The city’s leaders didn’t start this mess.
At his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) accepted blame for the water crisis in Flint and offered an explanation for how it started.
“This crisis began in the spring of 2013, when the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to buy water from the Karegnondi Water Authority,” he said.
It’s simpler than that: Snyder’s government gave Flint bad water treatment advice, and the city got bad water. And it’s also more complicated: City officials did play a role, but Snyder’s version of events oversells it.
“The governor’s been trying to use that line — that action that was taken by the city council — to remove himself from this problem,” former Flint City Council member Josh Freeman told “So That Happened,” the HuffPost Politics podcast.
As for the decision to join the KWA, it was made even before Flint’s elected leaders voted — by the emergency manager Snyder had appointed to run Flint’s affairs because the city was broke. The manager had total control over the city’s government and the council only got to weigh in because the director of the new water authority insisted.
“I said, ‘I will not accept that,'” Karegnondi CEO Jeff Wright recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I do require a decision of this magnitude to be voted on by the elected representatives of the people.”
So on that fateful day, the Flint City Council voted to join the KWA, knowing the new system wouldn’t be ready until 2016. The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department had been raising Flint’s rates every year, resulting in some of the state’s highest water bills. City and state officials believed Flint could save millions of dollars by joining the new system.
Then the Detroit system, from which the city had been buying its water for nearly 50 years, notified Flint and the surrounding Genesee County that it would be cutting off their service in the spring of 2014.
What could be done between 2014 and 2016, when the KWA came online? Genesee County opted to continue buying water from Detroit, but at a 10 percent higher rate, according to Wright, who is Genesee’s drain commissioner in addition to being the CEO of the KWA.
Flint wound up going for the Flint River, though it’s not clear exactly how the decision was made.
“At no time had we decided to use the Flint River… as our primary water source,” said Freeman, who resigned from the council in December after serving more than 10 years.
Dayne Walling, who served as Flint’s mayor until Karen Weaver unseated him in November, told the Detroit Free Press that month that emergency manager Edward Kurtz made the decision not long after the KWA vote. Kurtz also signed an orderhiring a firm “for assistance in placing the Flint Water Plant into operation using the Flint River as a primary drinking water source for approximately two years,” though Kurtz wasn’t in charge when the switch happened in 2014.
Regardless of whether they had a hand in the decision, however, Flint City Council members said they didn’t think using the Flint River was a crazy idea, and they didn’t object. The Flint River already served as the city’s official backup. It had been used twice in 2009, but not for longer than a week. The Flint Water Treatment Plant pumped water several times each year for the sole purpose of making sure it stayed ready.
Monica Galloway, who represents Flint’s 7th Ward on the council, was at the plant that day in 2014 when Walling ceremoniously pushed a button to make the change. Galloway thought the Flint River represented an opportunity to lower her constituents’ water bills.
“I thought, ‘This can be good. We have had such high water bills,'” Galloway said in an interview. “It just seems like as a community, for me, man, we got a hold on something we can control.”
Nobody expected the water switch to result in lead-poisoned children, undrinkable water, a declaration of a federal emergency and the National Guard assisting with door-to-door delivery of bottled water. The river water wound up leaching lead from the city’s aging pipes because the city failed to control for the water’s corrosiveness.
Here’s what went wrong: Instead of telling the city to treat the water, the Michigan Department of Environment Quality told it to just monitor the water for a year, then decide what kind of corrosion treatment it needed, according to an MDEQ memo from November that was included in Snyder’s recently released emails relating to the crisis.
An Environmental Protection Agency official reported in a leaked June memo that high lead levels were possible in Flint because the city did not have a system for controlling corrosion. After the memo came to light, the EPA said it had been a mere draft; state officials used that assurance to downplay its warnings.
“A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water,” the memo said. “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment.”
Claiming ambiguity in requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the MDEQ and the EPA said not controlling for corrosiveness was an honest mistake; Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech corrosion expert who helped expose Flint’s high lead levels over the summer, has insisted it was an egregious one. The head of the MDEQ and the regional director of the EPA have since resigned after both agencies moved slowly last year in the face of growing alarm over high lead levels.
Edwards said his own experiments with adding corrosion inhibitors to Flint water samples reduced the water’s ability to leach heavy metals from pipe materials.
“Had they followed the law, the switch would have been considered a success,” Edwards said.
Snyder, for his part, has admitted the state made mistakes and has apologized repeatedly.