Poisoning the Well

This story has been building up in my timeline for a while. But today, Orac has a thorough post on how the Flint, Michigan government poisoned children with lead in their water. You really should read the whole thing. It all started when Flint changed from using water from Lake Huron to using water from the Flint River.

What happened? There were higher concentrations of salt in Flint River water, which led to corrosion of the lead welds in the copper pipes that carried the water to the city. Detroit’s less corrosive water had flowed through the pipes for decades without a problem, but it didn’t take long after the switch was made in April 2014 for elevated lead content to be noticed. Why was the switch made? Here the story gets a bit complicated. In 2010, the Flint City Council voted to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint was begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. In April 2014, the emergency manager switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to getting water from the Flint River as a temporary measure until the pipeline was completed. The reason? When Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated its 35-year contract with the city. To continue to purchase Detroit water, Flint would have to renegotiate a short-term contract, at a higher cost. Basically, switching to river water saved Flint between $5 million and $7 million a year. That’s why the emergency manager did it.

Residents started complaining immediately about the quality of the water and health effects from using it. Tests started showing levels of lead in the water way beyond anything safe and doctors reported a doubling of children with lead poisoning. And the city and the state … buried the story.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality manipulated the samples tested for lead to eliminate the samples with the highest concentration and thereby produce the result that it wanted: The appearance that the water was safe. It’s true that Flint was in bad financial shape. It’s debatable that its financial situation was helped by Governor Snyder appointing a series of his cronies to run the city, one of whom caused this catastrophe in his desire to save money. His successors perpetuated the damage.

Here’s the even bigger kicker. Even using the Flint River water, the City of Flint could have prevented the corrosion of its copper and lead pipes relatively inexpensively:

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who has been testing Flint water, says treatment could have corrected much of the problem early on — for as little as $100 a day — but officials in the city of 100,000 people didn’t take action.

“There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened,” said Edwards, who obtained the Muchmore email through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request.

Lead is a big reason I favor environmental regulation. For decades, the lead industry insisted that lead in our water, our air and our homes was not harmful. They didn’t do this because they were cackling evil monsters. They did this because they were human. And humans find it very easy to persuade themselves that the wrong thing is the right thing when there’s money or pride at stake.

But this — and the massive mine blowout last year — are an important reminder that government can’t be trusted either. It will happily hide environmental damage to save money, to save pride or to advance an agenda. It will happily tell people befouled land is safe to build on, as they did at Love Canal. it will happily pretend an environmental disasters isn’t happening, as it did with the Gold King Mine. It will happily grant environmental regulation exemptions to business buddies if they “bring jobs” to a state.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question we must all answer. The answer in Flint should be a thorough independent investigation, the unelection of everyone even remotely connected with this, and criminal prosecution of those who covered it up. I’m sick and tired of politicians and their cronies being able to literally poison children and get away with it. If someone were dumping lead into Flint’s drinking water, we’d prosecute them. I won’t believe that this problem is being taken seriously until people end up in jail.

Comments are closed.

  1. Hal_10000 *

    Their pipes are so damaged, even switching to the new water may not help.

    I wish that idiot Moore wouldn’t get into this. I mean, I get it. He’s from Flint (although he doesn’t live there now). But he’s calling for Snyder’s arrest.  Snyder didn’t do anything criminal.  He may have appointed a series of idiots, but he wasn’t the one who decided to switch the water and then cover it up.  But they hate Snyder and they had the city manager thing (because it’s breaking untenable union contracts), so …

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  2. InsipiD

    Michigan: where bad decisions are made.

    What is funny about lead is that we (as a human race) first discovered that it was harmful a really long time ago, but hubris, laziness, and indifference have a way of bringing it back to the forefront every few years or so.

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  3. Christopher

    Moore’s involvement almost made me not pay attention to this story.  I had a feeling that he was going too far with calling for Snyder’s arrest (I really don’t care for Snyder, but I agree that that’s going too far).

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