Local, State, and Federal Government Agencies Share Blame for Flint Water Crisis

Published March 23, 2016

In the midst of a financial crisis, Flint, Michigan’s city council voted 7–1 to approve a proposal in 2013 to switch water providers from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).

Though Flint city officials touted the switch as a sound money-saving measure, DWSD predicted the new water system would actually cost more than continuing to buy from Detroit. The City of Detroit even offered to modify its rate structure for Flint to keep the city in DWSD.

Flint signed with KWA, and DWSD notified Flint it would need to find a new water supplier by April 2014, when its contract was set to expire. Flint was unable to finish the new system and pipeline by the deadline, so Flint chose to reopen an old local facility that relied on the Flint River as its water source in the interim.

Flint River water is 1900 percent more corrosive than the Lake Huron supply DWSD uses, according to researchers from Virginia Tech University. Making matters worse, the City of Flint failed to treat the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent required by federal law. The combination of these factors led to the erosion of the iron water mains in the city, which resulted in lead leaching into the Flint water supply.

Shortly after Flint switched to using water from the Flint River in April 2014, residents began to complain of a decline in the city’s water quality, noting the new water was visibly cloudy, brown, and tasted and smelled bad. By August 2014, Flint issued its first boil-water advisory, due to high levels of e-coli in the water. Other boil-water advisories would soon follow.

By October of 2014, General Motors (GM) announced it would stop using water from Flint. GM said the water was causing rust and corrosion on newly machined parts.

Despite levels of pollutants, including lead, exceeding federal limits being discovered in Flint’s water supply, the city refused a January 2015 offer from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to reconnect Flint to its system at no charge if the city would agree to a long-term contract. Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) office estimated switching back to Detroit’s water supply would save Flint $4 million over the long run.

Reports now indicate at the time of the DWSD offer, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) knew Flint’s water violated state and federal water quality standards, but the state agency neither penalized Flint nor forced them to fix the problem.

By late February 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became aware of Flint’s problem. Despite DEQ’s acknowledgement to EPA Flint had no corrosion control in place, by October 1, 2015, when the city finally urged residents not to drink the water and a public health emergency was declared, neither DEQ nor EPA had halted Flint’s use of water from the Flint River, and neither required the city to properly treat the water. On October 16, 2015, using state and private funds, Flint reconnected to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s water supply.

Prioritizing Jobs Over Costs, Health

Why did the City of Flint enter into a water contract studies indicated would cost more money than the deal offered by DWSD, and why did Flint choose to ignore the health issues raised by its residents? One possible answer comes from a Reason Foundation investigation, which found the new water arrangement was not really an effort to cut costs; it was seen by many public officials as a job-stimulus program.

Reason discovered documents showing staying with Detroit water would have saved an estimated 20 percent in the long run compared to making the switch to Karegnondi, but conducting a deal with Karegnondi offered the opportunity to initiate a new “shovel-ready” public infrastructure project.

Many analysts say the Flint water crisis is another instance of government failing to do what’s best for citizens, and pro-liberty advocates say the lesson to be learned in this tragedy is private water systems are safer and more responsive to drinking water supply problems.

“What is going on in Flint is a tragedy,” said James Hohman, assistant director of Fiscal Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “The failure to adequately treat the water distributed to homes in the city is a type of mismanagement that should not happen in America.

“Other water departments—both those privately managed and government-managed—have been able to treat their water to avoid the corrosion that contaminated children in Flint with lead,” said Hohman.

 ‘Failure of Socialism’

“The Flint water crisis is a classic example of the failure of socialism—not Bernie Sanders-style socialism, which is nothing more than liberalism on steroids, but real socialism, which is the government ownership and control of the means of production,” said Roy Cordato, vice president for research at the John Locke Foundation. “Drinking water in Flint and [in] most other places is a wholly owned subsidiary of government, which is responsible for its supply, price, and quality.”

“In a competitive market, where consumers don’t face a monopoly, this kind of contamination would never be allowed to happen,” Cordato said. “The reasons are competition and legal liability, both of which would destroy the profitability of any company acting so negligently. On the other hand, under socialist ownership, the government has no such concerns.

“Sure, some heads may role, but in the end the state’s water monopoly will remain intact,” said Cordato.

Floy Lilley, an associate scholar at the Mises Institute, says what happened in Flint should serve as a warning to the rest of the nation.

“Sadly, Flint residents have become ‘canaries’ in a pipeline,” said Lilley. “[R]esidents have now been red-flagged in advance of something the rest of us will come to learn.”

“America’s drinking water infrastructure barely earns a D grade,” said Lilley. “It is nearing the end of its useful life, and replacing every pipe will probably cost more than $1 trillion.” 

D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) is a regulation policy advisor with The Heartland Institute.