This story was on the front page of the New York Times on January 20. Pretty shocking story. But if you look into it, it’s been all over the front pages of the state press in Michigan for months. Local papers and MLive have been talking about it nonstop for at least five months — that’s how long it has been since a Virginia Tech water contamination expert, who is also a MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellow, completed a study concluding that the water coming out of the taps in Flint, Michigan contained dangerously high levels of lead. And the roots of the problem go back at least to June 21, 2013, when Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz signed an executive resolution switching over the city’s primary water supply from Lake Huron (via a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department pipeline) to the Flint River. And the problem has been a national health crisis at least since a report released in September 2015 by the Hurley Medical Center studying infants and children under 5 years of age showed that the proportion of children under 5 in tested areas of Flint had levels of Elevated Blood Lead (anything over 5 micrograms/deciliter of blood) that were significantly higher than they had been before the city made the switch to river water.
In plain language, infants and children are being poisoned with lead, in a city where the levels of lead in drinking water have been scientifically measured to be dangerously high.
It’s not hard to connect those two dots.
But the story of Flint’s water crisis is a lot larger, and, if anything, even more alarming than the headlines show. A closer look at the entire sad story reveals that not only were lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s water system insanely elevated in 2015, but it was a string of four health and water crises, and consistent denial of them by the state, that culminated in the discovery that the water coming out of Flint residents’ faucets was poisoned with lead.
It all begins much earlier than you might think. The butterfly flapped its wings, so to speak, in October 2010, setting of a chain of events and consequences that persists to the present day. In October 2010, high-ranking officials from Flint and surrounding counties decided to inaugurate a new public water corporation that would specifically serve the city and its neighboring areas. Up to that point, Flint had been using water piped to the city through a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) pipeline that connects to the Genesee County Drain Commission’s water system at a pumping station at the corner of Baxter and Potter Rd.’s in Genesee County (pumping station GN-01), which in turn connects to the Flint city water distribution system near the corner of Center Road and Pierson Road in Genesee County (see above link).
This arrangement had been in place ever since June 6, 1964, when Flint signed a contract with the DWSD to deliver Detroit water, which is pumped to that city from Lake Huron. The new project was called the “Karegnondi Water Authority” (KWA), and it would be Flint’s own pipeline to bring in Lake Huron water to the city.
Interestingly enough, the last time Flint made such a drastic change in its water source (in 1964) was after a failed private venture by billionaire Samuel Catsman – fossil fuel, concrete, and real estate tycoon – whose plan was to, wait for it, build a pipeline that would pump water to Flint from Lake Huron. Through his own misbehavior, Catsman turned his lucrative contract into charges for corruption. His crime was the real-estate equivalent of insider trading: selling plots of land along the proposed route of his private pipeline at a huge markup. In the end, the charges against Catsman were dropped, and his profits repaid, but the scandal did climax with the arrest of co-conspirator, Flint City Manager Robert A. Carter. The board of directors of the KWA, very aware of the failure of this last, similar venture, were publicly very conscientious about avoiding the pitfalls of the past. “We know the history and want to be sure everything is transparent” this time, said county Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright (see link above).
In March 2013, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 in favor of adopting the (as-yet-unbuilt) KWA as the new water source for the city. The decision was signed off on by State officials, including Treasurer Andy Dillon. This was necessary because Flint is actually under the direct control of Emergency Managers that are accountable only to the Governor’s office.
Before we go too deep into dates, timelines, and cause & effect, however, we should take a step back and remember what this crisis is really about. To that end, here are just a few pictures that introduce the human crisis that has been unfolding in Flint for the past 18 months.
People have been poisoned in Flint.
That is the real story here — not the regulatory failures, not the governor’s apology, not the National Guard being mobilized.
And, as Flint resident Connor Coyne wrote in an article for Vox.com, the story is not about a failure of local government, because Flint’s Emergency Manager hierarchy strips local governments of control over all major decisions in the first place:
The stage was set on March 16, 2011, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4. This measure broadened an earlier law that provided an “emergency financial manager” for financially distressed cities and school districts.
The need for an emergency manager was determined by a series of highly subjective criteria [see Michigan Radio report here]. Almost every city that got one was a poor, African-American-majority city devastated by a shrinking industrial sector: Flint, Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, and so on.
Flint was one of the first cities to be assigned an emergency manager in 2011, and over the course of four years had four such managers. One of the first manager’s first acts was to suspend local government [see Sec 9(1)ee here], and this remained essentially in force until the departure of the last emergency manager in 2015. Even today, Flint is under the scrutiny of a “transition advisory board” that has veto power over any local decision, and that has frequently overstepped its professed limited mandate to assure fiscal restraint.
Some emergency managers, true, delegated limited responsibilities to the mayor or to members of the city council, but they always retained (and used) their powers to void any decision with which they disagreed. This is the key point that early coverage by flagship newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post neglected to mention: From 2011 to 2015, Flint officials had no real control over municipal policy.
For example, a Newsweek article from October 2015 was titled “Flint: The Cheapskate City That Poisoned Its Children.”
A New York Times article reports that “Flint’s mayor, Dayne Walling … had attended a 2014 event to celebrate the switch to the new water supply,” without mentioning that the emergency manager who had actually signed on for the switch was also present at that event.
A Washington Post article from last December doesn’t even utter the words “emergency Manager.”
It’s those two words — “emergency manager” — that differentiate Flint from all but a handful of cities around the country, and which made it particularly vulnerable to the kind of reckless oversight that led to our contaminated water.
(Added emphasis in red ink is mine, links in brackets mine)
With these facts in mind, and a clear picture of what the problem really is – poisonous drinking water – the timeline of events in Flint will be much easier to follow.
As I said before, in March 2013, the Flint City Council approved a future switch to using the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s water source. This switch over to KWA-carried Lake Huron water couldn’t occur, of course, until after the 65-mile new pipeline was completed that would carry raw lake water from the KWA’s pumping station on the shores of the lake, on a property near the Sanilac-St. Clair County line, to Genesee County and Flint. Construction was expected to be completed in late 2016. However, this didn’t address the issue of where to draw drinking water from in the meantime. This was not part of the City Council’s deliberations on joining the KWA. Why? Mayor Dayne Walling explains:
The governor and the (state) treasurer to their credit recognized it was important for the city’s elected representatives to be included in the decision about the long-term source (of water) because we would be living with it,” he said. “But once the decision was made in April 2013 [referring to the decision to use the KWA in the future, which was approved by the Emergency Manager in April], it became an operational issue … and I wasn’t directly involved.
(Emphasis mine; clarification in blue; link to article is first link below this quote)
The Flint mayor also explains that “the decision to use river water[…]was made by emergency manager Darnell Earley”.
Indeed, a letter from Earley to Sue McCormick at DWSD dated March 7, 2014, reveals that he was, at that point, firmly decided on the switch to using Flint River water “following the termination of the current contract as of April 17, 2014”:
Following DWSD’s April 17, 2013 notice of termination of the water service contract between the City of Flint and DWSD, the City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source while the KWA pipeline is being constructed. We expect that the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water prior to the date of termination. In that case, there will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014.
Earley concludes the letter by saying that Genesee County may still be interested in purchasing Detroit water, and asking if it would be possible for DWSD to continue a contract at 50% of the previous allotment, through various scenarios (you can read them on page 2 of the link above). However, while this letter does give a strong indication that decisions on how to deal with the Flint water supply in the interim between the expiration of the DWSD contract and the completion of the KWA pipeline were firmly vested in the office of the Emergency Manager, it doesn’t conclusively put the blame on Earley as “the one” who made the decision to funnel Flint River water through the city’s decaying water pipes.
