Politics of water: blame game, grandstanding, incompetence — and a turning point?
By Paul Rozycki
At the end of last year, after our mayoral election, our switch back to Detroit water, and the progress on the Karegnondi pipeline, it seemed that the Flint Water Crisis has peaked.
This month I was expecting to say a few words about the primary elections….Trump, Hillary, Bernie Sanders, Iowa, New Hampshire and all that. This should have also been a week when the good news of Amir Hekmati’s release from an Iranian prison dominated the headlines.
But, our water crisis now is a 24-hour a day local news story, a state-wide story, a Time Magazine cover, an ABC, NBC and CBS national story, and even an international BBC story. Each day brings new revelations about the mistakes, incompetence and malfeasance that have led to this crisis. After all the ink and air-time, I’m not sure what more there is to say, but here are a few more thoughts to add to the tidal wave. (Maybe next month for Trump and Hillary?)
Mayor Weaver’s first 100 Days
When Dr. Karen Weaver was elected mayor last November, many thought that her lack of experience in politics would leave Flint drifting while she learned the job (this writer included). After all, what did a clinical psychologist know about governing a city? How wrong they were. In her first 100 days she hit the ground running and has handled the job with ability, energy and finesse that would be the envy of any professional politician. From Flint City Hall, to the governor’s office to the White House she has raised our concerns and marshalled resources with remarkable skill and success. Her frequent meetings with the governor are bringing more state resources to deal with the crisis. With some of her mayoral powers now reinstated, let’s hope these first months are a sign of things to come. And a first step in rebuilding trust. (Maybe Flint needs a psychologist more than a traditional political leader.)
Who’s to blame?
It seems that almost everyone involved is playing the blame game. Who’s fault is it?—the local government, the state government, the federal government, the governor, the state treasurer, the mayor, the Republicans, the Democrats, the city council, the emergency managers (pick one or several), the DEQ, the EPA, or many others. Every day seems to bring new, unsettling revelations. The disclosure that workers in Flint’s state office building were given purified water a year ago, while the rest of the city was falsely reassured that the water was safe, is only the most recent example. In the end it may be easier to decide who’s not at fault. There’s enough blame to go around for just about everyone. Yes, we should find out what happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And if there are criminal violations, they should be pursued fairly in the legal system. But the blame game shouldn’t become a barrier to solving the problem. (Note to Cher: Put the firing squad on hold for now.)
Bureaucratic incompetence and indifference
One of the most disturbing aspects of the story is the apparent callous regard so many key bureaucracies had for the city and its people. In the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA), the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Hurley Hospital experts warned of the water problems long before they became public. In every case, those who first raised the warnings were dismissed as troublemakers or simply ignored. Now the good news is that, in the end, the warnings did get out, and the ‘good guys’ had their day and some of the ‘bad guys’ were fired or suspended. But one thing worries me. On how many other occasions did the experts try to get the word out about some problem, only to be successfully blocked by their bureaucratic supervisors? (Only now are we learning more about the spike in Legionnaire’s Disease in Genesee County, what local hospitals knew, and any possible connection to the Flint Water Crisis. Though the story is still developing, it seems to be following a similar pattern.)
The media firestorm and grandstanding
The media firestorm over Flint’s water is unprecedented. The Flint Water Crisis has been a major story on local, state, national and even international news outlets. I’ve had friends from out of state call wondering if we were OK and if there were dead bodies in the street or if the National Guard was pulling people off the rooftops of houses with helicopters, Katrina style. This crisis has produced some real leaders (Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Congressman Dan Kildee, State Senator Jim Ananich, State Representative Sheldon Neeley and others) who deserve credit for pursuing the issue, often against stiff opposition. But, as is often the case, it has generated its share of grandstanders, who prove the old axiom that the quickest way to be a leader is to find a parade and get in front of it. In the end, the media hype may be the price we to pay to focus national attention on a critical problem, not only for Flint, but many other cities in the nation.
Perhaps Rachel Maddow’s broadcast from Flint was the most important national spotlight to focus on our problems. She highlighted how trust has been broken between all levels of government and the people of Flint and concluded with the promise that “America is with you now.” Let’s hope that promise holds up after the last media trucks have folded their satellite dishes, left town, and moved on to the next big story of the day.
Outside support and Flint’s own response
What is impressive and reassuring is the outpouring of support from around the state and the nation. It seems that nearly every celebrity, politician, civic group, college, sports organization or church stepped forward with truckloads of water and volunteers to aid Flint’s situation. Medical personnel have provided blood tests for children. Colleges and universities have funded studies on Flint’s water problems. And more groups step forward every day. Thanks are due to all those who have donated or volunteered during this crisis. The response has been truly overwhelming.
Flint’s own response has also been important. The UM-Flint, has created a series of ‘water crisis classes’ over the next semester. They are open to the public (not just UM students) and will explore both the science and the politics of the current crisis. (Check the website: umflint.edu/public health, for more information). The Sloan Museum has also opened “Water’s Extreme Journey”, an interactive display on creating and preserving clean water. Most interesting is a wall-sized graphic that traces the history of Flint’s water use (and its problems) and how it has changed over the last century or more. It’s worth a visit.
What’s the long term solution?
For all the tens of thousands of bottles of water we’ve received, we can’t rely on that for the rest of our lives. We need to find a long term solution to providing safe clean water for Flint. Do we know what pipelines need to be replaced? Do we know if there are chemical treatments that might block the lead and rather than replacing all of our pipes? Or do we need to get ready to dig up much of the city for new water supply lines? Providing clean water isn’t rocket science. Competent civil engineers and water scientists have been dealing with it for a very long time. Even the Romans were pretty good at it. (Though they had their own issues with lead in the water too.)
On the positive side, some recent tests suggest that our lead levels are gradually dropping after reconnecting to Detroit water. But no one is ready to recommend that we stop using filters and bottled water yet.
Let’s hope that a year from now Flint will be known as the city that dealt with its water crisis successfully, rather than the “city that poisons its kids”. As she concluded an interview on Tom Sumner’s morning radio show, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha felt that if we do it right, our solutions could be a turning point for the city, and could point the way for others facing similar problems (and almost certainly there will be others).
Finally, let’s make sure most of us in Flint are part of a recycling program, or we’re going to be buried in plastic bottles for years to come.
Political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.