Crisis of confidence. That probably captures best what many in the state of Michigan are experiencing as we watch the drama unfolding around the tainted water controversy in Flint.
We all know some of the basic elements in this saga. A major city, economically distressed as the automotive industry downsized locally, with a minority population, under the management of a financial manager appointed by the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder.
I say “basic elements” because we are just getting our first look at the facts of how some of the residents of Flint ended up with lead-contaminated water coming out of their faucets. Although we don't know all the facts, we do know that the city, in April of 2014, with approval from Lansing, pulled out of the Detroit water system and opted to use the Flint River as its water source while awaiting completion of a new water system. The move was intended to save Flint millions of dollars in the interim.
We know that complaints from residents were raised about discolored, smelly water shortly after the switch from getting drinking water from Lake Huron. We also know that as early as last summer, some in the Snyder administration raised questions with both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the state Health Department, but were assured by both departments that there was no problem with the quality of the water. We also know that the federal Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns in the spring of 2015 about the importance of corrosion controls that would mitigate lead leaching from pipes into the drinking water.
And we have learned in recent days, from the former Snyder chief of staff and e-mails that were released by the governor right at press time for this issue, that dating back to last September the governor knew there was a potential problem, brought to light by water quality testing in August that showed dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water.
No one is sure, until further testing takes place, how widespread the problem is but we do know that state officials failed to make sure that anti-corrosion chemicals were added to the water supply once the switch was made to prevent older lead delivery pipes from causing a health problem in Flint.
And now we have a more concerted response of the state attempting to supply bottled water, faucet filters, and expanded testing for the residents of Flint, months after the governor's office was made aware of the problem and many months after both the health department and DEQ were made aware of a potentially serious problem. We can probably thank the national attention on the Flint situation for forcing a more focused response than state officials had shown up until now.
I am not willing to write the Flint situation off like one former Republican lawmaker, Bill Ballenger, did on a news program when the issue finally hit the fan in mid-January. Ballenger, who in recent years has developed a reputation for being one of the more knowledgeable pundits (think Inside Michigan Politics newsletter), labeled media coverage of the Flint mess as “vastly overblown” and the problem “so miniscule.”
Instead, I think what we are seeing from this administration is an attitude, almost endemic, in the DEQ where environmental justice may well be influenced by race and economic class.
Sorry, but I can't help but think that a white, affluent suburban community would not have to wait five months for a response on elevated blood-lead levels in drinking water.
Let's also remember that this is the same DEQ that just earlier this year wrote to officials at Marathon Petroleum in southwest Detroit that they were inclined to approve a permit application that would allow higher rates of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the air in zip code 48217, already considered the most polluted area of the state. Pollution in this case, on many mornings, shows up as a white dust or film on personal property of the minority residents surrounding the crude oil and tar sands oil processing plant in southwest Detroit, an area that boasts one of the higher rates of cancer and asthma in southeast Michigan.
The same DEQ that made light of the initial complaints in the Flint fiasco has basically decided that the added particulates to be sent into the air around the Marathon plant (and if the winds move in the right direction, into parts of Oakland County and beyond) don't “violate (DEQ) rules or national air quality standards.”
When the state or federal investigations into the Flint tainted water situation are finished, someone should be reviewing the track record of the DEQ and what has all the appearances of a department where environmental policy decisions – consciously or not – are influenced by class and race or whether the impacted population has the requisite political muscle to successfully challenge the Lansing decision-makers. It's long overdue.