Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Water Woes in Flint, Michigan

I guess you heard by now, a state of emergency has been declared in Flint, MI because of their water woes. If you have not, the quick synopsis: the public utility that supplies most of the water to the city of Flint, MI was delivering water with illegally high levels of heavy metals, including lead.

What happened?


I guess a little history is in order here. The water system in Flint is very old, with some of the pipes having been laid in the ground before 1900. At that time, lead was used for joining the cast iron pipes used for water mains and lead pipes were widely used for smaller pipes inside homes and connecting homes to the water mains. In later times, steel was used in homes instead of lead. Then copper replaced steel. Finally, polyvinyl chloride replaced copper. Until a few decades ago, cast iron pipes, caulked with oakum and sealed with hot lead were still used for many water distribution mains.

For many years, Flint bought its water from the nearby city of Detroit. Detroit treated the water: filtering it, chlorinating it, adding fluoride and so forth.

Then the manufacturing jobs moved away, leaving many unemployed, vast empty factories and warehouses and empty houses. This devastated both cities' tax base. The final blow came with the financial collapse of 2008. Both cities were essentially bankrupt. The State of Michigan appointed a state bureaucrat, called a "Special Master," to oversee the finances of each city. Neither of these men had experience in running a city; their job was to find ways to cut spending and increase revenue to balance the city budgets, allowing each to become financially sound, again.

This narrow focus on the part of the Special Masters led to problems:

"They don't listen to nobody," longtime Flint City Councilman Scott Kincaid said of emergency managers. "They don't care about the community. They just care about fixing the finances." Kincaid and others said the managers' tendency to ignore local complaints played a role in the water fiasco, since residents had complained about taste and color of the water. (Crain's Detroit Business, 1/24/2016)

The Special Master for Flint saw a way to cut the cost of water. Prior to buying water from Detroit, Flint had drawn water from the nearby Flint River and processed it in their own water treatment plant. The advisors to the Special Master crunched the numbers and found that Flint could save a goodly amount of money, "between $6 million and $8 million" (Crain's Detroit Business, 1/24/2016), by going back to drawing their water locally from the Flint River.

The Flint River, however, is both salty and acidic. The water requires special anti-corrosive treatment before it is fit for domestic use. However, the Flint public utilities department did not have the expertise to perform this. They did not even know enough to ask the right questions. The result was that, when introduced into the water distribution system, the corrosives in the water began to dissolve the pipes and pipe joints. Water that was clear, but corrosive, changes to this after flowing through Flint's pipes:

What Happened?

There are so many layers of failure in this incident that it borders on the unbelievable! The citizens of Flint, municipal government, county government, state government, the Federal Government, Flint's newspapers and media are all to blame for this mess.

Flint City Government

First and foremost, the blame for this water mess goes to Flint's city government. Over the years, the government has placed political expediency over fiscal soundness. Urban financial crises seldom just "pop up." They are built up over years, if not decades, where local politicians fail to act wisely. For example, those cast iron pipes reached the end of their projected life 50 and 60 years ago – during the days when General Motors was building millions of cars in Flint each year. They should have begun replacing those old pipes then, when they could have raised plenty of money in taxes and water fees from the booming industries.

When tasked with again drawing water from the Flint River, the utilities department should have planned better, hiring experts in water treatment. At the very least, they should have publicly raised red flags over potential problems. Was it shear incompetence, fear of losing their jobs, or criminal negligence that prevented the utilities department from raising red flags?

Genesee County Government

One of the key functions of county government is oversight and coordination of political subdivisions within it. Two departments within the county government should have reacted to Flint's plan: the County Health Commission and the environmental office in the County Planning Commission. Neither raised any red flags.

State of Michigan

The State of Michigan is the proximate cause of this water debacle! By appointing Special Masters whose only function is to force the city finances into line, the other important functions of city government fall by the wayside. The city's first responders, water and sewage, garbage collection and schools are not just "nice to have," they are required and essential services that must be preserved by the Special Master during a fiscal emergency. The municipal government, including the Special Master, must be accountable to the citizens governed.

