City and state officials involved in Flint's lead-in-drinking water crisis are finally acknowledging they're in hot water. Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint this week, paving the way for the possibility of federal relief aid. The United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan is investigating the city and state for possible civil and/or criminal violations. And there have been various changes in state leadership.
Michigan's top environmental regulator - Dan Wyant, who was the Director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) - resigned after mounting evidence that MDEQ violated its obligations to ensure safe drinking water for Flint residents. His resignation also came amidst findings by the Governor-appointed task force that MDEQ "failed" to protect Flint's drinking water and "must be held accountable for that failure." In addition to Wyant's resignation on the state level, a member of the Flint City Councilman announced his resignation from the City Council and that he's moving out of Flint.
While it remains to be seen how these changes in leadership will allow Flint residents to move forward for the better, they are necessary and long overdue.
But changes in leadership and public health proclamations are not enough. Flint residents need answers, accountability, and changes in the way that our nation's safe drinking water laws are implemented in Michigan.
Notably, the Office of the State Auditor General released an important letter to the public dated December 23, 2015 in response to questions posed by State Senator Jim Ananich about what happened with the Flint water system. The letter is important because it provides further confirmation--from the state agency charged with objectively evaluating the operations of the government--that failures of the city and state led to elevated blood lead levels in children. Lead exposure in children has shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, effects that are irreversible.
The State Auditor's preliminary findings echo what NRDC and Flint residents have been saying for months. For example, the State Auditor notes specific flaws in the water testing methods employed in Flint. These testing method flaws violated the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the set of regulations implementing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) designed to ensure our drinking water is safe. The State Auditor also confirmed that the LCR required the city to continue to treat its water to control corrosion from lead plumbing materials during Flint's transition from Detroit water to Flint River water. The SDWA requires that once a water system has implemented an "optimal" treatment program to control corrosion--as Flint's water system had beginning in the '90s--the system must maintain that optimal corrosion control treatment. Water that is not treated properly with corrosion control can result in lead leaching from the pipes. This is what happened when Flint switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River in 2014.
When Dan Wyant of the MDEQ resigned, one thing the Governor said was correct: "Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure." Indeed, aging infrastructure is all the more reason that water authorities must ensure compliance with federal safe drinking water laws. In this case, Flint residents need answers and accountability; NRDC's goal in noticing an intent to sue under the federal SDWA (alongside Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Melissa Mays, and the ACLU of Michigan), is to ensure that this kind of incident does not occur again, especially given the city's new water supply pipeline expected to be completed this summer.
We hope officials in other cities with aging infrastructures will learn from the mistakes made in Flint--mistakes that have harmed a generation of Flint residents by exposing them to drinking water contaminated with lead.