THE STATE of Michigan has found itself facing a disaster over the provision of the most basic of services — clean drinking water. In 2014, the state tried to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. Corrosive water from the river caused the system’s pipes to begin to leach lead into the water supply, with residents complaining of foul-tasting, discolored water. Now nearly all of the 99,000 residents of the city of Flint, which has a black majority, have been exposed to water at high risk for lead contamination. What is crystal clear in this murky mess is that federal and Michigan officials utterly failed to safeguard the health and welfare of their citizens.
The damage is dramatic and in some cases possibly irreversible. Late in 2015, testing revealed that the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since the city’s decision to switch to the Flint River. According to reports, both the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality knew about the absence of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply as early as April and failed to tell the public. Released emails show that state officials failed to heed the concerns of EPA officials and researchers over corrosion controls, proper testing and adherence to the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates the amounts of lead and copper in drinking water in the United States.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) waited much too long to respond to the escalating catastrophe. Following calls for his resignation, Mr. Snyder at first tweeted that “political statements and finger pointing from political candidates only distract from solving the Flint water crisis.” On Tuesday, Mr. Snyder struck a different tone with his State of the State address, apologizing to the people of Flint and saying, “I will fix it.” Mr. Snyder said that his office was told only one house was affected by the lead problem. President Obama has declared a state of emergency in Flint, authorizing up to $5 million to help Michigan deal with this man-made disaster. In addition to deploying the National Guard to help distribute water, Mr. Snyder announced he will ask state lawmakers for an additional $28 million to help with the crisis.
Solving the crisis must go beyond distributing water bottles and filters to include full transparency from leaders. Mr. Snyder has promised to release emails from 2014 and 2015 related to the water crisis. Michigan has an obligation to repair pipes and fixtures in homes, day care centers and hospitals and to compensate victims. Nearly 27,000 children in Flint have been exposed to lead-contaminated water. Lead poisoning in children can damage the nervous system and cause behavioral and cognitive problems. The water crisis may well result in a burden for the city’s schools as well as its health system.
What started as an attempt to save money has resulted in lawsuits, the resignation of top officials and an investigation by the state’s attorney general. Officials estimate it could cost $1.5 billion to repair the water infrastructure. The damage to the lives of Flint residents, and to their trust in government, is beyond measure.