The state government also has the duty to oversee the operation of the political subdivisions within it. Again, the plan to use Flint River water for domestic use should have raised red flags in many departments, especially the state health department and the environmental protection department.

The Federal Government

The Democrat's nanny state government failed miserably. The change to Flint River water required a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Either the city of Flint never applied for one, in which case they broke Federal law, or the EPA granted one in flagrant violation of Federal law. In either event, the EPA, which is charged in its enabling legislation with the responsibility of protecting drinking water supplies, was derelict in its duty.

Flint's Newspapers and Media

Freedom of the Press is listed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Founding Fathers charged the press – that is, the newspapers of their day – with the job of informing the People of what the government, at all levels, is doing. From the one-page broadsides of Benjamin Franklin's day to the media conglomerates of today and on to the Internet, that vital function has not changed. Unfortunately, we are better informed by the media about atrocities in Syria or Ukraine or about which celebrities are dating whom than we are about the goings on in our local town hall.

The job of the media is to tell us what we need to know, not just what we want to see or what fits our preconceived notions. I do not begrudge the media for canceling my favorite televisions shows to present breaking news or to even present the State of the Union Address, even though our President and many of his predecessors are not, by any stretch of the imagination, great orators who can mesmerize us with awe-inspiring and informative speeches.

Citizens of Flint, MI

The final blame falls on the citizens of Flint, Michigan. The United States Constitution starts with the words:

We the People...

Our Founding Fathers did this because they believed that the power and authority of government was based on the consent of the governed. But consent is not a one-time thing. We always have the right to say "NO!". To give informed consent, we must be informed – whether by the media, attending town government meetings or asking questions of our elected and appointed leaders.

If the citizens of Flint had kept themselves informed, they would not have been placated by government assurances that the water was safe. People should have taken water samples to be tested. It is not expensive – the US EPA, most public health departments and many universities will do it for free. When the results came back, they should have contacted their city councilmen and women, county officials, state representatives and senators, and the governor and complained loudly and often.


The City of Flint started drawing water from the Flint River in April of 2014. Within days, the complaints should have started rolling in and kept rolling in until action was taken. But instead, what happened? Some complaints rolled in. A press conference was called and government did what it does best: lie and obfuscate.

So, what should we have learned from this?

  • Government, at any and all levels, lies to protect itself from its own mistakes. We should have learned this ages ago. We have seen it over and over again — from the "Indian wars" through the rise of innumerable dictators, through the sinking of the RMS Lusitania which dragged us into World War I, through the Gulf of Tonkin incident which dragged us into Vietnam, through Sadam Hussein's non-existant weapons of mass destruction, to the recent stupidities such as New Jersey's BridgeGate and the Flint water problem.
  • Government, because it wields power, attracts megalomanics – people obsessed with the exercise of their own power, especially the domination of others. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot of Cambodia, and Idi Amin of Uganda are classic examples, but history is littered with thousands more. The media needs to watch our governmental leaders like a hawk watches a rodent and quickly inform the public of questionable actions and out-and-out wrongdoing.
  • Government should never trust other governments. Government does not just lie to us. It lies to everyone!
  • Government should be close to the People. Local issues should be addressed by local government, not by bureaucrats whose offices are hundreds or thousands of miles away. That bureaucrat will have little appreciation for your local problem — it is just a complaint on a form, not something the bureaucrat lives with, day in and day out. Money and rules may come from higher levels of government, but it is the local officials who should bear the responsibility of solving the issue.
  • People must keep themselves informed about what is happening locally. That permit request to open a new supermarket near your neighborhood that dies at the Planning Commission and forces you to drive several miles for groceries instead of one mile will become a big deal when the price of gasoline suddenly jumps to $6 per gallon.

Copyright 2016, JalapeƱo Bob

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