A ‘man-made disaster’ unfolded in Flint, within plain sight of water regulators
Almost two years ago, the leaders of Flint, Mich., lifted glasses of water in the air — clear water — to toast a plan to save money for their struggling city.
“Here’s to Flint!” said Mayor Dayne Walling, lifting his glass. Smiling officials responded, “Hear, hear!” and gulped down their drinks, oblivious to the disaster ahead.
Flint was in the throes of a financial crisis, and a state-appointed emergency manager had agreed on a way for the struggling Rust Belt city to save money: Stop piping expensive drinking water from Detroit.
Flint would 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, which the state treasurer said would bring “desperately needed” savings.
“Here’s our moment, so I think we need a countdown,” the mayor said during the April 25, 2014, ceremony at a water-control facility. Onlookers chanted, “Three, two, one!” as Walling pressed a black button that would switch over the city’s water supply.
After a moment, a green light flicked off, drawing applause. The flow of water from Detroit had stopped, and a crisis that would soon consume Michigan had begun.
“It stinks; it’s nasty,” the Rev. Barbara Bettis told the Flint City Council in June 2014. “We shouldn’t even be drinking it.”
Within two months after the switch, residents were complaining. The new drinking water from the Flint River smelled strange, and was much more laden with minerals than the water from Detroit.
Officials responded that tests showed the water was perfectly safe. But by August, tests revealed E. coli in the water, and parts of the city were ordered to boil the water before drinking.
Some residents also noticed that their water was ... brown.
The Flint River had once been heavily polluted by Michigan’s once-mighty manufacturing industry, but the river had improved in recent decades. The problem, officials soon decided, was what the new water from the Flint River was revealing about Flint itself.
More than 550 miles of water mains ran beneath the city, and most of them were cast-iron pipes more than 75 years old. The combination of harsher water, water-main breaks from a bitter winter and maintenance work was causing the pipes to release iron that made the water brown — something unpleasant to look at, but not dangerous.
A bigger problem was that, as the city’s population shrank over the years — from 141,553 in 1990 to fewer than 100,000 by 2013 — water spent more time sitting idle in parts of the system.
That hadn’t been a problem with the treated lake water piped from Detroit. But the Flint River water was warmer, and it also contained more organic matter, which allowed bacteria like E. coli to grow when water sat for too long. Officials added more chlorine.
The river drew more worrisome headlines when the GM engine plant in town decided to stop taking Flint’s water in October 2014 because it was worried the high levels of chloride, which the river water also contained, would corrode metal parts.
The city insisted the water was still safe. GM employees, Flint officials pointed out, were still drinking the water at the plant. But then, on Dec. 16, 2014, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality notified Flint that it had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The city’s chlorine treatment had resulted in a sharp increase of chemical compounds called total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, created when chlorine fuses with organic matter. State officials provided a sample notice letter for Flint to send to its residents by Jan. 10, 2015.
“This is not an emergency. If it had been an emergency, you would have been notified within 24 hours,” the notice said.
Less reassuring was the next paragraph, which switched to italics: “People who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the [maximum contaminant levels] over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
Flint’s water fiasco was becoming Gov. Rick Snyder’s problem by February 2015.
A second-term Republican with a quirky streak — his Twitter handle is @onetoughnerd — Snyder had received a letter from Flint’s Democratic state representative warning that the city was “on the verge of civil unrest.”
Residents were attending City Council meetings with jugs of brown water. Groups were handing out bottled water.
In a background briefing, the state Department of Environmental Quality downplayed the danger.
“It’s not ‘nothing’ … but it’s not like an eminent threat to public health,” said the department’s memo to the governor, including a misspelling. It said TTHM levels were already dropping rapidly, and the compound only caused health problems in the long term.
But amid the worries over brown tap water, the worst of the crisis was still quietly developing in plain sight of regulators.
In February 2015, officials tested one Flint home and discovered its water had lead levels of 104 parts per billion — well above the recommended threshold of 15 ppb. Lead, which is tasteless, can cause permanent damage to young children’s development and lead to lower IQs.
A federal Environmental Protection Agency employee asked a state official what Flint was doing to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water from pipes. Detroit had used phosphates to combat the problem. Was Flint using phosphates?
In a vague email — obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in a records request — a state Department of Environmental Quality employee responded to say that, yes, Flint had an anti-corrosion program.
This was not true.
Flint’s new mayor would call it a “man-made disaster.” Over the next 11 months, local doctors, outside experts and independent investigators would conclude that state regulators had made a massive misstep when they failed to treat the water to prevent corrosion.
Instead, the Department of Environmental Quality opted to monitor lead levels over two six-month periods.
The lead levels rose, those tests showed. By April 2015, the federal EPA discovered Flint didn’t have an anti-corrosion program, and in August, the state told Flint to implement anti-corrosion measures as soon as possible.
But the state remained publicly resistant to the idea that lead was poisoning Flint’s water and its residents.
Outside researchers at Virginia Tech University announced Sept. 2 that the Flint River’s high chloride levels were causing pipes to corrode and leach lead. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality downplayed those findings.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 24, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, announced that lead poisoning in infants and small children had surged since the city switched its water supply.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, however, responded that its broader set of lead-monitoring data didn’t show an unusual increase in lead poisoning.
In a Sept. 25 email, the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, told Snyder that state agencies believed local officials were using lead poisoning as a “political football” to shift responsibility to the state, adding that he thought “the real responsibility” for the water crisis rested with city officials.
A painful reckoning came at the end of the year, when a Flint water task force appointed by Snyder said the state Department of Environmental Quality was to blame for the lead poisoning.
The task force accused the department of having a “minimalist approach to regulatory and oversight responsibility” that was “unacceptable and simply insufficient to the task of public protection.”
“Throughout 2015, as the public raised concerns and as independent studies and testing were conducted and brought to the attention of MDEQ, the agency’s response was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved,” the task force wrote.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant resigned on Dec. 29, and EPA Region 5 director Susan Hedman followed suit on Friday, after accusations that the federal agency had not acted aggressively enough in preventing the crisis.
“The Flint water crisis,” the governor’s task force said, “never should have happened.”
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