In fact, Walling is actually either confused, mistaken, or not telling the whole truth when he says that “the decision to use river water…was made by emergency manager Darnell Earley”. Early was Emergency Manager when Mayor Walling made that remark, but Earley was not even Flint’s EM when the City Council voted to transfer water service to the KWA, and he definitely was not the EM when the city started injecting its water supply with water from the Flint River.
For that, we need to go all the way back to 2012, when ex-EM Michael Brown sent a letter to DWSD requesting that Flint be allowed to “blend” the water it purchased from Detroit with water pumped from the Flint River. As recently-released emails from the Governor’s office show, the plan to cut Detroit water with cheaper and lower quality river water was intended to cut costs, saving the city between 2 and 3 million dollars a year on the water bill:
June 26, 2012 – Letter from Flint EM Mike Brown to DWSD for permission to begin blending Flint River water with treated water from DWSD. The letter indicates that the DEQ is supporting this option and its implementation would save the City between $2M and $3M annually.
This is important to realize for understanding the rest of this article, and for understanding the real causes behind the poisoning of the Flint water system:
The decision to use the Flint River was only a cost-cutting measure.
When you read documents released from inside the administration of city and state governments, it is clear that the only considerations that Flint’s Emergency Managers and the Snyder administration cares about are dollars and cents.
When you look at the Flint water crisis from its inception until the present day, it is clear that Flint EMs, MDEQ, and the Snyder administration prioritized profits over people at every step of the way.
When you objectively appraise the situation, it is clear that the moral calculus done by the Snyder administration and Snyder-appointed (unelected) officials was “We need to save a few bucks. These people can deal with the consequences, because they’re poor and less important to us.”
We can see that already in the plan put forth by Michael Brown in 2012 to “blend” high quality water from DWSD with lower quality water from Flint’s backup water system, and sell it to customers at the same rate as before. In other words, his plan was to pass off cut-rate water as top-shelf product to the citizens of his own city.
This is only the beginning.
The Governor-appointed Emergency Manager for Flint in March 2013 was Ed Kurtz, a frequent-flyer EM who had been appointed by former governor John Engler as Flint’s first Emergency Manager, from 2002-2004. He was reappointed to the position by Snyder in August 2012 to replace EM Michael Brown (who later replaced Kurtz in July 2013…Michigan’s EMs are an endlessly revolving door; with the same names popping up in different places).
Besides “signing off” on the KWA agreement on April 16, 2013 (that’s the “decision” that Mayor Walling talked about above, remember), Kurtz also did something much more interesting, utilizing the full executive power vested in him by the Governor’s appointment.
First, he resigned. Kurtz submitted his resignation to the Governor on May 29, 2013, but agreed to work for 30 more days, or through “the first week of July”. Kurtz, however, made extensive use of his 30 days. On June 21, 2013 – 22 days after submitting his resignation – Kurtz submitted a “Resolution Authorizing Approval to Enter into a Professional Engineering Services Contract for the Implementation of Placing the Flint Water Plant into Operation”. The full text of that resolution can be found here (it’s not very long), but the juicy part is below:
IT RESOLVED, That appropriate City Officials are authorized to enter into a Professional Engineering Services contract with Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc., for the administration of placing the Flint Water Plant into operation using the Flint River as a primary drinking water source at a cost of $171,000.00. Funding will come from the Utilities Administration FY14 account 591-536.100-801.000
(Emphasis mine, again)
Five days later, on June 26, 2013 – if you are counting, that is 27 days into his thirty-day “lame-duck” period – Kurtz’s resolution was adopted. It didn’t take much to pass it: only four other signatures were necessary besides Kurtz’s (the city legal and finance officers, the infrastructure director, and the utilities administrator) to make it legally binding. And with essentially nothing more than one man’s approval and the acquiescence of four of his friends, a construction firm was handed $171,000 to attach the Flint Water Plant to the Flint River. As they say, everything else is history.
Speaking of history, let’s look at some ancient history: the 2001 Michigan Department of Natural Resources report on the Flint River, information that would have been readily available to those in charge of Flint’s “transition” from DWSD water to the River water/KWA plan. (I’m assuming it would be readily available to them because it was readily available to me, a private citizen.) Just looking at the executive summary, not even the entire 305-page report, is enough to give one pause about the feasibility of using the Flint River as a source of drinking water:
Land use in the Flint River watershed is dominated by agriculture (49%) followed by forested (16%), non-forested (15%), urban development (15%), wetland (3%), and water (1%). The loss of wetlands from channelization and tiling has decreased flow stability, increased erosion and sedimentation, and altered stream temperature regimes. Urban development along the river has had significant affects on water quality. Continued growth and development in the watershed is expected to exacerbate unstable flow and degraded water quality conditions.
Nonpoint source pollution is the greatest factor that degrades water quality in the Flint River watershed. This type of pollution consists of sediments, nutrients, bacteria, organic chemicals, and inorganic chemicals from agricultural fields, construction sites, parking lots, roads and road crossings, and septic seepage.
Recreational use of the Flint River is high in areas where public access is available. Many people use the river and corridor for fishing, canoeing, swimming, picnicking, and hunting. However, recreational use suffers because of limited access and pollution (bacteria). To achieve recreation potential, new access areas throughout the watershed need to be purchased. Corrective actions on reducing bacterial contamination must also be taken to assure full body contact recreation is permissible in the river system.
Ignorant of, or perhaps in spite of, these indications that the Flint River was not the healthiest water source to bathe in, let alone to drink, the city went ahead with the switch.
On March 12, city officials attended a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Flint Water Plant to inaugurate the process of drawing water from the river. Optimistic sound bites were heard from all around, despite reports of delays due to inadequate disinfection systems at the plant. Finally, on April 25, 2014, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling pressed the button that officially cut off Flint’s supply of water from the DWSD pipeline, and started the flow of Flint River water into the city’s drinking water system. “This is indeed the best choice for the city of Flint going forward,” Darnell Earley was quoted as saying. Walling agreed. “There have been a lot of questions from our customers because this is such a major change,” he admitted, but continued, “when the treated river water starts being pumped into the system, we move from plan to reality. The water quality speaks for itself.”
The small group (only a dozen or so) gathered at the ceremony were photographed triumphantly toasting with glasses of treated water as reporters looked on. However, it is worth mentioning that the pristine water in their glasses didn’t pass through Flint’s water system. River water wouldn’t begin passing through the Flint water system for some time after the plumbing to Detroit was shut off. According to that same MLive report:
Officials said it will take about two days before the Flint River water will completely work its way through the treatment plant and flow from resident’s faucets.
Not that it really matters what they drank that day – what is more important is what Flint residents have been forced to drink, and pay for, every day for the past 19 months – but it is always worthwhile to point out a PR stunt when you see it.
So, according to the experts, it could take a couple of days before people could notice any difference in their water. But, would they notice?
Unequivocally, yes. In the immediate days and weeks following the switch, citizen complaints about water quality, hardness, smell, taste, and color multiplied. For example, Flint resident Bethany Hazard’s complaints were reported by MLive on May 23, 2014:
Hazard, who lives on the city’s west side, said she’s noticed changes in the appearance of her water since Mayor Dayne Walling turned off the flow of water supplied by Detroit on April 25.
“I finally started buying my drinking water,” said Hazard, who lives alone and still pays at least $90 monthly for water and sewer service.
“It’s just weird,” she said of the water coming out of her tap, which she described as murky or foamy at times and which requires her “to use tons more dish soap” to produce bubbles.
While Hazard’s complaints were chalked up as only being indications that the Flint River water was “harder” – a term that refers to the amount of metals like calcium and magnesium dissolved in it – other commenters, such as this one on that same MLive article, backed up her comments about the variability in the quality of the water:
The water quality is inconsistent. It can change radically even within the same day. I currently do not use any sort of filtration system for my water. In addition to the pool water smell, I’ve noticed white deposits on my pots while boiling water [white deposits are most likely from water hardness; however hard water does not have a “pool water” smell].
