Our Editorial: Assigning blame in Flint

The Detroit News

With the release of Gov. Rick Snyder’s emails regarding Flint, and other information that has emerged over the past few weeks, responsibility for the blunders that allowed dangerous levels of lead into the city’s drinking water is becoming clearer.

Ultimately, of course, the blame rests with Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration, as he acknowledged, because Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.

And it was the state that gave the final go-ahead to disconnect Flint from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and begin drawing water out of the Flint River.

But that decision did not have to be as disastrous as it eventually became.

Drinking water has been pulled from the Flint River for decades to supplement DWSD supplies. And other cities across the state rely on river water, which can be more corrosive than water from lakes.

The first breakdown in decision-making was not in switching water sources, but rather the failure to properly treat the river water.

Switching the water supply for a city the size of Flint is a massive and almost unprecedented endeavor. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and its Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance should have been better prepared for every possible malfunction.

And yet, even though nearly every other water system in the nation adds anti-corrosive chemicals to water, the MDEQ didn’t do that in Flint. Without the additives, the corrosive water leached lead from pipes.

“We can say with high confidence, that if the (corrosion controls) had been used, nearly all of the problems that have occurred — from lead, to leaks to, possibly, Legionnaires’ disease — would not have occurred,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who uncovered the lead contamination, told The Detroit News.

Adding the necessary treatment would have cost just $150 a day.

The second breach was the almost stubbornly negligent and mind-bogglingly bureaucratic response to resident complaints about the water. When the first glass of brown water was drawn from the tap, the MEDQ should have gone into crisis mode. Instead, its staffers kept insisting the nasty looking and smelling stuff was safe to use.

Even after the first hints came of elevated lead in Flint children, the MEDQ and the state Health Department reacted defensively. With a disaster unfolding, they stuck to the standard procedure for testing, and struggled to interpret Environmental Protection Agency rules for lead and copper in water.

The EPA also failed to raise appropriate alarms when it became aware of the contamination.

New MDEQ Director Keith Creagh says at worst the bad water should have been detected after six months. But it kept flowing for another eight. The MDEQ failed to act even after General Motors Corp. in October of 2014 stopped using Flint water at its local facilities because it was damaging metal parts.

Snyder has described a culture of incompetence in the MDEQ. While its former head, Dan Wyant, was purged, those bureaucrats who made the poor decisions and who failed to sound the warning to their superiors are still on the state payroll, although one manager has been moved to a new position. As of late Friday, two other DEQ employees had been suspended. Snyder says he will deal with them, but because they have civil servant protection, he has to follow a laborious process for punishment or dismissal.

Forget that. Their incompetence and malfeasance led to the poisoning of children. The governor should fire them now and answer questions later. Finally, as said, blame rests with Snyder. He put in place an action plan in early October, when he said he learned of the high levels of lead in the water.

But he should have moved with greater public urgency. Not another drop of bad water should have been consumed once he was aware of the problem.

There are likely other culprits. It is simply astounding how many individuals and agencies failed the people of Flint.