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Flint Water Crisis Update

In observing the reporting taking place over the Flint Water Crisis (Flint is my hometown), I’ve noticed a lot of things that are reported that are not helpful and in fact can make the situation in Flint worse. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of aspects of the story that are either not reported on or underreported and I wanted to bring people up-to-speed on some of my findings.

The first note comes from the President of Kettering University in Flint. Kettering is science-focused college located west of downtown. On January 18, University president Robert McMahan released a memo send to parents of students about the situation. It was a heavily footnoted document that explained what happened and what is going on. He shared a few items concerning the water crisis that we haven’t heard much of. This includes:

Not all of Flint was affected the same way. The image we get from many in the media is that lead contamination is taking place everywhere in town. Mcmahon notes:

The amount of lead that leached into a given part of the system depended upon a variety of factors, including the age of the system in the area, the specifics of its construction (e.g. are lead service lines present), and the time that water typically spends in that part of the system between treatment and use.

Mcmahon says that service pipes that don’t have lead, there is less a chance of lead contamination. However, pipes constructed in the 1940s and 60s and have not been updated, do have lead.

He also shares that not every household in Flint has high levels of lead. He shares this note:

Of the 853 samples of water from Flint homes tested by the Michigan
Department of Environmental Quality between September 29, 2015 and January
15, 2016, approximately 92% of the samples had measured lead levels below 15
ppb, 79% registered below 5 ppb.16

The Environmental Protection Agency says that action has to take place at 15 parts per billion (ppb). Anything below this means the water is “safe.” The goal is zero of course, but in reality 15ppb is the level where you determine if something needs to be done. None of this is to minimize what is going on, but to put it in a proper perspective.

Flint started-finally-adding corrosion control in late 2015. One of the problems that lead to lead leaching into the water supply is that the water department of the City of Flint didn’t put corrosion controls in the water and the state Department of Environmental Quality seemed to not mind. The water from the Flint River was considered corrosive, something I’ve learned is common in most rivers. The lack of corrosion control meant that the water ate away at the protective scale that had built up over the years. This is what caused the lead contamination- once the scale was gone, the lead pipes were exposed and started getting into the water supply. In December of 2015, Flint started adding additional corrosion control additives to the water, to what Detroit ,which is where the water is coming from again, already adds to the water. The Kettering memo notes that this will again build up scale to coat the pipes again.

Of course, if I were living in Flint, I’d want the lead pipes out because they contain, you know, lead. But the point is, the scale will provide some protection which is better than none.

The Legionaries-Lead Connection. Recent reports show there was a spike in cases of Legionaries Disease in 2014–15. This has made people wonder if the lead contamination and Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaries. This is what the Kettering memo had to say:

It has very recently been reported that there were an unusually high number of cases of Legionnaire’s Disease seen in Genesee County in 2014–2015. It has also been suggested in the media that this increase related in some way to the switch in the Flint water supply. Roughly half of the cases identified are in individuals who live outside of the city and the Flint municipal water service zone, and a possible causal link between the two has not been established. (emphasis mine)

The memo continues:

Legionella are normally found in rivers, lakes, and streams,and they are normally present in the water systems of large buildingsand even in a percentage of residential water systems.Legionnaire’s Disease is primarily contracted by heavy smokers, immunocompromised individuals, and individuals with chronic lung disease39 through the aspiration of water or the inhalation of water mist contaminated with the Legionella bacteria.

So, the switch probably didn’t cause the rise in Legionnaries Disease.

About the Flint River. A number of people, including me, have assumed the Flint River water was corrosive because of pollution from the former auto plants that dotted the Flint landscape or even that lead was in the river. The Flint River Watershed Coalition notes that there is no lead in the river and explains why the water was corrosive:

Treating river water for use as drinking water is very different from treating Lake Huron water. Compared to large, continuous bodies of surface freshwater, such as the Great Lakes, rivers generally contain a greater — and often varying — concentration of organic materials, such as decaying leaves, fish waste, etc. river. These are naturally-occurring materials found in healthy aquatic ecosystems. It’s the challenge of making that water suitable for people to drink, rather than the health of our local watershed, that sparked the suite of issues with Flint’s drinking water.

Our initial results indicate that the Flint River is a suitable source for water to treat. Unfortunately, far too many mistakes were made from the very start of the switch to using the Flint River as our drinking water source. From high bacterial levels, to violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act for TTHM, to the current lead crisis and possible link to the Legionnaires outbreak.

The second thing I wanted to share is a blog post from Greg Branch on the Emergency Manager Law. Branch is the former mayor of Saginaw, another rust belt city about 40 miles north of Flint. He shares what people might not know about the law. The first fact is important because this law is seen as usurping the democratic process of Michigan cities.

In Michigan, municipal and county governments are subdivisions Michigan state government. People have considered the EM law anti-democratic and even a coup, because it takes away the power of elected officials who are chosen by the citizens of cities. But those cities and other entities are not autonomous; they are a part of the state government. Branch notes:

Municipal governments (and county governments) are subdivisions of state government. They are, in effect, the local branch offices of the state government, established to provide three services that state law mandates they provide.