(Clarification added in blue by me)
Remember that the 2001 DNR report commented on the “unstable flow” of the Flint River, which was now the ultimate source of the drinking water coming out of Hazard’s faucets. And remember Mayor Walling’s own words:
“The water quality speaks for itself.”
-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling
Apr. 25, 2014
Let’s take Mayor Walling at his word, then, and listen to the water quality speak for itself.
On August 12, 2014, just a few short months after the city switched to using water from the river, tap water on the west side of Flint tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria. Another positive test appeared in the same area the following day, August 13, this time for fecal coliform bacteria. Two more positive tests for total coliform bacteria followed on August 14, and a further two positives for total coliform bacteria appeared on August 16 and 17, all within the same area. The city responded by issuing a “boil-water advisory”, by flushing the system by pumping more water through the pipes and flushing fire hydrants, in the hopes of stirring up the water and pushing the bacteria out of the pipes; and, most importantly, by increasing the amount of chlorine additives in the water.
It didn’t completely work. In less than 30 days, another positive test for total coliform bacteria appeared in a different section of the city, and another boil-water advisory was put in place. MLive sought comment from the EPA:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says positive total coliform tests suggest there may be a pathway for pathogens and fecal contamination to enter a drinking water system.
Total coliforms are used to determine the adequacy of water treatment and the integrity of the distribution system, according to EPA.
“The absence of total coliforms in the distribution system minimizes the likelihood that fecal pathogens are present,” the agency Web site says. “Thus, total coliforms are used to determine the vulnerability of a system.“
With at least 6 instances of fecal or total coliform bacteria in the water supply in two different areas of the city, I think it is safe to say that at this point in the timeline, Flint’s new water system had demonstrated its “vulnerability”. And yet, the city managers refused to address the fundamental vulnerabilities the city’s water system faced. In fact, it is highly probable that the city’s response to this vulnerability most likely caused the next series of problems: the appearance of a class of chemicals called trihalomethanes in the water system.
This might take some explanation for those who haven’t taken a chemistry class in years – such as myself – to understand, but the essence of it is very simple. Trihalomethanes (THMs) are chemical compounds formed by the reaction of organic materials with halogens. The typical organic material used to synthesize trihalomethanes in a laboratory is methane, a simple molecule composed of one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms: CH4. Halogens are highly reactive elements like fluorine, chlorine, and bromine. Because halogens are highly electronegative — that is, they have a strong need to take away bonds/electrons from other compounds — they react with methane through a chain of reactions that progressively replaces the hydrogen atoms in CH4 with halogen atoms. For example, chlorine gas, Cl2, is commonly added to water as a disinfectant. In a laboratory setting, Cl2 gas is known to progressively pull three hydrogen atoms off of a methane molecule, leaving a new molecule with the chemical equation CHCl3, and producing three molecules of HCl, hydrochloric acid, to balance the chemical equation. See how the three chlorine atoms just replaced three of the hydrogen atoms in the original methane molecule? That’s basically how the formation of trihalomethanes works. Incidentally, CHCl3 has a common name that you might be familiar with: chloroform.
Outside of the lab and in drinking water systems, the exact process of THM formation is less clear. According to the World Health Organization:
The chemistry of the reactions between chlorine and the organic materials present in water is complex and, although extensively studied, poorly understood; however, important factors include the type and concentrations of organic materials in the raw water, the chlorine reaction time, temperature, and chlorination pH.
A scientific article published in the academic journal Water Research (Urano, Wada, Takemasa 1983), straightforwardly states what is now accepted by organizations such as the WHO: THMs are formed by the chlorination of water containing organic (carbon-based) compounds.
Trihalomethane (THM) in drinking water is formed by chlorination of humic [organic sediment] substances. In this study, the rates of THM formation in aqueous solution of humic acid were examined under various conditions. The following rate equation was obtained empirically. [THM] = k (pH − a)[TOC][Cl2]0mtn.
(Clarification added in blue)
Humic substances are the organic matter found in soil, water, and underwater sediment. So in other words, they encompass most of the naturally-occuring carbonaceous molecules in water and soil. “TOC”, which is seen in the chemical equation at the end of the quote, stands for “total organic carbon” which is synonymous in this case with “humic substances”.
All this is simply to say that it is an overwhelmingly accepted scientific fact that THMs, such as chloroform (CHCl3), are formed through the reaction of organic matter (found in sediment, debris and water) with chlorine compounds.
Yet despite this readily available information, it appears that the city preferred to take only “operational” measures to reduce the public safety threat of bacteria in Flint drinking water. These measures, as an October 1, 2014 Governor’s briefing memo from DEQ official Stephen Busch reveals, included “boosting” chlorine levels in the water system as well as “flushing” the system by opening fire hydrants and pumping more water through the pipes:
Just to be clear: the water crisis in Flint at this point (summer 2014) extended only to the broad systemic problems with a leaky and ill-maintained water distribution system, and the immediate problem of a few, but concerning, positive tests for coliform bacteria in the water. Elevated THM levels were not reported to Flint residents until early January of 2015. However, there were whispers that something was still not right about the water much earlier than that. In mid-October 2014, just a few weeks after the Department of Environmental Quality’s briefing memo on the coliform bacteria in the Flint water made it to Snyder’s desk, General Motors announced that their Flint Engine Operations plant would no longer be using water from the city. Instead, the factory struck a deal with Flint Township to purchase water piped in from Lake Huron, rather than Flint city water piped in from the river, for their manufacturing process:
Chloride levels in treated Flint River water are so high that General Motors will no longer use it at its engine plant here because of fears it will cause corrosion.
“Because of all the metal … you don’t want the higher chloride water (to result in) corrosion,” Wickham said. “We noticed it some time ago (and) the discussions have been going on for some time.”
Ordinarily, chloride is not very corrosive in water. (The reason, if your chemistry knowledge has not been stretched too thin from my arduous explanations above, is because chloride is a weak base, meaning it does not react very strongly with other things to corrode them; also it means that chloride very rarely forms its conjugate strong acid, the extremely corrosive and deadly hydrochloric acid.) However, the GM statement explicitly cites the high chloride content of the water as the primary reason for the increase in the Flint drinking water’s ability to corrode metal, and the MDEQ briefing for the Governor at the beginning of October 2014 corroborates the elevated chloride levels in the water system – in fact, it takes credit for them. MDEQ’s Stephen Busch said, “the city is boosting chlorine disinfectant residual at locations in the distribution system as needed”, remember?
The Detroit Free Press reports that:
General Motors announced in October 2014 that it was pulling its engine plant off Flint water after workers there began noticing rust spots on newly machined parts.
From the information available, it is possible that the culprit causing GM’s corrosion was ferric chloride, another chlorine-containing compound. Sources from the EPA, mentioned here below, have noted that ferric chloride can cause metal pipes to corrode when proper corrosion control measures are not taken. But whatever it was, it was definitely causing corrosion.
So from these sources we get the understanding that the city, responding to the incidences of dangerously elevated levels of bacteria in their drinking water, increased the levels of chlorine disinfectants in the water distribution system to a point where GM’s Flint Engine Operations discovered that the water was corroding their metal parts and equipment.
If the water was corroding metal engines, what would stop it from corroding old, decaying metal pipes?
There were other indications that something more serious than an a fecal coliform bacteria infestation was amiss with the Flint water as early as October, 2014. Recently discovered documents acquired by the The Flint Journal/MLive through the Freedom of Information Act show that at least as far back as October 17, 2014, public officials at the city, county and state level knew of a possible connection between Flint’s new source of drinking water and a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint and Genesee County. Legionnaire’s disease is a form of water-borne bacterial pneumonia that can potentially be deadly. Since the summer of 2014 (around the same time the city was experiencing positive tests for fecal and total coliform bacteria, remember) 10 people in Flint and Genesee County have died from Legionnaire’s disease, a sharp increase from years past. According to the MLive article:
Officials said there’s no evidence of a clear link between the outbreak and the decision to use the river as the city’s water source in April 2014, but documents show public officials in the city, Genesee County and the state were aware of the potential connection more than a year before disclosing it.
