Finley: Trace Flint blame from water plant

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The obsession with how the decision was made to switch Flint to its own water system, and who made it, is misplaced. While it turned into a disaster, it would have been inconsequential had it not been for some bad and baffling choices made before the water started flowing to Flint residents.

On its own, changing from the Detroit Water and Sewerage System to a new regional authority should not have been so tragic for Flint. Even drawing water from the Flint River should not have become such a big deal — the Flint River has been used before as a supplemental source.

Those actions on their own could be considered sound policy — they did save the busted city money — had it not been for the monumental screw-up at the Flint water treatment facility.

That mistake, as has been well reported, was to not add anti-corrosive chemicals to the water before it entered Flint’s ancient system of pipes.

I spent some time this week with several people in the water treatment field, and not one could figure out how such a basic additive was left out. It’s standard practice to put anti-corrosives in water, particularly in older systems.

Water from the Flint River flows through the Hamilton Dam near downtown Flin on Jan. 21.

And had it been done in Flint, as Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who uncovered the high levels of lead in Flint water, told The Detroit News, “nearly all of the problems ... would not have occurred.”

With the right treatment, the Flint River water should have been safe to drink. And it mostly was -- until it left the plant and began interacting with the pipes. That’s how the lead leached into the system.

We still haven’t heard a good answer to why a protective and routine chemical that cost just $150 a day was left out. Was it intentional? An oversight? Was the Flint Water Department advised that it wasn’t needed? If so, by whom? Those questions are more important than the who, how and why of the decisions to leave DWSD.

Switching a major water system from one source to another is a massive undertaking, and is rarely done. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency should have known it requires much more planning, testing and analysis. It should not have been left to trial and error. The opportunists want to make this all about the administration of a Republican governor and the state’s emergency manager law.

Certainly, the MDEQ works for Gov. Rick Snyder, and should have worked much better. But that was a failure of process and not policy. If you add salt instead of sugar to a cake, it tastes disgusting — but the fault rests with the ingredients, not with the decision to bake the cake.

And whether or not Flint had an emergency manager, the outcome would likely have been the same. Local officials, after decades of feuding with the Detroit system over rates, wanted to switch, and would have done so anyway.

There’s plenty of forensic work to do to uncover how this crisis was allowed to happen and why the response was so inept. But the starting point should be at the water treatment plant, where the first tragic decision was likely made.

Nolan Finley’s new book, Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice, issued by Dunlap Goddard Publishing, is available from Amazon.