17 February 2016

Origins of the Flint water crisis

The Wikipedia page (and similar timelines) for the Flint water crisis indicates that the problem "started in April 2014" when the city's emergency manager sought to "save about $5 million over less than two years" by "switch[ing] from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to treating water from the Flint River..." until the [under-construction]  Karegnondi system was completed in 2016.

Similarly, Professor Robert Percival explains that "[t]he Flint tragedy originated with the appointment by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder of Darnell Earley as emergency manager for Flint. To save money Earley decided in April 2014 to shift the source of the city's water supply to the polluted Flint River."

These are both true and accurate statements. But they leave the reader wondering: why did Flint (and Detroit) have an appointed emergency manager in the first place? Because those cities were run into the ground. They were essentially bankrupt. And under the provisions of Michigan law, the governor appointed emergency managers to help those cities clean up their mess. Flint continued to flounder, electing two convicted felons (including one for murder) and two others with bankruptcies to its city council in 2013.

One can argue over the scope of powers given to appointed emergency managers (and the subsequent authority stripped from those local governments in receivership), but there is not any suggestion (at least not that I am aware of) that these emergency managers did anything outside the scope of their mandate. Perhaps the Michigan law needs to be amended so that emergency managers cannot change "policy simply to save costs without considering the impact on public health." But that doesn't address the underlying issue of crime-ridden, debt-laden, corrupt cities that will give birth to more tragedies like the Flint water crisis. This New York Times article about the "anger" over appointed emergency managers likewise fails to even address why such managers were appointed in the first place.

There is plenty of blame to go around here in regards to this individual incident: the city's emergency managers, including Earley, as well as Governor Snyder and Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and quite possibly the EPA. In a larger sense, the deeper blame for Flint's water crisis (and many of the ongoing problems in decaying urban cities) lies elsewhere: corrupt politicians, cronyism, disintegrating schools, and public-sector unions. The root cause for cities like Flint and Detroit is a failure of one-party government.
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