Worry about the river’s possible role as a source of Legionnaires’ dates back to at least Oct. 17, 2014, when representatives of the county Health Department and the city’s water treatment plant met, discussing the county’s “concerns regarding the increase in Legionella cases and possible association with the municipal water system,” a county email says.
County health investigators reported they ran into a wall of resistance from the city water officials as they attempted to gather information about possible sources of contamination in Flint’s water system.
An internal email from a Health Department supervisor on Jan. 27, 2015, says employees at Flint’s water treatment plant had not responded in months to “multiple written and verbal requests” for information, slowing progress on the probe.
In the same month that the email was written, two new cases of Legionnaires’ were reported in the county.
Information about the Legionnaire’s outbreak was shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to an email from an employee with the federal agency from April 2015.
The email calls the Flint area outbreak “very large, one of the largest we know of in the past decade and community-wide, and in our opinion and experience it needs a comprehensive investigation.”
Communication between the city and the county during the Legionnaires’ investigation became so strained that the county resorted to filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get information it sought from the city in January 2015.
The FOIA asks the city for information including “specific water testing locations and laboratory results … for coliform, E-coli, Heterotropic Bacteria and trihalomethanes.”
The same request sought a map or list of locations detailing dead ends in the water system and areas of low pressure — potential breeding grounds for bacteria.
More than five weeks later, the city had not responded to the FOIA request and a health supervisor with the county said the city’s “lack of cooperation continues to prevent my office from performing our responsibilities.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was aware of the potential connection between Flint water and Legionnaires in early October 2014, but representatives of the agency never discussed the issue publicly.
The lack of any comment about the Legionnaires’ outbreak and the possible connection to the river came despite DEQ officials appearing at public forums dealing with water safety and as representatives of the agency issued statements that assured Flint their water was safe.
None of this information, of course, was made known to the public. If the public was reading MLive in 2014, they might have seen the article on GM dumping the river water in favor of going back to lake water, but the Legionnaire’s disease revelation was suppressed until 2016: 15 months after the initial meeting between the Genesee County Health department and the Flint Water Treatment Plant employees. State, county and local officials at all levels seemed fixated on keeping the “story” as small as possible and out of the “news cycle”, regardless of the real consequences of doing so. Communication to the public was discouraged.
However, when a law is broken, no matter how inconvenient it is for the breaker of that law, the public is inconveniently required by law to know about it. This is why on January 2, 2015, Flint residents received a letter in the mail from the city. It informed them, although without ever using the words “Safe Drinking Water Act”, that their drinking water was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. In particular, the levels of TTHM (that stands for “total trihalomethanes” and is an amalgamated total of the chloroform, bromoform, dichlorobromomethane, and dibromochloromethane counts in the water) were above the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) set by the EPA. The MCL for TTHM is 80 ug/L and the highest samples taken in Flint were 99 ug/L. The letter stressed that this was “not an emergency” and promised that the city was “working on solutions to correct the problem”, but was light on details:
Our water system was recently found to be in violation of a drinking water standard. [This means: in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act] Although this incident was not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what happened and what we are doing to correct this situation.
We routinely monitor for the presence of drinking water contaminants. Samples were collected for total trihalomethanes (TTHM) analysis from eight locations on a quarterly basis (May 21, August 21, and November 20 of 2014). The average of the results at ANY of the eight locations must not exceed the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHMs, otherwise our water system exceeds the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). The standard for TTHMs is 80 ug/L. The location reporting the highest TTHM level was 99 ug/L; thus, our water system exceeds the TTHM MCL [If it exceeds the MCL, this means: the city’s water is in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act].
What does this mean? This is not an emergency. If it had been an emergency, you would have been notified within 24 hours.
People who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.
We are currently working on solutions to correct the problem. We anticipate resolving the problem in 2015.
(Clarification in blue by me)
So, after opening a pipeline supplying drinking water from a river known to be unhealthy, and then being surprised that so much bacteria ended up in the water pipes; after dosing the same bacteria-laden water with high amounts of chlorine disinfectants that are well-known to interact with organic compounds (bacteria, by the way, are made almost entirely of organic compounds, and they eat organic compounds to live) to produce chloroform and other harmful byproducts (THMs), then being shocked that levels of THMs skyrocketed; after all of that, city officials refused to believe they had an emergency on their hands, and even had the audacity to assume that citizens would feel safe knowing only that the problem would be fixed “sometime this year”.
The situation on the ground, and in citizens’ homes, could not have been more different. Michigan Radio reports some shocking reactions:
Flint resident Amber Hasan says the smell [from chlorinated water] wasn’t the scary part.
“My eyes are burning in the shower and I was like, ‘oh my goodness, like, what’s going on?’ I get out the shower and I can’t see for a minute because my eyes are burning from whatever,” said Hasan.
Meanwhile, six miles south of Hasan’s house, Lee Anne Walters started noticing alarming clumps of hair in her shower drain.
“I had lost a bunch of hair,” says Walters. “At one point I had lost all my eyelashes.”
It turns out: the city dumped too much chlorine in the water, so much that a by-product of the disinfectant, called trihalomethane, was above levels set by the federal government. Over time, exposure to trihalomethane can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems.
Chloroform and other trihalomethanes are easily absorbed through the skin, according to a WHO report.
Chloroform is readily absorbed through the skin of humans and animals, and significant dermal absorption of chloroform from water while showering has been demonstrated (Jo et al., 1990a). Hydration of the skin appears to accelerate absorption of chloroform. (pg. 16)
Chloroform and other suspicious chemicals coming out of the faucet sounds like an emergency indeed, especially when the water stings your eyes and temporarily blinds you, makes your hair and eyelashes fall out, and contains carcinogenic compounds that are being absorbed “readily” through your skin into your body. But in the eyes of the city, this was not an emergency, apparently.
Citizens crowded City Hall, pleading to city officials to do something – anything – to address the problem. But they were met with stony indifference that some might say reeked of denial. “The city water is safe to drink,” Mayor Walling said. “My family and I drink it and use it every day.”
People were outraged and took to the streets. Tensions escalated. Environmental activist Erin Brockovitch weighed in on Facebook, addressing the lack of accountability at all levels of government:
Now is not the time for the blame game […] everyone is responsible from the top down: USEPA, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the State of Michigan and the local officials.
Something must have gotten through to Mayor Walling – perhaps the thought of everyone out in the streets voting for someone else – because he quickly changed his tune, going from “the water is safe to drink” to penning a personal letter to Governor Snyder that emphasized “access to safe and clean water is a basic human right” and provided a rather tame plan to ameliorate the damage done. One bullet point from his plan seemed rather anomalous, mostly because it seemed like something that should have been done much earlier:
Bring on experienced river water treatment operational management
Does this not suggest that Flint, up until this point, had not had experienced river water treatment professionals involved in the operation of a water system sourced from a river – and an unhealthy one at that? They were just wingin’ it?
The rest of the letter is not really worth reprinting, but the link is above. Suffice it to say, Dayne got scared of all the protestors outside, and nowadays he is ex-Mayor Walling.
A few days after his letter was sent, Walling was also quoted as saying:
“Both the state and federal government need to be actively involved in improving Flint’s water system […] The governor has a particular responsibility due to Public Act 436,” the state’s emergency manager law.
Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said the mayor’s request will be taken under consideration once it is received. Flint has been under state financial management since 2011 and Walling and the Flint City Council have had limited involvement in City Hall decision-making since.
