Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Crisis in Flint Goes Deeper Than the Water
The New Yorker

After numerous efforts, residents of Flint, Michigan, have finally gotten state and federal agencies to combat lead contamination in the city’s water source. Why did it take so long?

Last July, after more than a year of public complaints about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan—water so pungent and foamy that a local pastor had stopped using it for baptisms—reporters were calling the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The response from the department was of limited urgency. In an internal e-mail to colleagues, a spokeswoman, Karen Tommasulo, wrote, “Apparently it’s going to be a thing now.”

The D.E.Q. tried to stop the water from becoming a thing, partly by downplaying concerns. A memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that the city’s use of a new water source was exposing the public to unsafe levels of lead, but Brad Wurfel, the.department’s lead spokesperson, told a reporter, “Let me start here—anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” Even after a group of Virginia Tech researchers found unsafe levels of lead, Wurfel disputed the importance of the findings because, he wrote, the group “specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go.” He added that “dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.”

As it turns out, the residents of Flint needed much more of that. The state’s inept response is now a full-blown national scandal. President Obama has declared an emergency in Flint, making available five million dollars in federal assistance. Much of the blame falls on Governor Rick Snyder, who acknowledged, on Tuesday, that he had run out of excuses. “I am sorry; we will fix this,” he said, in his State of the State address. He thanked the whistle-blowers, and promised to seek millions more in state funds for bottled water, health care, and infrastructure fixes. Facing calls for his resignation, he told the people of Flint and elsewhere, “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here, with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth.”

In his speech, Snyder promised to release his e-mails from 2014 and 2015, which may fill in some details of how he lost his way. Snyder, an accountant who ran on the slogan “One Tough Nerd,” was a first-time candidate when he won in 2010, in a Republican wave that also elected Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He preached pragmatism and austerity, calling himself America’s “token-CPA governor,” and, as recently as this spring, he talked of a possible Presidential run. His image as a technocrat is, for the moment, finished. He acknowledged this week that Flint is tantamount to his Hurricane Katrina.

But, as in New Orleans, unravelling what went wrong in Flint will probably require more than the release of e-mails and a prime-time apologia. The headwaters of Flint’s crisis are not located in the realm of technical errors; rather, there are harder questions about governance and accountability in some of America’s most vulnerable places. Who controls policy and why? How does the public check those who govern in its name?

The lessons apply beyond Michigan: Two years ago, in West Virginia, chemicals leaked into a river about a mile from the largest water treatment plant in the state. It was one of American history’s most serious incidents of chemical contamination—and, not incidentally, West Virginia’s fifth industrial accident in eight years. As I described in the magazine in “Chemical Valley,” that disaster was the confluence of trends in campaign finance, lobbying, and ideology, which had allowed elected officials to scale back the state’s environmental regulations and enforcement. (In one five-year span, the state had recorded twenty-five thousand violations of the Clean Water Act by coal companies, but never issued a fine for them.) West Virginians were left feeling that one of the nation’s most impoverished states had been robbed. Denise Giardina, one of the state’s best novelists, told me, “Water—it’s the most elemental thing except for air.”

In Flint, people feel a similar sense of injustice, although the political causes are different. Many blame Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, which allows the state to hire managers who receive unusually broad powers to address communities in financial distress. In April 2014, city managers approved a switch of Flint’s water source from Detroit to the Flint River until a pipeline from Lake Huron was completed. Around town, the Flint River was best known as a graveyard for old refrigerators and grocery carts. Soon local media was reporting on the complaints, but the city and state assured people that the water was safe. Even after the General Motors plant in Flint refused to use the water because it was rusting car parts, residents were not offered alternatives.

It was only after Flint residents organized their own campaign—attracting experts and activists and national media—that the state acknowledged the scale of the problem. To some critics, Michigan’s use of emergency managers has been especially harmful to African-Americans. By one account, approximately half of the state’s African-American population is now governed by an emergency manager. Flint has had six emergency financial managers, or E.F.M.s, in thirteen years. Writing in The Root, Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn described it as a policy derived from the “premise that democracy in predominantly African-American cities is unnecessary and that the state knows best.” N.A.A.C.P. leaders in Detroit have filed a federal lawsuit against the law that governs emergency managers, citing predominantly white municipalities with serious financial problems that did not receive the same treatment.

It’s not yet clear how long it will take to restore healthy water, and political trust, in Flint. The state has given out filters that remove lead, but people aren’t quick to believe that they will work. The sheriff of Flint, who has been going door to door talking to people, said, “They have lost faith in the capacity of government to work with them. And it’s hard to say, ‘You know, you’re wrong.’ ”

Reading about Flint this morning, I thought of Denise Giardina, in Charleston, and asked her how she and her neighbors are doing in the wake of the chemical leak. “We just had our second anniversary last week,” she said. “Most people are drinking and cooking with the water again. After a while you just wear down and give in to it. I think most of us try not to think about it. But it stays in the back of the mind.” She had been watching the news from Flint and felt an unhappy kinship. “The water crises happen to Charleston and Flint because they are struggling, neglected cities. They struggle because of things like the water crises. And the crumbling of the auto and coal and chemical industries, and because no one pays attention.”

America is finally paying attention to Flint, but not in the way the city’s residents might have wanted. A cartoon making the rounds this week is labelled “Michigan 2016.” It shows two water fountains: one, marked “White,” has clean water flowing from the spout; the other, marked “Colored,” offers a geyser of red muck.

Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and covers politics and foreign affairs.

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