After months of finger-pointing over who is responsible for the water contamination problem in Flint, Mich., a scathing report squarely names the very people who vowed to root out who was to blame — the state itself.
The report, issued Wednesday by an independent investigations task force, said the state of Michigan, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Synder, was “fundamentally accountable” because agencies charged with enforcing drinking water regulations and protecting public health had failed to do their job.
What happened in Flint, the five-member panel said, was “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”
It specifically slammed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for working “to discredit and dismiss” attempts to bring to light concerns over unsafe water, lead contamination and a reported increase in cases of Legionnaires’ disease.
The investigators also concluded that given the demographics of Flint — the majority of residents are low-income and African American — “the implications for environmental injustice cannot be ignored or dismissed.”
The report stands as an explanation point in a slow-developing crisis that began in 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager decided the way to save money for the struggling Rust Belt city was to stop piping expensive drinking water from Detroit and instead draw water from the Flint River until a new pipeline could bring cheaper water from Lake Huron.
State financial and environmental officials approved the project.
The report said what followed was a series of failures and questionable decisions, including using the Flint River as an interim water supply source, disregard of compelling evidence of water quality and health problems, and callous and dismissive responses to the concern of citizens.
“The significant consequences of these failures for Flint will be long-lasting,” the report said. “They have deeply affected Flint’s public health, its economic future, and residents’ trust in government.”
The panel issued several recommendations including changes in policies and procedure to ensure input by health experts and scientists when permit decisions may have a direct impact on human health, and establishing a Flint Toxic Exposure Registry that includes children and adults who have lived in Flint since April 2014.
In a statement, Snyder said that many of the recommendations made in the report were already being implemented.
“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,” Snyder said.
But for many Flint residents, the gesture is too little, too late, and they personally blame Snyder for the catastrophe. Although his office was aware the water might be tainted, the public was not advised to stop drinking it until October 2015.
Thousands of Flint residents have filed suit.
“I cannot agree more with all of these findings,” said Julie Hurwitz, a civil rights attorney representing plaintiffs in three class-action suits. “There was a clear violation of the entire community’s rights under the U.S. and Michigan constitutions to be adequately protected from harm that was created by them, and adequately protected by them not taking steps that would invade the bodily integrity of that community.”
Hurwitz said there was never any doubt that the state’s foot-dragging in addressing the community’s concerns was “racism, clear and simple.”
“Had it been predominantly white and upper class, not only would the state not have made the decisions it made, it would not have ignored the obvious concerns,” Hurwitz said.
Her co-counsel, Bill Goodman, suggested that Synder had not been sufficiently taken to task because he was still in office.
“He’s like a snake,” Goodman said. “Even though he’s wiggling, he’s still dangerous. And the water is still poisonous.”