Flint Investigation Lays Blame For Water Crisis Squarely On The State

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress

An investigatory panel tasked by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) laid the blame for the contamination of Flint’s drinking water with lead and other toxins on the state in a final report released Wednesday. “[T]he state is fundamentally accountable for what happened in Flint,” it states. “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

The report enumerates a number of shortcomings among state agencies, particularly the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which it says bears “primary responsibility” for the water contamination and “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.” The report finds that the MDEQ misinterpreted the federal lead and copper rule, meant to protect Americans from lead in drinking water, and misapplied its requirements, leading to underreporting and high exposure for residents that went on for months. It also waited too long before accepting intervention from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) while failing to investigate the situation on its own.

The report also points a finger at the state-appointed emergency managers who were appointed to run Flint by Snyder due to the city’s precarious financial situation. That system “remov[ed] the checks and balances and public accountability” that come with leadership from locally elected officials. The report also found, contrary to the claims of former emergency managers such as Darnell Earley, that emergency managers and not Flint’s local officials made the decision to switch Flint’s water from Detroit to the Flint River, which was a first step in the contamination crisis.

Given the combined failings of the MDEQ and emergency managers, both of which report to the governor, the report places primary accountability on state government, which means, “Ultimate accountability for Michigan executive branch decisions rests with the Governor.” Specifically, the report notes that concerns raised among his staff and their suggestion that the city switch back to Detroit water in October of 2014 should have at least resulted in a comprehensive review of the situation. “It was dismissed, however, because of cost considerations and repeated assurances that the water was safe,” the report notes, while also acknowledging that Snyder was relying on incorrect information provided by state agencies.

In a press release responding to the report, Snyder didn’t mention those findings. Instead, he said the state is already implementing many of the report’s recommendations, which include staffing and enforement reforms at MDEQ, more frequent monitoring of children’s blood levels, better communication inside the governor’s office, more accountability for state departments, and a review of the emergency manager law. “We are taking dozens of actions to change how we operate – not just to hold ourselves accountable, but to completely change state government’s accountability to the people we serve,” he said.

The report doesn’t spare local or federal leadership. It found that Flint Public Workers personnel failed to comply with the lead and copper rule, specifically by not using corrosion control treatment that should have prevented lead from leaching into the water, although it also notes that they were acting on “inaccurate and improper guidance” from the MDEQ.

At the federal level, it finds that the EPA failed to exercise its authority early enough and that it could have enforced the rules more forcefully, rather than deferring so much to the MDEQ. “EPA was hesitant and slow to insist on proper corrosion control measures in Flint,” it finds. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently testified before Congress that the agency couldn’t have taken action sooner and that it was “misled” and “strong armed” by state agencies, stymieing its efforts.

The report also states, “The Flint water crisis is a clear case of environmental injustice.” Snyder has maintained that race did not play a role in the crisis. Yet the report says, “Flint residents, who are majority Black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.” People of color are more likely to live near and be exposed to pollution and contamination. More than half of Flint’s population is black, compared to less than 15 percent of the state as a whole, and more than 40 percent lives in poverty.