It’s important to remember who wears the pants in the relationship between elected and appointed officials in Michigan, and its economically impoverished urban areas like Flint in particular. Elected politicians like Walling have titles like “Mayor”, but the real power is vested in State Governor-appointed accountant like former EM Ed Kurtz (remember him?), who have the power to write and enact legislation with no public oversight, and change the destiny of an entire city in a heartbeat.
So let’s pay attention to the action, and not the sideshow. On January 9, 2015, Darnell Earley, Emergency Manager and pants-wearing appointed official, announced that he was looking to hire a consulting firm with “experience” in managing a river-sourced drinking water system – “experience”, it seems, that Flint had lacked from the get-go. With hilarious understatement, Earley was quoted as saying “we have had some issues managing the supply”, and, “we need to get another set of eyes”. MLive reported:
Earley said he expects to work quickly in hiring a management company with expertise treating and transmitting river water to homes and businesses and said his goal is to provide a water source that meets every state and federal safety standards.
Despite the problems, customers in Flint continued to pay the highest water rates in Genesee County, and last month, the state Department of Environmental Quality found the city in violation of federal standards for excess trihalomethane, a byproduct of the heavy chlorination of the river water.
Several members of the City Council this week called for Flint to resume water purchases from Detroit until the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline that’s under construction is completed.
Earley told MLive-The Flint Journal earlier this week that reverting to Detroit form (sic) water was cost prohibitive and said again Friday that the city “can ill-afford to switch course.”
The emergency manager estimated the alternative — purchasing Detroit water — would cost Flint $1 million a month in surcharges alone for water “that meets the same DEQ standards as the water now available from the Flint River.”
I hope you noticed, first of all, the blatant lie told by Earley in the last quoted sentence. He said this on January 9, a week after the city publicly admitted that the quality of their drinking water violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. Water from Detroit did not violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. Therefore, it is a complete falsehood to say that the water from Detroit met the same “standards” as the water from the river.
(In an attempt to defend Earley for technically telling the truth, one could suggest that what he meant to say was that since the Flint River met no MDEQ standards, the water from Detroit would at least meet as many standards as the Flint River did, i.e. none at all. But I think that the pertinent issue in this case, at this moment, is not whether DEQ standards are being met, but rather, that Flint’s drinking water is in violation of national law.
While the internal financial analysis that Earley cited is hard to challenge, the elephant in the room is that while $1 million a month sounds like a hefty sum, the truth is that DWSD offered on January 20, 2015 to basically extend the same offer that they had been extending all along to Flint’s appointed managers: if you want to buy our water, you can pay the same rates as other customers — and we’ll even waive the fee for reconnecting the two cities’ water systems. But, despite a bona fide public health crisis on their hands, appointed officials continued to talk about budgets rather than health and safety. As the Detroit News reported in January:
“Please know that DWSD is ready, willing and able to resume service to the city if you so desire,” the letter [from DWSD] says.
McCormick added if Flint is interested in a long-term arrangement with DWSD, the service can be immediately connected with no additional charge. The same expired contract rate that Flint had been paying in April would apply, but would be modified to reflect a 4 percent increase experienced by all other wholesale customers in July, she wrote.
But Jason Lorenz, a public information officer for Flint, pointed Tuesday to a notice on the city’s website that addresses the offer from DWSD.
A city analysis of the DWSD proposal concludes that Flint’s costs would increase by more than $12 million per year at the rates proposed. That increase, he added, has the potential to be even higher, as proposed rates are subject to change after July 1.
“This increase in costs would not be in the best interests of the city or its water users, as the city is committed to assuring safety and improving water quality by following its current plan, and reconnecting to DWSD would likely require deferment of existing capital improvements or an additional increase in rates,” Lorenz says.
Just to remind you of the context in which Lorenz made these statements, we’re talking about a citywide drinking water system that is out of compliance with federal safety regulations, and he’s saying that the amount of money the city will have to pay to get safe water is a reason for not getting safe water.
It’s not just Lorenz who is caught with his true priorities exposed here. The problem goes deeper than that, as a released email from later in the year reveals. When going over the situation in Flint, the email, seen by the Governor, Assistant Governor, and their office staff, reveals why Flint officials were dragging their feet on reconnecting the water to DWSD:
They can’t reconnect to DWSD even if they wanted to as they sold the connector line. And, especially with the new rate increases in Detroit, their citizens would be less able to pay than they already are. The water certainly has occasional less than savory aspects like color because of the apparently more corrosive aspects of the hard water coming from the river, but that has died down with the additional main filters. Taste and smell have been problems also and substantial money has been extended to work on those issues.
Something could be said about the dismissiveness of these internal communications toward the plight of Leeanne Walters or Amber Hasan or other real people living with this problem in Flint. But also — they sold the pipeline?! What does that say about the total disregard for safety on the part of state financial managers as they tried the very risky maneuver of running an entire city water system on a temporary source of river water? (With the intention merely to save money.)
Although, the more you think about it, who exactly is taking the burden of the risk here? It definitely isn’t the people who made the decisions to use, switch to, and stay on Flint River water.
In fact, on January 7, 2015, mere days after the city’s mailed notice of noncompliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, employees within the State’s Department of Transportation, Management and Budget (DTMB) requested, and received, permanent installation of water coolers on every floor of their Flint office building, each one “positioned near the water fountain”. Fresh, clean water would be brought in to satisfy demand, and service would continue “as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements”. DTMB Customer Service cheerfully signs off by reminding employees that by “providing a water cooler on each occupied floor” they are simply allowing their customers “to choose which water to drink”.
If only the rest of the city’s residents had DTMB Customer Service, huh? To put this in less words, state government officials arranged to have clean water days delivered to their offices days after the city notified residents that the water from the tap was out of compliance with safety standards, and more than a year before Snyder activated the National Guard to distribute clean water to the rest of Flint’s citizens. That seems pretty undemocratic to me.
Then again, so does Michigan’s whole Emergency Manager system.
Leeanne Walters, meanwhile, was diligently working her complaints up the chain of command. As reported extensively in this article on FlintWaterStudy.org, her first call was to a nurse at a lead-poisoning hotline. Walters wanted general information about the rumors of lead contamination in the Flint water. On the second call, however, she was in tears because her son’s blood lead had increased to 6.5 ug/dL. The “safe” level of blood lead has recently been dropped from 10 ug/dL to 5 ug/dL, and more up-to-date science suggests that no level of lead in blood is safe. However, the nurse who responded to Walters’ second call blew her off, reportedly saying “…it is just a few IQ points…it is not the end of the world”.
Walters’ communications with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality also bounced around aimlessly from email inbox to inbox, with no one knowing how to respond to lead levels equivalent to “hazardous waste”. City officials tested her water in February 2015 and found that it had 104 ppb (parts per billion) of lead. Even this number mystified people in the DEQ office. Most of the email messages were along the lines of “what should I even say to this person?” Another test by the city in March 2015 showed an even-higher 397 ppb of lead. But even these outrageously elevated numbers were enough to spur any action from DEQ, which was mostly satisfied giving Walters procedural tactics to deal with the problem, such as running taps for 20-25 minutes before using them, which allows some of the lead particulate sedimentation to flow out of the pipes, but is at best a mitigation measure, not a solution by any means.
One person CC’ed in the email chain, however, was actively interested in getting to the root of the problem. His name was Miguel del Toral, and he was not an MDEQ employee. He is the lead-in-water expert at the US EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, IL. After being notified of the situation, del Toral frantically tried to get MDEQ officials to take the reports seriously, and answer his questions.
Was Flint using corrosion control in their pipes?
