Editorial: Bottom line in Flint is government failure

The Detroit News

What we’ve learned after two congressional hearings this week on the Flint water crisis is that government failed at every level and in every possible way.

The sessions by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform spotlighted how agencies — state, federal and local — put bureaucratic process ahead of responsiveness to human needs, failed to communicate with each other and could not seem to gin up a sense of urgency even in the face of the lead poisoning of the people of Flint.

There wasn’t much new revealed in the two sessions, but hearing the officials who were charged with protecting the public interest attempt to explain their indifference and incompetence was useful.

Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, speaking of the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency, summed it up this way: “They didn’t know if they wanted to take the time, effort or money to help the people of Flint.”

And if that’s true of the EPA, it’s true as well of the state of Michigan and of the city of Flint.

Surely the EPA failed in not sounding the alarm about the contaminated water. In his testimony, Gov. Rick Snyder again acknowledged the dismal performance of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the state health department in monitoring water quality and issuing warnings of the dangers once they were discovered.

He continued to insist he was not informed by his underlings of the breadth of the problem, but that admission is less an excuse than it is a condemnation of how his office is run.

But at least Snyder manned up.

EPA Director Gina McCarthy disingenuously deflected responsibility. While the governor was given bad information by the people he trusted, the EPA was given good information by people it trusted and buried it.

In Flint, the government dysfunction that caused its bankruptcy in the first place manifested itself in the water crisis. Ill-trained workers were placed in charge of treating the water, and they got it wrong. And when they did, neither state nor federal agencies intervened to make it right.

This is an indictment of the complacency of government brought on by a lack of accountability to its customers — the citizens who fund their operations.

Some will argue that what happened in Flint is a reflection of government that has grown too big. Others will see it as a symptom of the push to starve government of the resources it needs to protect the people.

But from the testimony this week, the real issue seems to be that government just didn’t care enough to do its job.

Flint exposes that truth on a large scale.

If nothing else, the congressional hearings should prompt every government agency and every government worker to pause and ask, “Could this happen on my watch?”