The emerging toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is about more than water. It's about moving swiftly to help those who’ve been affected by this travesty. It's about righting some terrible wrongs. It’s about accountability. Transparency.
In short, it’s about morality.
Here’s the basic facts: The city of Flint, Michigan, was in serious financial trouble. The state took over management of the city’s budget. In an attempt to save money, in April of 2014, state officials decided to stop using Lake Huron as the city’s water source and switch over to the highly contaminated Flint River until a new supply line to the lake could be installed. The state had been paying the City of Detroit for the Lake Huron water, so switching would be a temporary cost-saving measure. The project was expected to take two years.
After the switch, residents complained about the water. They were given constant assurances by state and local officials that the water was safe. Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even drank it on local TV to reassure people.
As it turns out, the water was not safe. The Flint River water was highly corrosive. Among other things, it contained far more chloride than Lake Huron’s water. Those contaminants--in less than two years--corroded Flint’s water lines and caused iron and lead from the pipes to leach into the water system and poison whoever consumed or used the water.
There’s a lot of science that will come in to play. But here’s the red flags that State and local officials chose to ignore: The water was brown. It smelled bad. The water tasted odd. People thought there was a problem. There were spikes in the number of cases of Legionnaire’s disease. Doctors reported concerns, especially as more and more children were experiencing hair loss and unusual rashes. Even a common sense assessment of those factors should’ve triggered a comprehensive investigation. Instead, officials ignored those signs, and failed to listen to people or their concerns.
They also ignored a 2011 study on the Flint River that found it would have to be treated with a relatively inexpensive anti-corrosive agent for it to be considered usable as drinking water.
A local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noticed the increase of symptoms in her patients and put together her own research team. She figured out pretty quickly that the poisoned water was the source of the problems. The official response? To denounce her work. They publically attacked her for causing near hysteria before reversing course and admitting that her findings were accurate.
The individuals working at the State’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) bears much of the blame. They didn’t act upon resident complaints. They represented to the EPA that corrosion control measures were in place, when they were not. They rejected concerns raised by doctors. They failed to conduct tap water testing. DEQ's former director, Dan Wyant, has since resigned, acknowledging: “It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint." He says officials were confused about the law.
The city didn’t switch back to the Lake Huron source until October 2015 – and that was only after the initial reports about this debacle began to go public. The problem is that the damage is done. Lead pipes have been corroded. People have been poisoned. And lead poisoning is irreversible. These children, adults, and pets will potentially suffer lifelong consequences, including lower IQs and behavioral and nervous system impacts. There’s even evidence to support a multi-generational effect.
So, now what?
Residents need accountability. This isn’t a political party issue. This is a morality issue. People lied or were willfully neglectful. People chose cost-saving over life-protecting. People made wrong choices. And now people need to be held accountable. Why? For all the reasons we prosecute criminals. These people made intentional choices that directly harmed others, so perhaps by being held accountable they’ll learn their lesson and be better citizens in the future. These people need to pay their debt to society. These people must be used as an example so that others (especially those in other cities making similarly criminal choices) will be deterred from perpetuating lies.
Residents need transparency. What did the officials know and when? All testing, memos, emails, documents of every kind should be immediately released.
Residents need ongoing help. Some of it will come in the form of money, but also it must include nutritional counseling, medical care, medical monitoring, educational assistance, and more.
Residents need prayer. They will feel betrayed. Feelings of anger or reprisal might consume them. They may watch their child struggle, year after year, and wonder how much is attributable to the poisons that they unintentionally fed them. They may distrust the government and elected officials who were tasked with keeping them safe. These negative feelings will trickle down to the next generation.
That’s why Flint, Michigan is not just about the water. Wrongs were committed. And these wrongs need to be righted as much as it is within our power to do so. A standard of morality must undergird our public and private lives - without it, we’re simply at the mercy of the next guy’s idea of right and wrong.