That’s what del Toral really wanted to know at first. And for us, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why. We know that the water from the Flint River is more corrosive to metal than the water from DWSD. And, as del Toral understood very well, lead in drinking water systems comes mainly from the corrosion of lead soldering in water pipes. If Flint wasn’t using corrosion control in their pipes, it would provide a reason to back up the evidence that showed dangerously elevated levels of lead in Flint water. The whole exchange is well documented by FlintWaterStudy.org in their analysis of FOIA-ed MDEQ emails:
In February 2015, Walters forwarded her test results showing elevated levels of lead to the EPA Region 5 office, which in turn forwarded them to MDEQ. The EPA correctly informed MDEQ that the high lead levels were most possibly due to:
… the different chemistry water…leaching out contaminants from the insides of…the pipes.
Miguel del Toral had a follow-up question, which he relayed through another EPA employee:
Miguel was wondering if Flint is feeding Phosphates. Flint must have Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment-is it Phosphates?
The response from MDEQ, penned by Stephen Busch, claimed, falsely, that:
The City of Flint…Has an Optimized Corrosion Control Program <and> Conducts quarterly Water Quality Parameter monitoring at 25 sites and has not had any unusual results
Del Toral accepted Busch’s statement at the time, although continuing to remind MDEQ about the necessity of corrosion control:
If I remember correctly, Detroit is feeding PO4 [phosphates] for the LCR [Lead and Copper Rule], but since Flint is no longer part of that interconnection, I was wondering what their <Optimal Corrosion Control> was. They are required to have <Optimal Corrosion Control> in place which is why I was asking what they were using
This takes us to March 2015, when Leeanne Walters again had her house tested by city officials, after flushing for many days. This time, the result was almost four times higher than the last – 397 ppb – which is also 40 times higher than the WHO maximum safety threshold of 10 ppb. EPA and MDEQ were flabbergasted. An email from EPA to MDEQ asks:
Any thoughts on how to respond to her? I’m running out of ideas.
MDEQ responded with what would again turn out to be a falsehood; a lie:
MDEQ’s response, delivered in a voicemail to Del Toral on March 19, 2015, stated that MDEQ had investigated and found Ms. Walters’ high lead was due to lead sources in her plumbing.
In truth, Walters’ house had no lead piping in it at all. None. The reason she is so clear about this fact is because all of the piping had been stolen from her house before she purchased it, and she herself had installed new, lead-free, plastic pipes before moving in.
Walters was also able to debunk another one of MDEQ’s lies as well. According to FlintWaterStudy.org:
Walters also checked up on the MDEQ statement that Flint had “an Optimized Corrosion Control Program.” She called the City of Flint, and city officials correctly informed her that there was no program at all.
When she passed this information along to del Toral, he immediately sent another email to MDEQ asking about the specifics of their corrosion control program, and only this time did he get the truth: Flint had no corrosion control program at all. Extremely concerned, del Toral also stopped by Leeanne Walters home in Flint while making a trip north. After personally confirming that her household plumbing was plastic and lead-free, he also sent an internal email to EPA saying:
Flint has not been operating any corrosion control treatment, which is very concerning given the likelihood of LSLs [lead service lines] in the City
Del Toral also left Walters with water sampling bottles and the contact information for Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, a researcher specializing in lead contamination in water systems. When she called him the next day, he walked her through “an intensive 30-bottle sampling protocol”. The results, once they arrived at Virginia Tech, stunned Edwards and his senior research scientist Dr. Jeff Parks. They showed: (full results here)
The average lead in was 2,429 ppb lead, the high was 13,200 ppb, and even after 25 minutes flushing the water never dropped below 200 ppb.
Those are levels of lead equivalent to hazardous waste.
Del Toral, after being informed of these results, drove back to Flint, arrived just in time to observe the city replacing the Service Line to Walters’ house, tested the old pipe himself, and verified that it was “pure lead”. At the same juncture, Edwards gathered a team of graduate students, packed water sampling kits and assistants into a van, and drove to Flint. Since then, FlintWaterStudy.org has been doing great work both in terms of water sampling and awareness, but also in terms of citizen journalism. Check out their website for some of the best in-depth reporting on the water crisis.
At this point, del Toral penned an internal EPA memo, “High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan — Interim Report”, dated June 24, 2015, which henceforth shall be referred to as “Miguel’s memo”.
In the memo, del Toral sketches out the breadth and depth of Flint’s drinking water problem, which at that point MDEQ and appointed city officials were still in crisis-management mode to trying minimize and deny:
Following a change in the water source, the City of Flint has experienced a number of water quality issues resulting in violations of National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) including acute and non-acute Coliform Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) violations and Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) MCL violations as follows:
Acute Coliform MCL violation in August 2014
Monthly Coliform MCL violation in August 2014
Monthly Coliform MCL violation in September 2014
Average TTHM MCL violation in December 2014
Average TTHM MCL violation in June 2015
We have talked about all of those violations except for the June 2015 one, which was an extension of the earlier positive test for dangerously elevated trihalomethanes in the water, the notice of which Flint residents received in January 2015.
Miguel’s memo then goes on to talk about the lead crisis:
In addition, as of April 30,2014, when the City of Flint switched from purchasing finished water from the City of Detroit to using the Flint River as their new water source, the City of Flint is no longer providing corrosion control treatment for lead and copper. A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water. Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment. The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint.
Unsurprisingly, del Toral’s expertise and research also connects the city’s reaction to the TTHM crisis with the ensuing torrent of lead in the water pipes. How? Well:
In addition, following the switch to using the Flint River, the City of Flint began adding ferric chloride, a coagulant used to improve the removal of organic matter, as part of the strategy to reduce the TTHM levels. Studies have shown that an increase in the chloride-to-sulfate mass ratio in the water can adversely affect lead levels by increasing the galvanic corrosion of lead in the plumbing network.
The corrosive effect of ferric chloride was acting on top of the effect of Flint having no form of corrosion control measures in place at all:
Prior to April 30, 2014, the City of Flint purchased finished water from the City of Detroit which contained orthophosphate, a treatment chemical used to control lead and copper levels in the drinking water. When the City of Flint switched to the Flint River as their water source on April 30,2014, the orthophosphate treatment for lead and copper control was not continued. In effect, the City of Flint stopped providing treatment used to mitigate lead and copper levels in the water. In accordance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), all large systems (serving greater than 50,000 persons) are required to install and maintain corrosion control treatment for lead and copper. In the absence of any corrosion control treatment, lead levels in drinking water can be expected to increase.
Even without the excess chlorine and and ferric chloride added to the water, Flint River water would have been more corrosive to the pipes because nothing was being added to control corrosion. So not only did city appointed officials not take steps to ensure the safety of their pipes and people, but they increased the problem by making the water more corrosive while trying to get rid of THMs.
But this, according to Miguel’s memo, was not even the full extent of the wrongdoing that the cost-cutting and corner-cutting of Flint’s appointed officials had encouraged. Not only were they managing their water system poorly, they were telling residents to test their water quality in a way that would systematically lower their lead level results:
The lack of mitigating treatment is especially concerning as the high lead levels will likely not be reflected in the City of Flint’s compliance samples due to the sampling procedures used by the City of Flint for collecting compliance samples. The instructions from the City of Flint to residents direct the residents to ‘pre-flush’ the taps prior to collecting the compliance samples. A copy of the instructions provided by the City of Flint to residents will be included in the final report.
The practice of pre-flushing before collecting compliance samples has been shown to result in the minimization of lead capture and significant underestimation of lead levels in the drinking water. Although this practice is not specifically prohibited by the LCR, it negates the intent of the rule to collect compliance samples under ‘worst-case’ conditions, which is necessary for statistical validity given the small number of samples collected for lead and copper under the LCR. This is a serious concern as the compliance sampling results which are reported by the City of Flint to residents could provide a false sense of security to the residents of Flint regarding lead levels in the water and may result in residents not taking necessary precautions to protect their families from lead in the drinking water. Our concern regarding the inclusion of ‘preflushing’ in sampling instructions used by public water systems in Michigan has been raised with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The MDEQ has indicated that this practice is not prohibited by the LCR and continues to retain the ‘pre-flushing’ recommendation in their lead compliance sampling guidance to public water systems in Michigan. A copy of the MDEQ guidance will be included in the final report.
