by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The story can be summed up in a stark and simple sentence. From April 2014 to October 2015, the 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, drank poisoned water, and nobody did anything to stop it.

In the United States of America in the Twenty-first Century, residents – especially children – of a large city were drinking, bathing in, and washing with water polluted by a concentration of brain-damaging, anemia-causing, rash-inducing lead that was measured at 820 times the “action level” that is supposed to trigger a response.

How did this happen?

One could look at the timeline of events leading down to this tragedy and get a facile and fatuous answer. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder summed that answer up: “[G]overnment failed you – Federal, State, and local leaders – by breaking the trust you placed in us.” Snyder then performed the ritual act of contrition we see from all political screw-ups. He fell on his rubber sword by saying he has ultimate responsibility for the failure and then fired a couple of scapegoats.

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The surface story of the Flint water crisis is this: Flint used to get its water from the Detroit system. From 2004 to 2013, the amount charged by Detroit for that water nearly doubled, leading Flint to join in a consortium that would build a new drinking water production and distribution system, using Lake Huron as its source of raw water. The estimated savings would be over two million dollars a year. However, it would take until 2016 to finish construction, and Detroit retaliated by saying it would stop providing water to Flint in the spring of 2014.

Detroit ultimately agreed to a short-term deal that would continue to provide Flint with clean, safe water while the new pipeline was being built, but Flint’s response was to disconnect from Detroit on April 25, 2014, and start drawing raw water from the Flint River. The justification was financial – it would save five million dollars.

The water in the Flint River is different from Detroit or Lake Huron water. The river water is very high in chlorides, the same chemical that makes road salt (sodium chloride) rust your car’s sheet metal.  Flint River water has about eight times the concentration of chlorides as Detroit city water.

Problems emerged immediately after the switch. Residents complained of differences in color, odor, and taste. Local doctors began seeing increased rashes and hair loss in patients using Flint water. Within four months, the city had to issue an advisory to boil the water before use because of the presence of E. coli bacteria. Schools in Flint began buying bulk water, and in October 2014 General Motors stopped using Flint’s municipal water in its Flint factory because it was corroding cast-iron engine blocks.

That’s right. Flint’s water was so corrosive that it was unsatisfactory for industrial use in an automotive plant. But the city kept right on providing it to human customers (at the highest rate of all the 500 largest water systems in the nation, an average of over $70 per month), repeating that it was safe and cost-effective.

In January 2014, the city advised that its distributed water had high levels of trihalomethanes, because so much chlorination was needed in the disinfection process. The water from local taps continued to turn up brown, green, or yellow, with a foul taste and odor. Still, nothing was done.

The State of Michigan seemed to know something was wrong, because in January 2015 they started supplying bulk water from outside the Flint system to the State office building in the city.  Water coolers with bottled water appeared next to the building’s water fountains.

That same month, an individual consumer pressed the issue beyond Michigan.

Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters, finding no help in local or State agencies, contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Subsequent tests of her water showed 13,200 parts per billion of lead. The level which is supposed to trigger a response to lead contamination is 15 parts per billion. A U.S. EPA employee, Miguel del Toral, took notice. Del Toral sent a memorandum to his immediate superior, with copies to Michigan officials, warning that Flint’s water treatment system was not correcting the corrosivity in its raw water from the river. The water being distributed to residents was thus leaching lead out of old lead-containing pipes, and the lead was entering the water supply on its way to people’s homes.

U.S. EPA did not go public with Del Toral’s warning .  Instead, because State agencies have primacy in these matters, they quietly pressured the State of Michigan to correct things. Since U.S. EPA wasn’t going to expose the problem, Michigan officials kept right on suppressing the truth. In a National Public Radio interview,  a representative of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality called Del Toral a “rogue employee.” The State scrambled to deal with Flint’s problem without causing a major uproar and embarrassment, but of course that happened anyway.

What, then, do we make of this? Did government just drop the ball? Did the great, bloated bureaucracy of regulators fail to do their job? Who’s to blame? Flint’s city government? Michigan? Federal regulators?

The responsibility goes back far beyond the short-sighted 2014 decision to disconnect from Detroit water. It begins more than 35 years ago, with the rise of the notion that government can’t do anything right, that “government is not the solution; it is the problem.” The election of Ronald Reagan as USA president in 1980 made that mantra official, and it was repeated by the three presidential administrations that followed, of both parties. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 partly by parroting that line. The corollary concept that grows out of that assumption is that business knows best how to run things. The idea that government could be run like a business, saving taxpayers untold trillions, became established doctrine in American politics.

Rick Snyder was elected governor of Michigan in 2010 by touting his business credentials. He had been a partner in the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, chairman of the board of Gateway Computers, and head of a venture capital firm.  Business applications, he promised, would transform the declining, post-industrial Michigan into a resurgent economic powerhouse.

Snyder’s biggest brainchild was to design a new law that would allow the State to take over economically damaged city governments, school boards, and other local authorities by appointing “Emergency Managers” who would be given dictatorial power to run these entities. Voters repealed the law in a referendum, but the legislature passed it again.  This time they attached a spending provision, which made the law exempt from a referendum.

Thus Snyder cannot realistically blame local authorities for Flint’s water nightmare, because his appointed czar had to approve anything they might propose. The plan to switch to the Lake Huron-based water system came from Emergency Manager Edward Kurtz, who thought it would save money once the pipeline was completed.  The fateful switch to Flint River water was devised and implemented by Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, without a vote of City Council, let alone a public vote. Earley then got a $40,000 raise to become Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools , where he carried on the “business model” with such corporate-speak jargon as “Exploring statutory changes with stakeholders and legislators that will level the playing field for all schools in the delivery of educational services.”  [Update: On February 2, 2016, Earley announced he would be leaving his DPS post more than four months before the end of his term.  Read about the reasons here.]  In March 2015, Flint City Council voted to go back to buying water from Detroit, but Earley’s successor, Jerry Ambrose, vetoed it, calling it an “incomprehensible” waste of money and that “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”

Indeed – follow the money. That’s where the crux of the business model is, and it’s why the Flint water crisis happened. It’s why you can’t run government like a business. Government is not a business; it’s a service. Businesses run on the goal of making money. Government does not make money. Government costs money, because it provides things that are necessary but not profitable. If a profit can be made doing something, they don’t let government do it. They have somebody who wants to make money do it.

Like streets and bridges, water-and-sewer services are infrastructure-intensive. It’s not a matter of “build it once and forget about it.” Those lead-loaded water lines in Flint were installed a century ago, long before the damaging effects of lead were understood. Most cities of such an age have similar water lines (Chicago required lead in water lines until 1986), aging and leaky sewers, and other crumbling infrastructure. Trying to get by on penny-pinching while putting public health and safety at risk is not an answer to the constant cost of upkeep and improvement of public services.

The nightmare that is the water crisis in Flint is not, as Governor Snyder would have it, a failure of government. It is a failure of a concept of government – the concept of government to which he subscribes – that is cynical, antidemocratic, and irresponsible.