Howes: DEQ’s Flint lawsuit dripping with irony

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For irony, it’s hard to beat the spectacle of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality suing Flint over its new Detroit water deal.

But here we are in federal court. Lawyers for Gov. Rick Snyder’s water bureaucrats say Flint’s political leaders are causing “imminent and substantial endangerment of public health” by their refusal to endorse Mayor Karen Weaver’s fresh 30-year supply contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Seriously? The department most directly implicated in the cascading failures known as the Flint Water Crisis now is projecting grave responsibility for the long-suffering people of Flint. That’s exactly what it should have done three years ago when the emergency manager-ordered switch to Flint River water ran brown and foul from taps across the city.

So Flint’s back on GLWA’s Detroit water, where the mayor wants to stay. And the City Council ain’t buying it. Not yet, anyway, carrying the distinct whiff of rival Karegnondi Water Authority conniving in the background.

What are Flint’s alternatives to the relative security of GLWA, effectively extending a 50-year relationship with Detroit that its people know? To move ahead with plans to connect to the fledgling KWA; to renovate (at a steep price) Flint’s moribund water treatment plant and risk its restart; to convince the federal Environmental Protection Agency to sign off on yet another switch.

None of that is remotely likely, given the cascade of horribles visited the past three years on a community seemingly vexed to biblical proportions. Sticking with GLWA’s treated Detroit water — and getting a $7 million annual credit to offset Flint’s contractual obligation to KWA — is the best the city can hope for given its perilous finances and anxiety.

“Staying with our water source gives us reassurance our water is good,” the mayor told The Detroit News earlier this month. She’s right.

Reversing course yet again risks restarting the downward spiral all over again. Recall the contaminated water and the sores, the imperiled children and the spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases blamed for a dozen deaths, the international spectacle of bureaucratic ineptitude and the epic callousness.

No sentient being would want to relive that, the single best reason to explain the state’s reasoning behind its lawsuit. Who would consciously choose to resurrect such negative repercussions, to expose the people of Flint to another round of uncertainty, another hit to property values, another reason for business to invest elsewhere and residents to flee?

And recall the endless politicking: Between presidential candidates keen to whip votes in advance of last year’s primaries and the general election. Between grandstanding members of Congress, happy to use public hearings to browbeat state officials, the EPA or both.

Between state Democrats pushing to undermine fatally the hated emergency manager law and Republicans trying to defend it. Between Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, each angling for the Republican gubernatorial nomination from vastly different positions on Flint.

No one more than Schuette could derive political advantage from Flint’s predicament, a series of wrongs that could be righted by criminal charges against city and state officials, including involuntary manslaughter. Even if Schuette’s charges fail to culminate in convictions, the AG stands to reap the benefit of being the only Republican willing to take on those nasty Republicans.

Council’s rebuff of the mayor’s GLWA contract is just the latest round of endless politicking. The intramural exercise has a lot more to do with settling scores and making political gestures than representing the common-sense interests of their constituents.

Flint needs less drama, not more. The city once regarded as an archetype of American industrial might is a monument to deindustrialization, a cautionary tale for the cost of capital flight, corporate contraction, competition unanswered.

It’s also the poster child for governmental incompetence, the triumph of narrow officiousness over common sense. That’s worth remembering as Flint council members defy the state and stall for time, presumably because there’s a better water source to be had that doesn’t ship money to Detroit and doesn’t imperil the public health.

What that might be isn’t at all clear. And that tells you just about everything you need to know about the latest chapter in the Flint water debacle.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.