In simple terms, what MDEQ and the city appointed officials were doing was instructing residents to collect samples after running their taps for a certain amount of time. Del Toral, the regulations expert, and Dr. Edwards, the lead-in-water expert, both agree that this practice will systematically underestimate the amount of lead actually in the water system — for the simple reason that most of the lead particulates will flow out of the tap before you begin your sample.
So there was more lead in the water than the city wanted its residents to know about. And this lead would undoubtedly be causing serious harm to the health and well-being of the population. Miguel’s memo includes data from Leeanne Walters’ household, commenting on the poisoning of Walters’ five-year-old son:
Ms. Walters has also provided U.S. EPA with medical reports on her child’s blood lead testing indicating that the child had a low blood lead level (2 ug/dL) prior to the source water switch and an elevated blood lead level following the switch (6.5 ug/dL).
As we said before, no level of blood lead is safe, but the maximum safety threshold is 5 ug/dL. Walters’ son was poisoned by lead in the Flint drinking water.
Lead poisoning is irreversible.
Miguel del Toral was beginning to be a problem for MDEQ, and for his superiors at USEPA. On August 4th, 2015, when Leeanne Walters and another Flint resident, Melissa Mays, met with MDEQ officials Liane Shekter-Smith, Stephen Busch, and Brad Wurfel, Walters recalls that Shekter-Smith “bragged that ‘Mr. Del Toral has been handled,’ and that Flint residents would not be hearing from him again”, and his memo “would never be finalized“. NPR reported Brad Wurfel saying that the memo was the “work of a ‘rogue employee’ and promised the final report…would tell a…different story”. Walters and Mays recall Wurfel’s demeanor as “smirking and laughing, whenever they expressed concern about elevated lead”.
What exactly happened to Miguel del Toral is unclear, but it involves some amount of complicity between the desires of MDEQ to get him out of the picture and the machinations of his boss at EPA, a political appointee named Susan Hedman. Hedman has been anonymously described as “uniquely unqualified to lead a federal agency” and “a control freak”, and reporting has shown that she worked “hand-in-glove” with MDEQ to downplay the crisis in Flint. Basically, Hedman silenced, apologized for, and reassigned del Toral for the duration of the crisis. It wasn’t until January 15, 2015, that del Toral was able to contact Walters and Edwards again, although he refused to discuss the details of his 6+ month ordeal.
But in the meantime, Flint was still on river water and borrowed time. While it was a foregone conclusion, among all but top appointed officials, that the lead in Flint water was dangerously high, the clue that needed investigation and proof now was that the lead was causing harm to those who drank the water.
Enter Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center. By examining levels of blood lead in two Flint zip codes which were at the highest risk for contaminated water, in two time periods – one in 2013, before the switch to using the River as a primary water source, the other in 2015, one year after the switch – Dr. Hanna-Attisha found that there was a statistically significant elevation in the average blood lead levels of children under 5 who were tested after the switch to river water as opposed to those who were tested while Flint was still using DWSD as a primary water source.
In other words, there was more lead in children’s blood when they were drinking water sourced from the Flint River than when they were drinking water sourced from DWSD. The report is simple, but just as in the case of Miguel’s memo, state appointed officials were quick to cast doubt on it. FOIA-ed emails from Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employee Robert Scott reveal that while the agency eventually had to admit that their own data corroborated the conclusion of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study, they would not publicly admit it:
At 3:45 pm on September 24th, Scott wrote an e-mail entitled “One more attempt to recreate Hurley.” The e-mail confirmed that Mona-Hanna Attisha’s analysis showing that blood lead had spiked after the switch to Flint River was verified with the DHHS data. But he also noted that “I’m sure this one is not for the public.”When informed that DHHS had knowledge supporting her analysis late last night, Hanna-Attisha confirmed that the state never did share those results with her–rather, the record shows DHHS was working full time to attack the idea there was any problem with childhood lead poisoning in Flint.
Staff emails inside the Snyder administration also attempt to cast aspersions on the relevance of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study:
MDHHS epidemiologists continue to review the “data” provided by a Hurley hospital physician that showed an increase in lead activity following the change in water supply. While we continue to review this data, we have stated publicly that Hurley conducted their analysis in a much different way than we do at the department. Hurley used two partial years of data, MDHHS looked at five comprehensive years and saw no increase outside the normal seasonal increases. The Hurley review was also a much smaller sample than MDHHS data as ours includes all hospital systems in Flint as well as outside laboratories.
We have also provide the attached data chart that outlines if the elevated blood lead levels were being driven by a change in water, we would have seen the elevated levels remain high after the change in water source.
You can review the Hurley study yourself in the links above and see if it seems like it’s scientifically sound or not, but it is my opinion that the use of quotation marks around the word “data” is a desperate attempt to misdirect attention away from the real problem. Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study met all scientific standards set by a third party. On the contrary, the state’s sponsored studies have shown a history of trying to cut corners on their own rules.
I also take issue with the last statement in this DHHS email, because it seems to suggest very general trends from very specific data. The data this DHHS official is citing seems to be this study of the lead levels of children who were tested between 2014-2015:
Pay attention to the conclusion of the above study. The DHHS is saying that because there was just a brief spike in child lead levels in the summer of 2014, that means that the water did not definitively cause the rise in blood lead. But what is the study for? The conclusion says, explicitly:
the purpose of control charts is to monitor data for the quick detection of abnormal variation
If the purpose of this graph showing a huge spike in child lead levels during the summer of 2014 is for quickly detecting “abnormal variation”, then it has done its job: to quickly detect an abnormality. The next step is to act to find out what is causing that abnormality, not to point to the fact that the levels went down as a reason for inaction. A control chart is specifically for detecting short-term variation, and its purpose is to alert you of an abnormality, not to tell you anything about it. This also begs the question: if knowledge of this short-term alert of an immediate problem was available to DHHS at least by April 2015 (the last month for which data is gathered on the printout above) why are they still debating about it in September?
Despite ham-handed attempts to beat back at her conclusions, Hanna-Attisha’s study had an immediate galvanizing effect on the desires of Flint residents to switch back to safe drinking water from DWSD. On September 24th, the day her study was released, the Flint Journal ran an editorial summing up the situation thus far and calling for a return to DWSD water.
The following is an opinion of The Flint Journal Editorial Board.
It’s time to abandon the Flint River and go back to Lake Huron for Flint’s drinking water.
And it’s up to Gov. Rick Snyder to do it.
Flint residents were told they wouldn’t notice any difference when officials made the switch April 25, 2014, after nearly 50 years of getting water from the Detroit pipeline.
“The water quality speaks for itself,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said the day of the switch.
Today, that quality is still speaking and it’s sounding worse by the day.
A switch that was made to save the cash-strapped city money has turned into a dangerous waiting game while crews build a new pipeline to Lake Huron.
But with the new pipeline still a year away from completion, Flint residents can no longer be asked to drink water that’s (sic) safety cannot be guaranteed.
Elevated levels of the chemical TTHM in the water have segued into reports of elevated lead in the water. More Flint infants and children are being found with elevated levels of lead in their blood since the city switched to using the Flint River as its water source, according to a study from a Hurley Children’s Hospital doctor.
While scientists debate test results, residents in one of the poorest cities in America are forced to either buy bottled water or take their chances with a system they’re no longer confident is even safe.
This switch was made while Flint was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager, and we call upon the governor to make this right for Flint citizens by brokering a return to Detroit water that won’t bankrupt the city of Flint.
Flint is in a crisis that was created in no small part by Snyder’s hand-picked emergency manager and it is Snyder’s job to fix this mess.
