Flint's water crisis isn't a failure of austerity. It's a failure of government.
Flint, Michigan, near where I live, has become a national scandal for distributing lead-laced water to its residents for 16 months. Lead poisoning, especially among children, is linked to irreversible brain damage, violent behavior, Legionnaire's disease (a form of pneumonia), and numerous other health problems. That such a Third World-worthy disaster should happen in a rich country like America is shocking and shameful.
But its root cause is not a cheapskate Republican governor hell bent on imposing a diet of austerity on a struggling city, as many liberals have concluded. It is that entrusting government, which failed spectacularly at every level, to protect the health of its citizens is dangerous naivety.
It is true that the debacle happened on the watch of an emergency manager whom Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed in 2011 to help this Rust Belt city, built before Michigan's auto industry (literally) went south, balance its books and avoid bankruptcy. After decades of fiscal mismanagement by local leaders, Flint's $1.1 billion unfunded legacy obligations and dwindling population base was making it difficult to fund city services and day-to-day operations. At the same time, the city was re-negotiating a 30-year contact with its water supplier, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department.
Facing future rate hikes as well as greater liability for stranded costs — i.e. how much of the bond payment for upgraded infrastructure Flint would be on the hook for if it prematurely quit the contract — Flint in 2013 decided against renewing its Detroit contract. It opted, instead, to switch to a new regional system drawing water from Lake Huron that was offering cheaper rates and better terms.
There was no disagreement among any of the stakeholders that this was a sensible move for a city desperately looking to control costs and pay its bills. However, since the Huron system wouldn't be up and running for a few years, in the interim a fateful decision was made to reopen a mothballed Flint water plant that relied on the polluted Flint River rather than pay the extra $10 million in higher rates over two years that Detroit would charge for a temporary contract.
There is a big dispute about who exactly made the call to immediately disconnect from DWSD (Snyder released e-mails Thursday to shed light on this and other concerns). Regardless, the move has elicited howls of protest against Gov. Snyder and his fiscal conservatism. "This is what Snyder does not understand," the liberal Detroit Free Press lectured while questioning its endorsement of the governor: "To lead a state, accountancy is not sufficient. To lead the state, a balanced budget is not sufficient…He has got to see people, not sums, as the bottom line of the state balance sheet." Meanwhile, a headline in Vox declared, "Flint, Michigan, tried to save money on water. Now its children have lead poisoning." And The Week's Ryan Cooper has accused Flint of poisoning its own residents to save a few bucks. "This is a stark demonstration of austerity's false economy," he maintains.
But this is tantamount to blaming a car crash on the driver's failure to lease a Mercedes rather than the reckless use of his vehicle — the driver in this case being the government.
There is no doubt that because Flint was using Flint River as its source, it needed to be extra cautious to ensure water quality. Instead, it ignored even elementary controls.
Residents started complaining about the taste and color of the water right after the switch in April 2014. The city denied anything was wrong, but later discovered that the water contained a higher-than-recommended concentration of TTHM (trihalomethanes) — a byproduct that is generated when too much chlorine is required to disinfect the water. This, along with some other issues, prompted General Motors to quit the Flint water system after its auto parts started corroding. Yet Democratic Flint Mayor Dayne Walling was still telling residents the water was safe, even advising them that buying bottled water would be "wasting their precious money."
After the initial botch up, one would think the authorities would have woken up, especially since these early problems were a harbinger of lead poisoning, among the worst possible things that can happen to a water system. That's not because the Flint River itself contains lead. It's because when acidic, chlorinated water flows through pipes, it destroys their coating, allowing lead to leach in. This is a totally avoidable problem whose cure was not necessarily to return to more expensive Detroit water. Rather, it was to simply add phosphorous to the water, something that could be done for as little as $50,000 annually, well within the means even of a cash-strapped city, sources knowledgeable about the problem maintain.
But instead of doing this, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that oversees it started a year-long Sherlock Holmes-style investigation.
Indeed, the EPA totally blew off the suggestion by its water expert Miguel del Toral to add corrosion control treatment as far back as last June. At around the same time, an aide of Gov. Rick Snyder raised concerns about excessive lead levels with the DEQ, and was assured that everything was just peachy.
One reason why the DEQ didn't take the aide seriously is that its own lead tests didn't show any problems. But these tests were based on an EPA standard that allows taps to be flushed for five minutes the night before water samples are collected. Never mind that's not what most people do before making their morning cup of coffee, so such samples don't accurately reflect the actual quality of water they are consuming. As if this was not bad enough, even after realizing last summer that the DEQ really should be doing phosphorous treatment, the EPA didn't go public with its concerns and warn residents for fear of stepping on the toes of local authorities. The regional EPA head, Susan Hedman, who opted to do nothing, resigned yesterday.
But not only did the DEQ-EPA duo totally drop the ball, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did too. It dismissed tests by its own epidemiologist showing elevated lead levels in blood streams of children shortly after the switch to Flint water as a "seasonal anomaly."
It was not until late fall when independent water tests by Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards and blood tests by Flint's Hurley Children's Hospital pediatrician showed spiked lead levels in both — and state tests confirmed the results — did authorities hit the panic button and Gov. Snyder declare an emergency.
Snyder is (rightly) calling Flint his Hurricane Katrina and has requested $28 million in state funding to fix its problems (and President Obama just agreed to release $80 million). This figure will almost certainly balloon as the state is forced to settle the class-action lawsuits that are already underway. This means that state and federal taxpayers will now be on the hook for a problem they didn't create and that Flint residents didn't deserve to suffer.
In short, the problem that could have been averted by less than a hundred thousand dollar investment will now end up costing hundreds of millions without ever being able to undo the damage to the health and lives of Flint residents. This is not the fault of government austerity — but government incompetence, negligence, and rank stupidity on the very part of those agencies that are entrusted with public health. And there is no amount of government spending that can fix that.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized an EPA standard. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.