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Why Flint Was Avoidable

Poisoned by policy,” reads the protest sign of one Flint, Michigan resident, a nine-year-old activist demonstrating outside of Flint City Hall. And if the facts support what is now widely suspected, that is indeed an accurate summation. As the Department of Justice begins its inquiry into the contamination of the Flint water supply, it is clear that lawmakers and politicians at the city and state levels—and possibly federal too—made a string of poor decisions and mistakes that have jeopardized the health and well-being of residents, and may have even contributed to their deaths.

But what exactly were those mistakes? And how could they have been avoided in the first place? What can be learned from Flint so that something as fundamental as access to clean drinking water is never threatened again? Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Don’t take shortcuts. The decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River was born of economic exigency. Facing a financial state of emergency, the state-appointed city manager enacted this switch to save a few million dollars while waiting out the two years it would take the State to construct a new supply line to Lake Huron. It’s the type of quick fix that offloads the costs of basic services—in this case, something as basic as clean water—to residents themselves. Those who can least afford it often pay the heaviest price. And undoing the damage done is going to cost more than it would have to prevent the problem in the first place. In addition to the hundreds of millions it will take to repair the infrastructure, we will be tallying the costs and impacts on health and quality of life for Flint’s residents for years to come.
  2. Trust in public review. When one traces back through the poor decision-making that led to the current state of emergency, one clearly sees that the public process failed the people of Flint. Running cities—states and countries, too—means adhering to rules and regulations put in place to avoid mistakes. Oversight is essential. Not only was the decision to switch the water supply to the Flint River not publicly reviewed or decided on by local elected officials, but Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to address the Flint River water’s corrosiveness. Evidence of failed oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency is also beginning to surface. Flint points to the perils of less regulation. Too often, the debate centers on the private sector, yet it is not only the private sector that needs looking after; we also need to pay careful attention to the decisions and actions taken by lawmakers about everyday matters. One would hope one of the big lessons of Flint is to spur the Environmental Protection Agency to take a closer look at State and local agencies, as well as their own policies and procedures, going forward. In today’s political climate, however, that’s unlikely. Since the 1980s, the idea that government oversight is the problem, not the solution, has been all too popular. Those who fail to understand the ruin wreaked by the rhetoric around regulation need only look to Flint.
  3. Government must be transparent. Governor Snyder’s first executive action was to separate the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality into two agencies. When the dust settles, the rationale behind that decision will no doubt be called into serious question for the implications it had, and for the tragedy that has affected so many Flint residents and children. Environmental review is one of the most complicated things governments do. It is time consuming, expensive, and often decided by inexact or unknown data. But it must be done. And we must have the necessary assurance that it’s being done properly.
  4. Local economies must remain competitive. One of the hardest lessons from Flint is already well known, and it is this: Over the long-term, city leaders failed to ensure Flint’s economic growth. The root cause of the trauma facing Flint is that it has not had a positive economic outlook since the General Motors plant closed in the late 1980s. Since then, city and state officials have had ample time and opportunity to innovate and take steps to reinvent the local economy. Had they invested in strategies and programs designed to support economic resilience, they would not have had to pursue a slash-and-cut approach to basic services in the first place. Louisville, San Jose, and Austin, among many other American cities, have all found a path to economic prosperity and job growth. There are no cookie cutter solutions: Each city must make decisions that build from local assets and know-how. Investing in human capital is essential, which makes it even harder to understand how anyone could’ve thought part of the answer to Flint’s economic viability was a cheaper water supply.
  5. Residents are experts, too. So listen to them. This last lesson is frankly the most bedeviling—and also the most important. Why did it take officials so long to respond to the public outcry for an intervention? Let’s be very clear here: It didn’t take weeks or months to detect the toxic tap water. Residents knew immediately. Further, it’s hard to believe that the decision to switch the water supply was even made in the first place, given that there is widespread local knowledge that the Flint River is not a protected and pristine asset. Local action is also what brought engineers from the Virginia Tech Research Team to examine the water quality given their commitment to support citizen scientists concerned about public health. What we tend to forget is that residents have the biggest stake in ensuring essential services and amenities are met, and public officials today must do much better heeding their concerns—even when they’re not affluent or white.

The saddest truth is that the Flint crisis could have been averted. Residents of this shrinking city have fallen to man-made catastrophes and systemic failures on multiple levels: humanitarian, environmental, economic, and ultimately, political. The last one is the hardest to admit—especially in an election year—but the story of Flint is ultimately one of government ineptitude. Just by functioning normally, the government could have saved children from lead poisoning and its awful consequences.

Clearly, we need a higher level of scrutiny on public sector practices, not just those of corporations and private interests. There needs to be more regulation by—and, crucially, of—the government. Of course we want to believe that decisions by policymakers are made with the best intentions. Above all, we want to believe that they will actually do good. But that is not always the case. Flint is but another example of the strain on America’s social contract. And we urgently need to reverse course. Policymakers are charged and entrusted with the responsibility to protect and serve residents. Citizens and civic organizations play a vital role ensuring lawmakers do their job, and do it well. The call to action from Flint is making sure the civic sector is invested with more effective and more empowering means to do so. It is a call we need to answer. The matter is, quite literally, one of life and death.


Pamela Puchalski