Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a “Tea Party” Republican legislature gained control of Michigan in the 2010 midterm elections. Snyder was eager to implement Koch brothers-inspired changes in governance, which he characterized as “fiscal martial law.” By spring of 2011, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act (PA4) was rushed into law without public commentary to declare a “fiscal emergency” for any municipality or public service. PA4 set the stage for the tragedy that poisoned both the drinking water and the public trust in Flint, Michigan.
Once the governor declares a “fiscal emergency,” he can appoint an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who “will exercise any power or authority over any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether appointed or elected.” EFMs come to power through corporate or political connections and have absolute control over democratically elected officials. There is no redress for an EFM’s decisions to seize pensions, confiscate public parks or schools for private development or outsource or insource any public workers (police for instance).
EFM Actions: In 2013, EFM Howard Kurtz decided to end Flint’s use of clean Detroit water for cheaper water piped into by a pipeline still under construction. His successor, Darnell Earley, followed that decision with the disastrous choice to forget the proposed pipeline and immediately changed to water from the Flint River. Earley stated $1.5 million would thus be saved.
No studies of Flint River water were ordered, and no environmental experts were consulted. But it was well known that the General Motors plant in Flint had previously refused to use Flint water “because it (the water) rusted car parts.”
EFM Earley’s second decision, which was horrific, was to omit adding a “corrosive inhibitor treatment” to Flint River water. Omitting the corrosive inhibitor saved $140 per day but destroyed the linings of the entire Flint water pipe system, allowing lead from the corroded pipes to leech into every Flint citizen’s drinking water.
By March 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies revealed Flint water to be contaminated with chemical and bacterial infestations and violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. EFM Earley and Governor Snyder were notified but did not publicly acknowledge that Flint’s water was poisoned. However, Governor Snyder quietly ordered bottled water delivered to all state employees working in Flint.
At the same time, a courageous pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha, held a press conference and advised Governor Snyder her young patients’ blood lead levels had “spiked dangerously high” and that an increasing number of children were being affected. Her results were strongly challenged and she was publically berated for being an “alarmist.”
Finally, on January 26, 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office began an investigation into why Flint’s water is so contaminated now when it had been clean and clear two years ago. Governor Snyder immediately called a press conference and declared that he was “Sorry about the water …. I will fix the problem,” but he disguised his own responsibility by adding “your government failed you at all levels.” He did not offer any state money for bottled water or blood lead level testing from Michigan’s Rainy Day fund.
President Obama immediately declared a State of Emergency and has ordered Federal Emergency Management Assistance (FEMA) funds and experts to manage the water crisis. So Governor Snyder continues to refuse personal responsibility for the potentially life threatening consequences of the decisions of his specially appointed EFM Darnell Earley to “save money” for Michigan.
What Now? For now, billions of gallons of bottled water will continue to be paid for by the federal government and donated by service organizations. But the long- term solution needed to end the lead poisoning by Flint River water is to replace hundreds of miles of Flint city water pipes and all water pipes in individual homes, which is likely to take 15 years and cost at least $60 million, according to e-mails released by Governor Snyder.
To date, no specific plans for complete rebuilding of Flint’s water system have been identified. Meanwhile, Flint’s citizens continue to be billed $100 per month for lead-contaminated water that neither humans or farm animals or pets can drink. And Flint’s children will be forever diminished intellectually in addition to suffering from other very serious chronic medical conditions.
We will continue to watch Governor Snyder and the citizens of Flint. Follow-up postings will discuss irreversible medical problems of elevated blood lead levels, especially in children. And we will review the environmental racism implicit in “financial martial law” in Flint and other poor cities in America.
Vice President for Public Policy and Political Action