Failure in Flint: The Moral Responsibility of Public Servants

Failure in Flint: The Moral Responsibility of Public Servants
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The public health crisis due to high lead levels in the water supply of Flint, Michigan has claimed many victims. The most damaged have been Flint's residents, especially its children. They could have done nothing to prevent what Governor Rick Snyder's spokesman, Dave Murray, belatedly called "a failure of government -- at the local, state and federal levels." The debacle in Flint also claimed the jobs of the city's director of public works, the state's Director of Environmental Quality, the EPA regional director, and besmirched the reputation of the state-appointed emergency manager for Flint and the governor himself. The key difference here is that they could have prevented it. As Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, whose dogged testing and testifying to the dangerous lead levels in Flint helped push the government finally to act, put it: "People have realized they've been lied to, and EPA knew about this, and the state knew about this. . . What you have is . . . a total loss of trust in government."

It would be comforting to view what took place in Flint as just a series of technical and scientific errors -- lack of clarity about when and how to prevent the corrosion in pipes that allowed lead to leach out of them, varying views about when and how to test water quality, confusion about standards and their application. These may have been contributing factors, but the root cause of the problem in Flint was moral, not technical failure.

Such failure occurs when moral values are ignored or subordinated in decision making. In April 2014, Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River, to save money in the cash-strapped, predominantly minority, economically depressed city. Residents soon began to complain about the color, taste and odor of the water as well as about rashes showing up on their children. Health concerns were repeatedly dismissed by the state. Cost savings took precedence over safety as a moral value.

In February 2015, an EPA expert, Miguel Del Toral, questioned the way Flint was testing the water and whether it was using required corrosion-control chemicals. His report, which the agency did not release until November, was softened by EPA officials, concerned about pushing the state and city to correct problems. As Susan Hedman, EPA's regional director, put it "It would be premature to draw any conclusions." She also said later that she was just following interagency protocol. Chain of command. bureaucratic caution, and political sensitivity took precedence over safety as a moral issue.

That same fall, the State Department of Environmental Quality disputed Marc Edwards's report that corrosiveness was leaching lead into the water supply, and, along with the Department of Community Health told the governor, according to his chief of staff, that "some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football . . . trying to shift responsibility to the state." It is very human to see a threat to one's organization and legitimacy and react protectively. Yet once again, safety was subordinated, in this case to bureaucratic self-defense.

The way in which the city, state, and federal governments interacted is another demonstration of ethical failure. The city did not want to be questioned, the state sought to ignore its responsibility, and the EPA regional director wanted to avoid the political pressure of demanding state and local action. Everyone looked to someone else to take the lead. This diffusion and then abdication of responsibility equates to willful moral blindness.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy finally captured the essence of the moral failure, at least on her agency's part. On January 21, 2016 she issued an emergency order requiring the state and city to "take a series of immediate steps" to address the problem in Flint. That same day, she wrote to all EPA employees that they should not be content with "simple, technical compliance, when a broader perspective would suggest that a larger public health or environmental issue is at stake." That broader perspective comes from a stance of moral empathy.

Nearly two years after Flint's water turned bad, safety finally emerged at the top of the value hierarchy. In fairness, of course, safety always mattered to city, state, and local officials. The problem was that it didn't matter enough. When confronted by the contesting values of efficiency, adherence to the chain of command, protecting professional positions against outside threat, and staying within one's limited functional area of responsibility, safety was always secondary.

Fortunately, there was some good news. Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center in Flint (who urged the city to stop using the water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of children), and the EPA's Miguel Del Toral sounded the alarm and doggedly pursued government officials. Yet isolated voices struggle against organizational inertia.

Investigations now underway will determine if laws were broken or regulations violated. But laws and rules are never enough to prevent moral failure. By the same token, penalizing those responsible through judicial proceedings will address the need for retribution, but it will not prevent unethical yet still legal behavior in the future. Government workers owe their first loyalty to the citizens they serve, not to their agencies or supervisors. It is the moral education of public servants and the moral demands of their oaths of office that cry out for more attention.

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