Monday, January 11, 2016

Poisoned Water

It is not news that the water in Flint, Michigan, has been poisoning the citizens for almost two years since the city was forced to stop buying water from Detroit and had to take it from the cesspool that is the Flint River.  The city has since switched back to getting its water from Detroit until the pipeline to Lake Huron is completed, but the damage is done:  lead is in the water from corrosion to the pipes and people are getting sick.

That’s not the worst part.  The state knew about the hazard to the people almost as soon as they started pumping water out of the river, but the unelected “emergency manager” of Flint — appointed by the governor to run the city during its financial crisis — did nothing about it.  Governor Rick Snyder (R) knew about it as well, but it wasn’t until last month that he took it seriously.  Jordan Sargent at Gawker:

Among the most crucial questions of all are: Who should have known that the water in the Flint River was unsafe, who did know, and when did they know? That includes Synder, the governor, who is now apologizing for the crisis while also attempting to distance himself from it at the same time. At a press conference on Thursday, Snyder essentially plead the fifth on what he or his office might have known and when, but incriminating documents regarding his administration’s knowledge of the crisis have already been uncovered.

On Wednesday, NBC News reported that researchers at Virginia Tech who have been studying lead levels in Flint’s water received, via a Freedom of Information Act request, an email sent by Snyder’s ex-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore in July of 2015 expressing his concern about Flint to a “top health official.” In the email, Muchmore wrote:

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

It would be hard to conjure a more damning piece of evidence than this. Snyder didn’t declare a state of emergency regarding the water crisis until this week, but at least five months ago his top deputy was complaining about the administration having “blown off” the residents of Flint who were “scared and worried about the health impacts” of the water they were being asked to drink.

What needle does the governor conceivably thread here? At best, Snyder can plead complete ignorance—of the decision to temporarily pull water from the Flint River, of the water’s toxicity, of its effect on its consumers, of what his administration may have known. Though that might be the first step to protecting himself legally, it would paint him as a deeply negligent governor, one whose special “emergency manager” program directly led to an environmental disaster and who had no connection with a chief of staff who was trying to stop that disaster from becoming even worse.

The other reality would be that Snyder knew that Flint’s drinking water was perilously toxic but just decided not to do anything about it. Flint ended up pulling from the Flint River for 18 months, starting April 2014 and ending in October 2015, when it once again began buying water from Detroit. In that period of time, the city and state, as directed by Snyder, could have taken any number of opportunities to disconnect Flint’s water supply from its poisoned river, but did not.

Estimates to replace the damaged pipes and water system in Flint are running into the billions of dollars, and the healthcare issues will be with the city and the citizens for years.  So who will pay for it?