Officials have said that returning to Detroit water for the short term is not fiscally sound but that is not enough to justify staying with Flint River water. Flint is in the midst of a full-blown water emergency right now and it is incomprehensible that a solution cannot be found with our fellow Michiganders to deliver healthy water.
There is a lake full of healthy drinking water just an hour away and the pipes already in place to bring it here.
Clean water can be ours again.
Make the switch — now — before it’s too late.
Released emails from Snyder’s office show (on page 102) that by October 2 the accountants in the Governor’s mansion were tripping over themselves trying to address the problem – but without spending too much money of course.
At 10:57 am, Snyder writes:
We should help get all of the facts on the consequences of changing back vs. staying and then determine what financing mechanisms we have available. If we can provide the financing, then we should let Flint make the decision.
Just a thought — what would happen if for some reason the State couldn’t provide the financing? Would Flint get to make any decisions at all?
And at 12:33 pm he continues:
We need Treasury to work with Dan and Flint on a clear side by side comparison of the health benefits and costs of GLWA [that is, DWSD] vs. a more optimized Flint system. Also, we need to look at what financing mechanisms are available to Flint to pay for any higher cost actions. Please get people working on these two issues ASAP.
This is in response to his staff generally trying to lean him toward the option of reconnecting Flint to DWSD. Earlier that morning, an advisor had sent Snyder an email which began:
It appears on the surface (without the deep dive we’ll definitely do on it) that for $11M we can reconnect to DWSD system for the intervening time before KWA comes on line. That may well be the only way to bring any confidence back to the community.
It still took many days for the state to act — presumably they had financial reports and cost-benefit analyses to produce before they could get in line with what the people in Flint had been demanding for months — but finally on October 7th, 2015, this email, from MDEQ official Mike Prysby, reporting on a meeting with the Flint Technical Advisory Committee (a group composed of these people), surfaces:
(on pg 122)
Below is a summary of the Flint TAC meeting to obtain the committee’s endorsement to switch back to Detroit water.
1. The TAC endorses the switch back to the DWSD
2. Marc Edwards of VA Tech supports the switchover to DWSD with conclusion that Flint River water with corrosion control will still be 4 times more corrosive than water from DWSD after 5 weeks of treatment.
3. Genesee County states two weeks to prepare pipeline for re-use (flush, disinfect, sample, etc)
4. Supplemental corrosion control still needed with DWSD water and ACT 399 submittal can be made in approx one week.
5. No pros were brought to the table for staying on the Flint River.
So, on October 8, 2015, only a day after the Flint TAC recommended that the city return to using DWSD water, a whole week after Genesee County declared a public health emergency, and almost nine months since the first confirmed case of lead poisoning due to Governor-appointed Emergency Manager decisions, Rick Snyder finally announced that the State would be coordinating funds to reconnect Flint to the DWSD system.
With the stroke of a single pen, the momentum of an 18-month long manmade crisis in Flint was finally arrested. And yet, 18 months previous, it was the stroke of another single pen – either that of Snyder-appointed EM Ed Kurtz or his predecessor Michael Brown depending on how you look at it – that had set the crisis into motion.
It’s hard to feel that Snyder’s actions are apologetic, seeing as he oversaw the conception, development, and denial of this man-made crisis as well as its (supposed) resolution.
And he was late.
There were four health and water crises in Flint.
There was a health crisis in the summer of 2014: coliform bacteria.
There was a health crisis in the fall of 2014: Legionnaire’s disease.
There was a health crisis in the winter of 2014-2015: trihalomethanes, caused by bungling attempts to solve the previous crises.
There was a health crisis in the early spring of 2015: elevated lead levels in tap water; which was proven in early fall of 2015 to have significant effects on blood lead levels of children & infants.
Through all four crises, Snyder was silent, unless he was engaging his subordinates to deny, minimize and mock the suffering of Flint’s residents.
He was also late to declare a state of emergency. He didn’t do that until January 6, 2016. That is more than three months after Genesee County declared a public health emergency.
It is interesting to hear the words that Flint residents use to describe their situation. Almost every one has used the words “water is a human right”.
Flint City Council President Kerry Nelson was explicit when invited to a meeting of the Council of Graduate Students at Michigan State University on January 27, 2016. “Clean water is a human right“, he said. “Every person in Flint has been affected one way or another” by this crisis, and the crisis stems from the fact that “those like me” who were elected to serve the people, “had no power” to avoid, address, or fix the crisis. The Emergency Manager system amounts to “private dictatorship”, he said, and it is absurd to strip power away from local officials on grounds of financial irresponsibility because “if we don’t have the checkbook, we can’t balance it in the first place”.
City Councilman Herbert Winfrey agreed. “When you give all power to one person, and that person is only interested in saving money” that will inevitably result in illegal corner-cutting to reduce costs. Not to mention, he pointed out, that city managers are literally “asking people to purchase something they can’t use” — and, even more ridiculously, because “safe water is a human right“, Flint water is among the most expensive in the country. This comes down to a “class issue…if this had been a more affluent community this wouldn’t have happened“, Winfrey explained.
Dr. Jawad Shah of MSU and Prof. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University put an additional point on the Nelson and Winfrey’s remarks. “This is a question of ethics”, Dr Shah argued. “People in Flint are living in a prison ruled by a manager whose only instruction is to slash the budget“, so can we really be surprised this tragedy was inflicted upon them? Prof. Bullard, casually known as the “father of environmental justice”, also weighed in. “Don’t hide behind the idea that this was an accident that happened“, he opined, furious. What is happening in Flint is “a continuance of policies wherein some people don’t matter”, where “individuals on the ground have lost the ability to say no, while individuals in power are subjecting others and not themselves to the risks of their own – preventable – social experiments”, he said.
The esteemed persons quoted above are right. The Flint water crisis was the result of a failed social experiment in cost-cutting and regulation-dodging. This experiment began in 2012 with Governor-appointed Emergency Manager Michael Brown “blending” safe drinking water from DWSD with water from the city’s emergency backup system – the river – to save a couple bucks. It was fully set into motion by EM Ed Kurtz’s private decision in 2013 to put the Flint Water Treatment Plant into operation as a “primary” source of drinking water. And along the way, the plan received support and cover fire from the Governor’s office, MDEQ, EPA Region 5 (and especially Susan Hedman), and DHHS.
Our priorities going forward should not be about rooting out who aided and abetted this plan in various government agencies like MDEQ or DHHS. Because the Emergency Manager system establishes “private dictatorships” in the first place, the opinion of those agencies really doesn’t matter to those in power, unless those agencies are in line with what the EMs, the Governor, and other appointed (non-elected) officials want to do anyway.
Our priorities should be, first and foremost, to rebuild Flint’s water infrastructure in a way that revives trust in the community, from the ground up.
Secondly and not less important, we need to challenge and address the rotten status quo that allows private parties and dictatorial accountants to replace democracy with tyranny in the state’s poorest areas. We need to restore accountability and transparency to the political process, so that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is not an empty phrase, but a full illustration of our values.
We have a long way to go before we have such a democracy: one that protects the air, the water, and its people with equal love and commitment. But until we set ourselves to the task, there is no way to escape the money-grubbing dictatorial prison in which we currently exist. The only way out of the prison is the only way that has ever worked in human history: get real citizens organized into real coalitions with the courage and the will to mobilize for progress.
As a non-resident of Flint, I have a limited understanding of where the ground forces are, but two organizations, I think, deserve more mention than they are getting in the typical press releases and humdrum daily reporting: Leeanne Walters and Melissa Mays’ citizen group “Water You Fighting For?” and Nayyirah Shariff’s “Democracy Defense League”. Both are led by private citizens personally affected by the water crises, and both are working courageously to bring relief, push for change, and raise awareness. Both need more recognition and support: