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Who's to blame for the Flint water crisis?
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 15, 2016

As Flint, Mich., prepares to host a Democratic presidential debate on March 6, the candidates are talking about the city’s tainted-water crisis.

Hillary Clinton, for example, mentioned the city in her concession speech on the night of the New Hampshire primary.

"When I started this campaign last spring, I knew we were facing profound challenges as a country," Clinton told supporters Feb. 9. "The way too many things were going just wasn't right. It isn't right that the kids I met in Flint on Sunday were poisoned because their governor wanted to save money."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, for his part, has called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign over the Flint crisis. Sanders, in a statement, pinned the blame on Snyder’s appointment of a receiver "who decided to cut costs by drawing the city’s drinking water from the polluted Flint River instead of from Lake Huron. … The people of Flint deserve more than an apology."

Two investigations to determine blame and legal consequences for the situation in Flint are under way, one led by the FBI and another by a special counsel appointed by the Michigan attorney general’s office. The special state counsel has said charges all the way up to manslaughter are "not far-fetched."

Because these investigations are ongoing, with details still to emerge, we aren’t going to put these accusations to the Truth-O-Meter. However, a large amount of information about the water crisis has already come to light, so we decided to do an interim assessment.

Put simply, does Snyder deserve to shoulder the blame for the situation in Flint? And was the cause a desire to save money?

When we asked the Sanders’ camp for supporting evidence, they did not respond. The Clinton campaign cited a variety of media accounts that pointed the finger at Snyder.

There does seem to be much evidence to support this position. However, our discussions with a range of political and policy experts in Michigan and a fresh look at some of the detailed journalism being produced locally suggests that Flint’s situation is more nuanced than the Democratic candidates suggest, since other players were involved as well -- including some Democrats.

"There was a complex sequence of events and there are layers of public institutions which created the Flint contamination and lead poisoning disaster," said Peggy Kahn, a University of Michigan-Flint political scientist.

Recapping what happened in Flint

The lead poisoning in Flint -- a low-income and majority African-American city beset by a decline in the manufacturing industry -- has a complicated history. The full story can be gleaned in this 30,000-word timeline from Bridge Magazine, as well as these from mlive and the Detroit Free Press, but here’s a brief summary.

In his 2010 gubernatorial bid, Snyder touted his managerial experience as a businessman and promised to bring outside experts to transform financially languishing municipalities. To do so, he was able to use an existing law that allowed the governor to appoint an "emergency manager" to trump locally elected officials on key policy decisions.

In Flint’s case, Snyder appointed two successive emergency managers, Ed Kurtz and Darnell Earley. Under emergency management, the city ended its agreement to obtain water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and instead joined a new pipeline project, the Karegnondi Water Authority, that would draw water from Lake Huron. The move, made officially in April 2013, was done in large part to save the city millions of dollars, observers say.

The day after the switch was announced, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said it would cut off service in April 2014. Since the pipeline wouldn’t be ready by then, the city prepared to switch its water supply to the Flint River. However, the river water contained salts that would corrode pipes, and the right mix of corrosion inhibitors was never used. Not only did residents complain that their new water was foul, but it eventually became clear that lead was leaching into the water supply from the city’s old pipes. Lead is a highly toxic metal, especially for children whose bodies are still developing.

After a long list of missed opportunities, the situation hit the national media in the second half of 2015, prompting both emergency water distribution and a search for a longer-term solution.

Early in 2016, Snyder acknowledged a share of the responsibility, saying, "Government failed you at the federal, state and local level. We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city."

Snyder’s role

To a significant degree, the buck does stop with Snyder, the state’s top elected official. And Snyder did set the tone of curbing municipal overspending.

"There was a lot of wishful thinking by which the tax cutters dreamed that they could keep on cutting taxes without having any real consequences," said Charles L. Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University. "But tax cuts of this magnitude, some of which were passed during the first year of Gov. Snyder’s administration, were bound to have real consequences."

Crucially, Snyder also appointed the emergency managers who signed off on the switch away from Detroit’s water system and the decision to use Flint River water as an interim solution.

And two state agencies he oversaw -- the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services -- contributed significantly to the problem.

Officials at those agencies were warned early and repeatedly by Miguel Del Toral, an official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that they were putting Flint residents at risk by not instituting anti-corrosion safeguards for Flint River water. Agency officials also initially dismissed warnings from Virginia Tech researchers and Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, even after being prodded on the question by a senior Snyder aide.

"As a Flint citizen and as one of the activists who fought to raise awareness regarding water quality in Flint, I witnessed firsthand a reluctance to address citizen concerns by staff of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality," said Laura L. Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University in Flint.

The Flint Water Advisory Task Force, an investigatory group appointed by Snyder, concluded that "the primary responsibility" rests with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Still, it goes too far to suggest that Snyder had advance knowledge of the risks and acted anyway, Ballard said.

"No one woke up one morning and said, ‘Hey, I think it would be good if we poison the children of Flint, so let’s do that today,’ " Ballard said.

It’s worth also noting that many of the officials with these agencies who made mistakes are civil servants rather than political appointees of Snyder.

When we contacted Snyder’s office, spokesman David Murray said, "It’s unfortunate when people inject politics into a crisis. The crisis in Flint is a result of a failure at all levels of government. Such inflammatory rhetoric only distracts from the good work being done in Flint, where people are coming together to assist with the city’s recovery."

Other responsible parties

Observers agreed that besides Snyder and the officials who answered to him, a variety of other people and groups also bear some responsibility, either by signing off on the water changes or failing to stop them.

While local elected officials in Flint were subservient to Snyder’s emergency managers, those local officials concurred with the initial decisions to switch away from the old water source and to use the Flint River as an interim source.

"Flint leaders enthusiastically endorsed joining the new regional (pipeline project) scheduled to come online later in 2016," Michigan Truth Squad, a fact-checking organization, concluded. "And though they did not make the decision to use the Flint River until (the pipeline) was ready, Flint leaders enthusiastically endorsed the Flint River decision – and toasted it the day of the water switch. … Two months after the Flint River switch, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling declared to that ‘it’s a quality, safe product. … I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.’ "

Local offices in Flint are officially nonpartisan, but Walling was a Democrat. So too was Andy Dillon, the state treasurer who signed off on the water changes (and who was a cross-party appointee of Snyder).

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency -- during the administration of President Barack Obama -- has come in for criticism as well. A July 2015 email by a regional EPA administrator apologized for the warnings by the EPA’s own employee, Del Toral, and called them an "unvetted draft." Despite senior EPA officials’ delays in taking Del Toral’s warnings seriously, they were ultimately determined to have been accurate.

Several experts added that the problems in Flint cannot be divorced from the city’s long-term economic decline. And as long ago as 2010, the EPA expressed concern that "dramatic budget cuts" at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were having a "significant impact" on its water program. The governor at the time? Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

Finally, there’s the basic problem of the way governmental entities are structured. The "overlapping structure of governments, with both appointed and elected officials, makes it possible for problematic decisions to slip through the cracks and makes it easy to shift blame," Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California-Merced, recently wrote in the Washington Post.

"There is plenty of blame to be shared in this unfortunate story," said Heather Getha-Taylor, an associate professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas.

Our conclusion

Based on what is currently known, Snyder does bear a significant share of the responsibility. His fiscal approach helped set the stage for the water switch that led to the poisoning, and it was his hand-picked emergency managers who implemented the changes. Snyder also oversaw the state environmental and health departments that have come in for sharp criticism for their failures to act quickly and forcefully when the first indications of a problem cropped up.

However, experts say that claims from Clinton and Sanders that focus on Snyder alone oversimplify matters -- and give a partisan spin to what is more fairly characterized as a broad failure of governance at all levels. Such one-sided accounts gloss over the responsibility borne by local Flint officials who supported the decision, by an EPA that failed to press harder for changes as the problem worsened, and by officials of both parties who contributed to the longstanding fiscal problems at both the state and city level.

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Our Sources

Hillary Clinton, concession speech in New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016

Bernie Sanders, "Sanders: Michigan Governor Must Resign over Flint Lead-Poisoning Crisis," Jan. 16, 2016

Michigan Truth Squad, "Disaster Day by Day: A Detailed Flint Crisis Timeline," Feb. 4, 2016

Detroit Free Press, "How Flint's water crisis unfolded," accessed Feb. 10, 2016, "How Flint Water Crisis Emerged," accessed Feb. 10, 2016

Michigan Truth Squad, "Where blame leads so far in Flint water crisis," Feb. 4, 2016

Bridge magazine, "Signs of trouble at MDEQ, years before Flint lead crisis," Feb. 10, 2016

Detroit Free Press, "Gov. Snyder to Flint Residents: Government Failed You," Jan. 20, 2016

Time, "Michigan Governor Defends Handling of Flint Water Crisis," Jan. 15, 2016, "Flint, Michigan, tried to save money on water. Now its children have lead poisoning," Jan. 19, 2016

CNN, "How tap water became toxic in Flint, Michigan," Jan. 13, 2016

Washington Post, "Flint could have saved money without using corrosive river water, some say," Jan. 26, 2016

Washington Post, "Manslaughter charges possible in Flint water crisis, says top investigator," Feb. 10, 2016

Jessica Trounstine, "How racial segregation and political mismanagement led to Flint’s shocking water crisis," Feb. 8, 2016

Email interview with Richard Clay Wilson Jr., retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif., and a contributor to Governing magazine, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Heather Getha-Taylor, associate professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Charles L. Ballard, economist at Michigan State University, Feb. 11, 2016

Email interview with Susan J. Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Peggy Kahn, University of Michigan-Flint political scientist, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Laura L. Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Kimberly Saks McManaway, lecturer in political science at the University of Michigan-Flint, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Hillary Clinton, Feb. 10, 2016

Email interview with David Murray, spokesman for Rick Snyder, Feb. 12, 2016

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