Flint crisis blame reaching green groups

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint — One by one, each government agency involved in Flint’s water crisis — from City Hall to the White House — has been dragged under the microscope and found wanting.

But environmental groups, businesses and universities also bear some of the blame, even if they weren’t legally required to act, critics say.

More than two years after the crisis began, a consensus is emerging that the “green” community could have raised red flags much earlier, when residents started complaining about the quality of their lead-tainted water.

“In many ways, all of what has been used to demonize Gov. (Rick) Snyder — what did he know and when — I think all of those same questions should be asked of other actors, including the environmental groups,” said Noah Hall, the state’s special assistant attorney general overseeing civil litigation in Flint. “As soon as the switch was made, the problems were apparent.

“There were groups ... that had a moral and professional responsibility ... based on their expertise and how the public trusts them, to look out for the public’s interest.”

Hall, a Wayne State University professor and founder of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, is unsparing in his criticism of the green community he belongs to. He has a unique vantage point on the crisis, which began in April 2014 when the city began drawing corrosive water from the Flint River.

Once the river became the source of the city’s drinking water, residents immediately began reporting problems — strong odors, discoloration and strange tastes. Yet few of the state’s major environmental groups stepped in.

When a lawsuit was finally filed in January by an environmental group over the Flint crisis, it came from outside Michigan.

“The only legal action eventually taken was by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C, along with the ACLU of Michigan and Concerned Pastors for Social Action in Flint,” Hall said. “There wasn’t a Michigan-based environmental group involved.”

Asked about their performance in the Flint crisis, an official with the Michigan Environmental Council — which represents 70 different conservation groups — said more could have been done.

“In retrospect, I think many people and organizations across the state wondered why they didn’t read the red flags better and uncover the root cause of the problem,” wrote James Clift, MEC’s policy director, in an email. “The Michigan Environmental Council is among those groups. Whether we would have succeeded where others failed is unknown.”

Part of the problem, for organizations such as MEC, is their focus. Clift said conservation groups tend to direct their efforts toward the source of drinking water — rivers and lakes — rather than what happens to it once it’s been tapped by communities. Drinking water, he said, has more often been overseen by health agencies.

In addition, he said the funding needed for proper oversight of drinking water doesn’t usually come to nonprofit environmental groups. That results in groups having to rely on information coming out of government agencies — a situation that proved dangerous in Flint.

“When we did look into the situation in Flint, we were told the same thing that others heard — that while there were problems in the beginning, the water was safe and met all regulatory requirements,” Clift wrote. “State officials had explanations for the issues surrounding taste, discoloration, odor and even the rashes reported on peoples’ bodies.

“Lead was never mentioned.”

Hall also criticized the University of Michigan-Flint, which he said was aware of water quality problems in January 2015 after testing its drinking water.

“They actually shut down a couple of their water fountains due to lead levels,” Hall said.

Instead of reaching out to warn the larger Flint community, Hall said, the university did little.

“The university, which is uniquely equipped with resources to be able to identify problems ... does nothing about Flint’s situation for all of 2015,” he said. “They had the resources to and clout to elevate the situation to a state and national level and educate the policy and decision-makers.”

University of Michigan-Flint said the problematic water testing results in January 2015 were thought to be confined to the campus’ oldest building. School officials notified the Genesee County Health Department on Feb. 3, 2015.

“Like so many others in our community, we wish we would have known, could have known, earlier what was happening to our city,” Chancellor Susan Borrego said in a statement provided by the university. “As the crisis evolved, our campus continued to be involved every day lending our expertise and our work ethic to address our community’s immediate and long-term needs.”

A year after lead was detected at UM-Flint, the president of the UM system called on faculty, staff and students to respond to the Flint crisis. That call by Mark Schlissel included $100,000 in seed money for researchers to identify ways to help.

Another non-governmental entity, General Motors Co., has also been criticized for its actions during the crisis. Soon after the city’s switch to river water, the company’s Flint Engine Operation began noticing problems with corroding engine parts. In December 2014, GM stopped getting its water from Flint and the issues soon cleared up.

In February, the company came under fire from longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He argued the company should have done more to alert the public about problems with the water. In a letter to CEO Mary Barra, Nader wrote there was “no way GM did not have information about lead and other heavy metals in the water from its own comprehensive testing.”

Earlier this year, GM responded to criticism of its actions by saying the company notified officials with the City of Flint in summer 2014.

“There was full disclosure there because there was great concern there was a problem,” GM spokesman Tom Wickham said in January. “We were upfront with them and said we needed to switch because it was causing problems for us.”


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