The Home Rule Cities Act of 1909 allows cities to establish their own charters, develop procedural rules and provide other services. But they remain subdivisions of the state. And that means — ironically enough under the circumstances — that constitutionally, the Michigan governor is ultimately accountable for the actions taken by and the financial performance of local governments.

There’s a lengthy process before a town comes under an emergency manager. In essence, the governor just doesn’t come in one day and take over. Branch again:

There are, as noted above, criteria that must be met before the appointment of a financial manager can even be considered. The process must starts with a request for a financial review, which can be done upon:

  • a request from the governing body or administrative officer — council, mayor or city manager
  • a petition signed by five percent of the unit’s registered voters
  • a request from a major creditor who has not been paid (and there is a threshold for payment size that is based on the size of the municipality’s budget)
  • completion of a fiscal year in a deficit condition (we’ll come back to this)
    failure to file an audit
  • demonstration of any of number of indicators of very bad money juju: not making payroll, defaulting on bond obligations, too low a long-term debt rating

The municipality can appeal the review team’s decision. If the review team says the city should get an emergency manager, the city can appeal the decision. Branch:

The review team will make a recommendation. The municipality has an opportunity to appeal the determination. The appeal process was also contained in the predecessor law, PA 4 of 2011. Flint, for example, was found in a state of emergency under that law, but the mayor and council declined to appeal the finding of emergency or to request, as they could have at the time, a consent agreement.

Detroit entered into a consent agreement under the old law, then promptly failed to live up to its end of the bargain. Only then was an EM appointed.

There is more to talk about here, but you can read the rest. The point is, the law is not the anti-democratic monster it is usually portrayed as in the media.

Now to Governor Snyder. It goes without saying that his legacy will forever be tarnished by what happened in Flint. And I will agree that he moved to slowly to deal with this crisis. But when people want to take a break from calling for Snyder to resign, they might want to look at what Snyder is doing now-which seems to be a lot. I get a daily email from the governor’s Water Response Team that shows what Snyder’s administration has done. This is an example from January 24:

Yesterday, Flint Water Response Teams visited 13,684 homes providing free bottled water, filters, water replacement cartridges and water testing kits. The teams were composed of city, county and state personnel, American Red Cross and volunteers, as well as National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. More than 300 volunteers took part in Saturday’s activities.

Since January 9, 2016, the following resources have been distributed to residents, both at the water resource sites and by water response teams:

  • 148,866 cases of water
  • 86,843 water filters
  • 25,586 water testing kits

There is also a website on the State of Michigan website dedicated to Flint with tons of information.

As I said before, Synder will be known for the debacle in Flint. But it seems that he wants to show the public that he is on top of this now and make things right. This is a politician that has apologized time and again for his handling of this. This is something we don’t normally see from politicians. It’s too bad that some ignore this and make him the prime villain. I highly suspect if this happened under a Democratic governor, we might not have near the info and the media and public would be more forgiving.

Finally, a note about Flint- all of Flint. Whenever Flint is in the news it always seems to be bad. But while Flint is facing hard times, it is not without its success stories. One commenter on Greg Branch’s blog reminds us of all the good that is taking place in town:

How about some good news for Flint? Like: have you been downtown recently? The new lofts, the new businesses, the new restaurants. Back to Bricks that draws about 1/2 million people! U of M ( University of Michigan-Flint) going gangbusters and expanding each year. Look at Kettering University, another school going gangbusters. Look at the School of the Deaf and it’s new campus, look at Powers High School’s new campus. All big and long term investments to the City. Look atDiplomat Pharmacy’s new HQ. Look at the CEO of Diplomat last year donated a couple million $ to U of M Flint. Landaal Packaging, they opened up a tech office downtown. The list goes on. Did you know, if you add up all the college students enrolled in Flint.. (U of M, Kettering, Baker, Mott and others) Flint is a college town. Flint has more colleges students enrolled over all than EMU! Look at the re investment of General Motors. Look at the Mott Foundation that has never left Flint.

This is not to make light of the many problems Flint faces, a dwindling tax base, rising crime, urban blight, but it is to show that Flint isn’t a barren wasteland either.

Which leads me to my final thought. While I am thankful to see celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Mark Whalberg and Diddy donate water bottles to help citizens, Flint needs more than just a bottle of water. The reasons Flint is in this mess is because of loss of tax revenue or loss of jobs. What we need more than water is investment. What Flint needs are people like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to do more than give money for water but find ways to create new startups or support ongoing incubators like Co+Work. We need young people who want to come and live (the housing is cheap!) and start new businesses like the two the cobblers who started Sutorial Boots and Shoes. We need other kinds of manufacturing to help employ the vast unemployed in Flint.

Flint was a great city and it isn’t as much now. But it does not have to live in its past if people are willing to invest in its future.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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