center. The Park Board members that were part of that original deal tried to provide some explanation, but in the end with the two new Board members in place it was decided that since it wasn’t feasible to provide free gym memberships to all of the churches in the city, that the deal with the one next door had to cease. That win felt really good.
My mother stayed on the Park Board for 6 years and stepped down after she ensured every person on the Park Board that voted for that Rec Center Building was voted out, including that horrible little man who shook his finger at her in that momentous Park Board Meeting. When she decided not to run for reelection, we actively campaigned for her handpicked successor who we knew had integrity and would continue to listen to the people. As for the Mayor, she’s still in office and has been since 1989. In the years following, she ran for State Senate and State Representative and although I didn’t care for her opponents, I still refused to cast my vote for her. She did not win either election and that does bring a smile to my face; I am not quick to forgive.
I feel fortunate that my run ins with the government not doing things in the best interest of the people have been minor and none have been for anything that would cause serious health risks (there is one more recent one having to do with our city’s storm sewer infrastructure that was causing major water backups in my neighborhoods basements, but I’ll save that for another post). The lessons I have learned since that Rec Center incident is that you should never assume that Government is looking out for or is even concerned with your best interest in mind. Even when they try to convince you that whatever they are doing will give you something wonderful or it will help you in some way, check the fine print because it will cost you something you’re not willing to give up in the long run. In my case, we got a Rec Center that promotes physical activity and wellness, has large assembly spaces, multi-purpose gyms, and locker rooms, but we paid for it’s very expensive building corrections in tax dollars, have more car accidents on our street, and have a constant reminder of what we lost having to look at a huge ugly building where hills of green grass used to be. For us, that is considered a fail. In Flint, their government told them that they would save them money and that their water would be fine, but those lies cost the people of Flint their health and safety; not a great trade off and it’s safe to say an epic fail. As Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”