Flint water crisis a stimulus project gone bad?

posted at 2:01 pm on January 26, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

Update: Shikha Dalmia will be my guest on The Ed Morrissey Show today, which starts at 4 ET.

The conventional wisdom about the Flint water crisis puts the blame on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for budget discipline. But was the problem too much money? Reason’s Shikha Dalmia argues that the root cause of lead pollution was a too-good-to-decline offer of stimulus money that incentivized state and local officials to make a very, very bad decision based on the real economic straits of their constituents:

The whole mess occurred because Flint decided against renewing its 30-year contract with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and switched instead to Karengondi Water Authority (KWA). KWA was planning to build its own hugely expensive pipeline, parallel to DWSD’s, to harness water from Lake Huron and service the Genesee County area where Flint is located. This left the city in the lurch for a few years when its contract with DWSD ended but the new facility had not yet gone online, prompting it to reopen a local mothballed facility that relied on the toxic Flint River as its source (more on the rank stupidity of this decision later).

The rationale for the original decision to switch Flint’s water providers was that, in the long run, KWA would generate substantial savings for the cash-strapped city. Not only was this false but Snyder had very good reasons at that time to believe that this was false. …

Snyder’s office did not return my call, but sources close to the situation at the time tell me that it was essentially because Genesee County and Flint authorities saw the new water treatment as a public infrastructure project to create jobs in an area that has never recovered after Michigan’s auto industry fled to sunnier business climes elsewhere. And neither Snyder nor his Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz nor the state treasurer Andy Dillon had the heart to say “no,” especially since to hand Flint to DWSD would have made the whole project less viable.  What’s more, they felt that just as Detroit was receiving an infrastructure boost post-bankruptcy (with the state-backed $650 million ice-hockey-arena-cum-entertainment center that I wrote about here) it was only fair that Flint get one too.

The decision to switch back to the mothballed Flint facility was a response to the need to save money, but on a local level:

But to add insult to Flint’s injury, while the rest of the Genesee County continued to be served by DWSA before the new system became operational, Flint was switched to its old, moribund facility. That’s not because Detroit refused to cut off Flint, as the governor’s office and local authorities have suggested. It’s because Kurtz and the then Flint mayor, Dayne Walling, sources say, believed that this facility was an underutilized asset that ought to be put to good use to save money.

Dalmia isn’t letting Snyder off the hook with this observation. She accuses Snyder of “falling for” the argument on Flint’s decision. She also notes that the state and federal environmental agencies bear a large responsibility for the lead in the drinking water, an eminently avoidable health disaster that may have long-reaching consequences for a city already down on its luck. But the decisions that created the crisis had less to do with a lack of resources than with the need to score political points through pork-barrel projects.

This diffusion of responsibility will make it difficult to get accountability — and Reuters notes that lawyers will have a difficult time in court anyway:

What’s holding them back, several lawyers said, is not the facts or the victims, but the prospective targets: The State of Michigan, the city of Flint, and officials at various levels of government. Special legal protections make it difficult to hold governments liable for damages, they said.

Federal and state governments and employees engaged in their official duties are shielded from most private lawsuits by a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. The doctrine, enshrined in the laws of many countries, stems from the centuries-old principle that the government itself cannot commit a legal wrong, though exceptions have evolved.

While cities in the U.S. are not technically considered to have sovereign status, they are similarly protected by state and federal laws.

As of Friday, only a few lawsuits had been filed in the wake of the crisis that began when the city began in April 2014 to use river water, which was more corrosive than its previous supply source and caused lead to leach from aging pipes into the water that people drank and washed in.

It’s a shame in one sense, because the people of Flint have been significantly injured through incompetence and worse. But the better forum for addressing those grievances is political, and in this case it should be focused on the local officials who drove this decision.

 


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Comments

If you like your water…

Rix on January 26, 2016 at 2:09 PM

Has any gubmint stimulus project ever gone good?

dentarthurdent on January 26, 2016 at 2:13 PM

Apparently Black Lives Don’t Matter.

proverbs427 on January 26, 2016 at 2:14 PM

because Genesee County and Flint authorities saw the new water treatment as a public infrastructure project to create jobs in an area that has never recovered after Michigan’s auto industry fled to sunnier business climes elsewhere.

