Experts: Flint could be 'canary in coal mine' for nationwide challenges

Protesters gather outside the state Capitol before Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Lansing, Mich. With the water crisis gripping Flint threatening to overshadow nearly everything else he has accomplished, the Republican governor again pledged a fix Tuesday night during his annual State of the State speech. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

While Michigan officials point fingers over who is ultimately to blame for the unsafe water that flowed through the pipes in Flint for more than a year, it is indisputable that many mistakes were made in the handling of the situation.

As the city and the state struggle with the high cost of correcting the problem and citizens complain that severe damage has already been done to their children's health, the crisis may offer valuable lessons to other governments facing economic challenges.

"Sadly, there is enough blame to go around here," said Andrew Highsmith, an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine who has studied Flint for a decade, "but absolutely Gov. Rick Snyder's office and his appointees bear a lot of the responsibility for this crisis."

Snyder has publicly apologized and released emails showing ongoing bickering over the situation among state and environmental officials.

No single explanation

There may be a temptation to hold one person or office responsible, but experts are hesitant to do so.

Highsmith pointed to Snyder's decision to appoint a series of emergency managers to run the city starting in 2011 in an attempt to get its finances under control, leaving the city council and the mayor practically powerless, as a significant factor, but not the only one.

"I try to resist single causal explanations for really complicated issues like this...The truth is that there are also much larger issues in play here," Highsmith added.

Dr. Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, cautioned against placing too much of the blame on the emergency manager system.

According to Grossmann, much of the damage seems to be the result of the decision not to treat the water with an anti-corrosion agent, and it is less clear from information released so far whether the emergency manager bears responsibility for that choice.

"I don't think it's inevitable that the decision to use the Flint River as an interim water source would have led to this," he said. Had the water been properly treated from the start, the damage could have been avoided.

Instead, documents show officials at several levels of government resisted action, denied problems, and allowed Flint's children to continue drinking the filthy water.

Power to the people

There are trade-offs involved in having an emergency manager in charge of a city's finances.

The state-appointed, non-elected officials are not beholden to the demands of voters, which gives them flexibility to make unpopular but necessary choices. At the same time, their detachment from the community can lead to mistakes that more accountable politicians might not make.

"Even though local residents have known for years that the Flint River was a fairly heavily-polluted water source, for the managers, the savings of an additional $5 million was just too appealing to put aside," Highsmith said.

He also criticized the state's slow response and initial dismissal of concerns coming from the Flint community. After the water switch occurred in 2014, the public immediately complained about the smell, taste, and appearance of the liquid.

For over a year, the city and state insisted the water was safe despite increasingly obvious evidence to the contrary. The voice of the people was marginalized and the consequences have been dire.

Cutting costs does not always save money

The irony of the Flint water crisis, according to Highsmith, is that the effort to save money will now cost the city and the state tens of millions of dollars to clean up.

In theory, the decision to shift Flint away from water provided by Detroit and join the Karegnondi Water Authority made sense. The problem came in the failure to account for the two years between shutting down the flow from Detroit and the opening of a new Lake Huron pipeline.

The city declined an offer to continue purchasing its water supply from Detroit at a higher cost in the interim period. City and state officials proudly celebrated the temporary switch to the Flint River at the time.

By late 2015, the city had to switch back to the Detroit water system at a cost of $12 million. Millions more may be needed to repair the damage done to the city's pipes by the corrosive elements in the Flint River water, and the state may now also be on the hook for remedying the public health effects of Flint residents drinking the contaminated water.

"There's also just ongoing discussions about when decisions are made that are primarily about financial needs and resource limitations, where can the input for other kinds of concerns come into the process," Grossmann said.

He expects every water system in the country is reviewing how it measures lead in its water at this point, and they should be doing so to ensure they are offering citizens safe drinking water.

Listen to the experts

"I don't think you should go too far down this road of, this is a pure financial decision and they didn't consider public health," Grossmann said.

While saving money was a factor in changing water sources, there were also intergovernmental politics between Detroit and Flint at play, and the choice not to treat the water from the Flint River may not have been an economic one.

"There's a broader lesson in the regulatory compliance angle," Grossmann said. It appears that the government's interest was more in appeasing the Environmental Protection Agency than in recognizing that there was a legitimate public health interest behind regulations.

Highsmith said concerns from the EPA were not acted upon when lead was found in the water last year. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has also been blamed for ignoring outside experts and botching its own tests of the city's water.

Emails suggest that Snyder's aides attempted to dismiss and contradict the independent research of a Virginia Tech scientist who tested lead levels in the water and a Flint doctor who found lead in children's blood.

"When outside researchers bring thing to your attention, the initial inclination has to be, 'Let's look at what they have," Grossmann said, not just to assume your own scientists are better.

Culmination of decades of developments

Highsmith, author of "Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis," argued that the current crisis in the city is the result of factors that have been developing for more than 50 years.

By the mid-20th century, more than 80,000 local workers were on the General Motors payroll, but the company changed its investment strategy in the post-World War II era, building new facilities in the suburbs and rural areas.

At the same time, federal housing programs and favorable mortgage terms enabled many white residents to migrate out of Flint to the suburbs as well. It led to radical racial segregation in the area and the erosion of the city's tax base.

As the city's population shrank and became poorer, it was also left with fewer industrial resources and inability to balance its budget. As a result, a city with an infrastructure built for 250,000 people now has a population of less than 100,000 to fund its maintenance.

"It's been virtually impossible for city officials to manage those sorts of imbalances," he said.

While some have suggested the state's seeming ignorance of Flint's problems represents a racist dismissal of the needs of the black community, Highsmith noted that the city also has a large white population, although largely a working class and poor one.

"So many different institutions have failed the people of Flint," he said. The suffering of its citizens has historically been ignored by those in power.

"I feel like this wouldn't have continued for this long had it been a more affluent, whiter, and more politically-connected community."

"The canary in the coal mine"

While some aspects of the situation are unique to Flint, Highsmith said it is also "representative of this broader crisis in urban America."

"Michigan I think is in some ways the canary in the coal mine here," he said. The state has been disproportionately affected by deindustrialization in the U.S. economy and it has high pension obligations, but similar fiscal crises are developing elsewhere.

The same patterns of capital and investment migration seen in Flint have occurred around the country to a lesser degree, but they have created similar economic challenges and infrastructure deficiencies.

Highsmith pointed to cities like Chicago focusing heavily on cost-cutting and austerity measures to balance their budgets, whereas he believes investments in water, infrastructure, and medical care would be more beneficial in the long run.

"You can't cut your way out of these problems. That's I think one of the lessons from Michigan."

Highsmith warned that dismissing the legitimate concerns that the problems in Flint have brought to the surface could have ramifications for struggling cities across the country.

"There are other Flints lurking in the United States, and these types of crises are likely to continue."

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