Rebecca Cook / REUTERS

Who’s responsible for poisoning Flint’s water supply?

The struggling Michigan city is reeling from a lead-poisoning crisis caused by bad state policies

December 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

In October, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced that the city of Flint would change its water source. This was in response to the discovery that temporarily pulling water from a local river produced high levels of lead in the water supply for Flint, an economically struggling community of 100,000 residents roughly an hour northwest of Detroit.

It was a crisis months in the making. Problems began as soon as officials decided in April 2014 to have Flint stop using Detroit’s water system and begin drawing water from the Flint River.

This was billed as a measure that would save millions of dollars. But residents almost immediately raised concerns about the discolored and smelly water that was flowing from their taps. Tests revealed high levels of chemicals that could cause liver or kidney problems, and some complained of losing hair and getting rashes after drinking the water.

In response to the growing backlash and the evidence that residents were drinking poisoned water, state and city officials sought to quell concerns, insisting the water was safe to drink and continually disputing local studies published this fall that showed lead levels sharply increased in the bloodstreams of Flint residents, including children. (Research suggests that lead can cause irreversible cognitive and developmental damage to children.)

But even as Snyder and other state officials relented, a question has continued to linger among activists and residents with children who could face life-altering circumstances as a result of lead poisoning: Who’s to blame for this mess?

At the October announcement that Flint would switch back to Detroit’s water system, Snyder made clear that he was interested solely in finding a solution to fix the problem, not in revisiting mistakes. Nonprofit donations, along with appropriations from the state and city, would pay for the $12 million transition back to Detroit’s system, he said.

“This isn’t about blaming anyone,” he said, “but are there recommendations to improve processes when you change water sources or are there ongoing things we should be looking at on a more frequent basis?”

Snyder is not the only official involved in the decision-making process to deflect blame.

At the time of the switch, Darnell Earley was Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager, with near total control of day-to-day operations. He was the third appointee to oversee the financially unstable city since 2011. According to a letter obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, it was Earley who made the final call.

But he asserts he’s not to blame. He claims the plan was presented to him by the city’s mayor, Dayne Walling, and staff members after Earley was appointed in October 2013. Walling, who was defeated last month in his re-election bid, has said that’s not the case. The head of Flint’s Department of Public Works at the time, Howard Croft, claimed the decision came down from Snyder’s office. Meanwhile, officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality simply said that staffers applied the wrong federal standards to treat water from the Flint River, despite a 2011 study that showed residents would be at risk of lead contamination if the water supply wasn’t treated properly. Asked about the report, a representative for the department told The Detroit Free Press to ask Flint officials why the recommendations were ignored.

There are really no models on how to clean up a mess like this, especially given that none of the authorities have proven trustworthy.

Marc Edwards

Professor, Virginia Tech

Snyder appointed a task force to issue what he characterized as an “after-action” report on what took place, though no completion date is set. It’s unclear what, if anything, might result from the report.

The perceived lack of accountability from activists and residents is the motivating factor behind a federal lawsuit that was filed last month by several families who have accused more than a dozen state and city officials of negligence, said attorney Julie Hurwitz.

“The various and sundry statements of positions being taken by the players in this entire travesty is so overwhelmingly broad,” she said, “that it’s frankly hard to keep track of all the various ins and outs and nuances and positions that … these culprits are publicly taking from one day to the next.”

Hurwitz added that the lawsuit, which she aims to make a class action, is intended to establish “some semblance of accountability for the wrong that was done.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor and MacArthur genius grant recipient who helped lead an independent study of Flint’s water supply with residents and the ACLU, said the situation has reached “uncharted territory.”

“I never heard of a situation where the agencies … responsible for preventing this problem caused it … There are really no models on how to clean up a mess like this, especially given that none of the authorities have proven trustworthy,” he said.

Months after acknowledging that lead levels in Flint’s water supply increased, the state’s only response so far has been to reassign an official with the environmental department and appoint a task force whose broad purpose is to “offer recommendations for future guidelines to protect the health and safety of all state residents.” Croft has resigned.

As recently as last week, Snyder refused to call the task force’s review an investigation. He again declined to set a deadline for completion of the review.

Flint residents have seen marked improvements, as Detroit’s water system has flushed out what’s left of the Flint River in the city’s supply. But that hasn’t allayed the concerns of city officials and residents still reeling from the fact that their water supply was poisoned on the state’s watch.

Hours after Snyder struck an optimistic tone on the situation in Flint, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was sending 28,000 liters of bottled water to the city.

And at a City Council meeting later that evening, newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency, a move that highlights the urgency many still feel is needed to address the situation. Her resolution doesn’t mince words when describing the horrifying reality Flint parents may face with their kids, and it nods to the source of the city’s crisis. It’s a source she can address only in broad strokes.

“The city of Flint,” she said, “has experienced a man-made disaster by switching to the use of the Flint River.” It’s a disaster that’s unlikely to end anytime soon.

Ryan Felton is a journalist who lives in Detroit. His writing and reporting have appeared in The Guardian, FiveThirtyEight, Reuters, In These Times, Jalopnik and Pacific Standard.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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