Dominica Cao ’19
In light of the Flint, Mich. water crisis, extensive follow-ups have been conducted on the effects of lead poisoning and the hardships of living out of water bottles. Interestingly, the media coverage has also centered around politics, with Democrats pounding down on Michigan’s right-wing governor. Bernie Sanders has even called for Gov. Snyder’s resignation, stating that, “There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water. He did nothing … Gov. Snyder should resign.” Unfortunately, in placing blame on one person, this type of statement dismisses so many issues that must be addressed. The problem isn’t one man, but the government system, in which ordinary citizens are the real victims.
In 2014, Flint was on the brink of bankruptcy. To address this financial crisis, Snyder pushed through legislation to reinstate Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) law that granted state intervention in local governments that experience financial emergencies.
However, this decision was extremely problematic. The EFM law has only proven to be harmful to Michigan municipalities, as their solution to improving the financial situation is always cutting city services. We witness an endless, disastrous loop every time: Finances are horrible, an EFM is appointed, services are cut, discontented residents are driven out, revenue plummets and then the cycle repeats. In the past two years, Flint has undergone four series of EFMs, and their quick resignations have contributed to the city’s lack of stability.
The water crisis began when Flint’s EFM decided to switch from the expensive water plan with Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department to an alternative source – the Karegnondi Water Authority Pipeline project, which gets its water from Lake Huron. But since the project would take years to complete, the EFM decided on a cheaper alternative: Water from Flint’s very own polluted river. By including appropriations in his bill for EFMs, Snyder made voter repeal impossible. To make matters worse, these EFMs are non-elected officials who have absolute authority over city government officials, so democracy is thrown out the window. Snyder found a loophole in Michigan law by crafting an appropriations bill that was referendum-proof. But the problem is beyond Snyder: all Michigan lawmakers can exploit this, and estranging citizens and elected officials from the law-making process is a flaw in our system that must be corrected.
However, Snyder should not be blamed for how he reacted to knowledge of the water crisis, and this is where Sanders’s earlier statement reaches its largest flaw. A governor is only as good as the information provided to him or her, and in this crisis, Snyder has only drawn short sticks. When residents first began to complain of water discoloration and odor, Snyder involved himself by confronting the state health department.
However, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reported back to Snyder that testing results were in compliance with federal standards. In many interviews, Snyder revealed that the delay in governmental response was due to miscommunication, but recent email releases under the Freedom of Information Act confirm misinformation from the DEQ. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) questioned the DEQ on the state of Flint’s water treatment process, DEQ’s Steven Busch replied that Flint indeed had an “optimized corrosion control plan.” Only recently did we find out that no such plan existed.
The DEQ’s horrible practice of covering up their mistakes and lies caused the situation to deteriorate with each passing month. While multiple sources like the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) were quoting DEQ, Flint was wrapped in a ball of uncertainty. With the switch from Detroit water to Flint’s river, confusion on timetables, techniques and requirements for regulated testing were also mixed up. Today, hindsight allows us to see the larger scope of events and makes it easier to map out the causes of the Flint water crisis and possible courses of action, but it is difficult to place blame on a governor who was presented falsified information. Could he have done more to look into the problem? Definitely. But he was also working against the “truth” of environmental experts.
Indeed, there are so many issues revealed in Flint’s water crisis, such as the privatization of water, racism in housing administration and brain damage caused by lead poisoning. When tragedies like that of Flint’s are used as political stunts for people to attack opposing parties, it silences the plight of the victims and crafts a misguided discussion around partisan politics. And the solution to sack the man only simplifies a complex issue, limiting the scope for questioning, discussion and plans for improvement.