Editorial: No good answers in Flint water switch

The Detroit News

Depictions of the Flint water crisis as a case of a financially desperate Flint, deprived of local control by a state emergency manager, being forced to switch off the clean water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to save a few bucks are misleading. It didn’t happen that way.

In a report from The Detroit News’ Jim Lynch, the decision to move to a new regional water authority was driven by local officials in Flint and Genesee County, and was initially met with skepticism by the Snyder administration.

The reporting centers on two meetings in 2013 between those local officials, DWSD management, Gov. Rick Snyder and members of his administration to discuss the transfer. The meetings followed a 7-1 vote by the Flint City Council to leave the Detroit system and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority.

State Treasurer Andy Dillon was against the move because he didn’t see the financial savings.

But Flint and DWSD had been engaged in a long-running feud over rates and service, and the city was determined to hook up with the new authority. Snyder, who had appointed the emergency managers in both Flint and Detroit, requested the second meeting in hopes of mediating a resolution.

But in the end, he acquiesced to the wishes of the local officials, who were supported in their request by Ed Kurtz, who at the time was Flint’s emergency manager.

So rather than usurping local preference, this was a bow to it. Unfortunately, despite the concerns, the governor’s office approved the recommendation of Flint’s elected leaders.

It’s what happened after the proposal was approved where the decision-making remains murky. DWSD sent Flint a cut-off notice to take effect 12 months after its notice was given. That was well short of the start-up date for Karegnondi.

Instead of working out an extension, Flint turned instead to its own treatment plant, with water drawn from the Flint River.

That turned out to be a disaster, with improperly treated water leaching lead from pipes and poisoning Flint residents.

At least some of the numerous investigations underway should focus on why an interim deal could not be reached between DWSD and Flint, and who is responsible for the decision not to add anti-corrosive treatments to the water drawn from the Flint River.

From The News’ report, the breakdown may have been as simple as bad personal relationships.

It seems then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Genesee County officials didn’t trust the savings estimates presented by DWSD Director Sue McCormick at the meetings.

Walling also expressed the animosity of his citizens for what they felt were unfair rate hikes, and that Flint had been among the first communities cut-off from water during the 2003 power blackout in Michigan.

But as Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards notes, the decision to transfer from DWSD, and even to draw water from the Flint River, would not have been bad ones had the water been properly treated.

There are still no good answers for why the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Flint Water Department did not take that basic precaution.