I thought infrastructure projects don’t really create jobs. That’s what the anti-Kelo crowd always say.

rbj on January 26, 2016 at 2:15 PM

THIS is our biggest and most basic problem.

Special legal protections make it difficult to hold governments liable for damages, they said.
Federal and state governments and employees engaged in their official duties are shielded from most private lawsuits by a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. The doctrine, enshrined in the laws of many countries, stems from the centuries-old principle that the government itself cannot commit a legal wrong, though exceptions have evolved.

dentarthurdent on January 26, 2016 at 2:17 PM

Goverment is just another name for all the things we do together.

Like poison poor people and cover it up.

gwelf on January 26, 2016 at 2:19 PM

Well as long as the pensions of the unionized city employees weren’t hurt..it’s all good.

HumpBot Salvation on January 26, 2016 at 2:21 PM

What’s holding them back, several lawyers said, is not the facts or the victims, but the prospective targets: The State of Michigan, the city of Flint, and officials at various levels of government. Special legal protections make it difficult to hold governments liable for damages, they said.

Federal and state governments and employees engaged in their official duties are shielded from most private lawsuits by a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. The doctrine, enshrined in the laws of many countries, stems from the centuries-old principle that the government itself cannot commit a legal wrong, though exceptions have evolved.

While cities in the U.S. are not technically considered to have sovereign status, they are similarly protected by state and federal laws.

Take a good look, progs. This is your government that you say is always going to look out for you and who can be entrusted with this power because they are accountable to the voter.

The Schaef on January 26, 2016 at 2:21 PM

So Flint has been run by white republicans for decades right?

jukin3 on January 26, 2016 at 2:28 PM

This isn’t a Michigan governor problem, and Republicans are always stupid to take the blame that others should be castigated for. When will the GOP learn that it’s okay to say no to Democratic blaming?

chrisbolts on January 26, 2016 at 2:32 PM

The last time I saw water like that from a tap I was in Africa.

Nomennovum on January 26, 2016 at 2:34 PM

Obviously this is all George Bush’s fault.

DocNathan on January 26, 2016 at 2:35 PM

So, if I was the mayor of my city in Colorado, and make some really bad decisions for the city, I can blame it all on our Dem governor Chickenpooper – right?

dentarthurdent on January 26, 2016 at 2:35 PM

The last time I saw water like that from a tap I was in Africa.

Nomennovum on January 26, 2016 at 2:34 PM

You didn’t have to go that far – you could have seen some in Colorado last year thanks to the EPA……

dentarthurdent on January 26, 2016 at 2:36 PM

Way OT, but Abe Vigoda is really dead.
http://www.abevigoda.com

whatcat on January 26, 2016 at 2:37 PM

Looks like we’re on track to Soviet style incompetence and malfeasance.

Old liberal battle cry: Power to the people!

New liberal battle cry: Power to the government!

darwin on January 26, 2016 at 2:38 PM

The last time I saw water like that from a tap I was in Africa.

Nomennovum on January 26, 2016 at 2:34 PM

Flint is Africa.

M240H on January 26, 2016 at 2:44 PM

I would’ve thought a better “shovel ready project” would’ve been replacing the actual pipes that were MADE OF LEAD.

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 2:45 PM

Well as long as the pensions of the unionized city employees weren’t hurt..it’s all good.

HumpBot Salvation on January 26, 2016 at 2:21 PM

Well, that and the fact that no politicians, bureaucrats or public servants are ever held accountable other than a resignation or two.

antipc on January 26, 2016 at 2:46 PM

Question/task for Ed:

Perhaps on your radio show would you clarify basic issues about this? For example, the impression is there was lead in the water from the Flint River. But as you quote above, it appears the lead came from the pipes, due to corrosive chemicals in the water, not from the water itself. There are pictures of bottles of ugly, dirty water. Surely that’s not the water that came out of the water supply plant?

