Backgrounder: The Flint Water Debacle

February 1, 2016

by John Pickerill

By now everyone has heard something about the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Residents there suddenly have highly contaminated water coming out of their faucets. Their children are sick. The Democratic mayor and the Republican governor are pointing fingers at each other. The media is reporting the charges and counter charges but not so much about the facts of what went wrong or how safe water is being supplied.

In a nutshell, the City of Flint went broke, then tried to save money with a cheaper water supply. Local and state government didn’t properly treat that water and now residents have toxic water.

The problems started when Flint’s population declined after a General Motors plants closed. Tax revenues fell and Flint’s officials struggled to provide basic services such as police and firefighting. So they robbed money from their water utility to pay the bills, leaving little for water-system maintenance.

The same thing was happening in Detroit where the Detroit Water & Sewage raised its water rates. Flint was one of its customers. But Flint politicians, with an eye toward reelection, chose not to pass along those rate increases to Flint water customers.

By 2011, Flint had a $15-million deficit. That’s when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager for Flint, taking decision-making away from the mayor and city council.

Genesee County, where Flint is located, began working with other counties to form the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) to build a pipeline from Lake Huron to mid-Michigan. Was this to save money on water? Apparently not. According to a letter from the City of Detroit to Flint and KWA, it would actually be more expensive than continuing to buy water from Detroit. Robby Soave of Reason magazine thinks that the KWA pipeline was little more than a public-works project promoted as a boost to the local economy.

Regardless, the pipeline wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2016, and Flint was going further in the hole paying Detroit $12 million a year for water. In 2013, the city decided to pump water from the Flint River at a cost of only $2.8 million a year.

Bad decision. Flint officials did not take into account that making river water safe to drink is more difficult than treating lake water. Rivers are vulnerable to runoff pollution and water-quality changes due to more drastic temperature swings. When Flint switched from Detroit water to Flint River water, residents reported problems immediately. The water from their faucets smelled like sewage; it sometimes had a yellow tint, sometimes blue. When residents called the city to complain they were told it was fine.

Testing results proved otherwise. Fecal coliform bacteria was found in the water. When city engineers tried to fix it by adding more chlorine the result was dangerously high levels of trihalomethanes or TTHMs. Because TTHMs are most toxic when inhaled, residents could have been poisoned by merely taking a hot shower. Flint officials knew about this in May of 2014. They didn’t tell residents until January.

Testing also showed lead levels as high as 13,000 ppb (the Environmental Protection Agency recommendation is 15 ppb). Children were showing signs of lead poisoning. By way of background, know that many cities used lead pipes when their water systems were originally installed. That lead leeches into the water unless it is treated with corrosion control chemicals such as phosphates. Flint officials failed to do this before they started pumping water from the Flint River.

Who is to blame? The Democrat mayor of Flint? The Democrat emergency manager appointed by the Republican governor? Probably both. But while they are busy pointing fingers at each other, making speeches and press releases and declaring states of emergency, Flint residents need safe water to drink.

The private sector has come to the rescue. Walmart, Coke, Pepsi and Nestle announced they will deliver 6.5-million bottles of water to Flint, and keep doing so until the end of 2016. So while the mayor and governor are worried about their political careers, it is the private sector that is actually helping the people of Flint. And it did so without costing taxpayers a dime.

John Pickerill, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is a facilities engineer with RR Donnelley specializing in design and maintenance of piping systems. Previously, he served as a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy.


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