Lennox: Gov. Snyder not to blame in Flint crisis

Dennis Lennox

The real culprit behind the Flint water crisis is Genesee County’s drain commissioner.

Flint’s water would have never been contaminated with lead had it not been for Drain Commissioner Jeffrey Wright’s pipeline to and from Lake Huron.

The facts are simple.

In 2009, Wright, a Democrat, sold his pipeline as a way for locals to save money — despite costing more than a quarter billion dollars — by disconnecting from Detroit’s water supply.

As the Republican drain commissioner of Cheboygan County, I objected over concerns Wright’s pipeline would negatively impact Lake Huron’s water levels. My concerns were echoed by other local governments and environmental watchdogs in both Michigan and Ontario, not least because this was the first major Great Lakes water withdrawal in the aftermath of the landmark Great Lakes Compact between the U.S. states and Canadian provinces. Many were also concerned Wright’s pipeline would become a precedent for future diversions.

Then-Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration gave environmental approval for Wright’s pipeline, which falls under the auspices of the Karegnondi Water Authority.

Wright, as drain commissioner and chief executive officer of the Karegnondi Water Authority, then went about the lengthy process of signing up localities as customers.

By early 2013, Flint was for all intents and purposes bankrupt. City hall needed to cut costs after years of financial nonfeasance.

At the same time, it had been four years since Wright’s pipeline was approved and the county’s largest municipality still wasn’t a customer. He finally laid down an ultimatum, telling city council on March 18, 2013, that Flint would be left out if it didn’t sign up within two weeks. “We’re going to build the pipeline … whether Flint’s a partner or not,” Michigan Radio quoted him as saying.

Shortly thereafter the Democratic mayor and city council gave Wright’s pipeline their final blessing.

All along Wright said his objective was to cut costs. What was never said was that the drain commissioner would gain immense clout, as Wright oversaw public contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

There were no complaints of water quality or lead contamination when Flint was a customer of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Shortly after Flint took its business to the Karegnondi Water Authority, Detroit and Flint ended their longstanding water supply agreement. The Flint River was then tapped until Wright’s pipeline was operational.

In hindsight there should have been stricter scrutiny of Flint’s technical capability to safely treat and deliver its own water after not having done so for about 50 years.

Yet everyone was saying Flint and Genesee County under Wright’s leadership were in a position to go at it alone.

That proved not to be the case.

Of course, state and federal environmental regulators also failed to blow the whistle on multiple occasions.

Still, Wright is responsible as without him and his pipeline Flint would have continued receiving safe, clean water from Detroit.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.