Finally, was the water out of the water supply plant safe to drink, and the only unsafe thing was how it corroded pipes and leeched lead and other contaminants? To me that’s a huge question. If the water treated from the Flint River was drinkable, but the problem was further down the line, it shows a more complicated situation, and less bad faith on the part of those who supplied the water.

LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 2:48 PM

If the Governor didn’t assume some responsibility, he would still get creamed by the media, and in the next election. And he did apparently want the money. But the EPA destroyed the water system first.

WestVirginiaRebel on January 26, 2016 at 2:48 PM

Here comes libertarian outlet Reason Magazine to inject some much-needed intellect into the Right.

TBSchemer on January 26, 2016 at 2:49 PM

In Cincinnati I understand we’ve had massive improvements to our water supply system, some unnecessary to meet excessively stringent Federal regulations, and caused our water bills to go up. Too bad we get the Cadillac of water systems and other areas don’t even get the minimal amount.

LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 2:51 PM

Question/task for Ed:

Perhaps on your radio show would you clarify basic issues about this? For example, the impression is there was lead in the water from the Flint River. But as you quote above, it appears the lead came from the pipes, due to corrosive chemicals in the water, not from the water itself.

LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 2:48 PM

The pipes are made of lead. Something in the river water reacted with the pipes and caused the leaching. There are millions of miles of lead pipe across the country. 3 to 6 million miles according to this US News article I have open on another tab…

You probably drink water that has traveled through lead pipes on the way to your home….

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 2:52 PM

It’s always the lead pipe – usually by Colonel Mustard in the library……

dentarthurdent on January 26, 2016 at 2:55 PM

You probably drink water that has traveled through lead pipes on the way to your home….

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 2:52 PM

OK. I heard they skipped a step where they could have treated the water to take out the corrosive element so it wouldn’t react with the lead pipes. Does that mean, absent the lead pipes, the water would have been safe to drink? That’s a key question. And the bottles of putrid-looking water, is that also a “leeching” issue, or something else? Surely the water treatment plant didn’t produce water that looked like that.

LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 2:57 PM

Does that mean, absent the lead pipes, the water would have been safe to drink? That’s a key question.
LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 2:57 PM

That is the key question. Why no anti-leaching agents?

I’m no chemist but I can’t imagine “anti-leaching agents” are great to suck down either.

Neat, in the past 5 minutes, I was able to determine that my town’s pipes are also lead. Last water test .089 PPB out of a limit of 15…so I guess I’m ok? Eff.

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 3:06 PM

Is Glenn Beck planning to head to Flint to hand out teddy bears and bottled water any time soon?

xblade on January 26, 2016 at 3:07 PM

The pipes are made of lead. Something in the river water reacted with the pipes and caused the leaching. There are millions of miles of lead pipe across the country. 3 to 6 million miles according to this US News article I have open on another tab…

You probably drink water that has traveled through lead pipes on the way to your home….

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 2:52 PM

Mostly it is leader lines from the water main to the individual propery……mostly single family home. There is also a lot of lead solder still around in pipes.

The “something” is simply a higher PH. Lake water is more stable and has a lower PH. River water varies and typical has a higher PH. The water coming from the plant for the most part was/is safe.

animal02 on January 26, 2016 at 3:09 PM

Is Glenn Beck planning to head to Flint to hand out teddy bears and bottled water any time soon?

xblade on January 26, 2016 at 3:07 PM

No but Michael Moore is in the area. He’s more toxic than the water!

LashRambo on January 26, 2016 at 3:11 PM

No but Michael Moore is in the area. He’s more toxic than the water!

LashRambo

Ain’t that the truth.

xblade on January 26, 2016 at 3:15 PM

But the better forum for addressing those grievances is political, and in this case it should be focused on the local officials who drove this decision.

It won’t be. Flint’s history indicates that they grievances will only be taken out on anyone with an (R) after their name and those most responsible despite having (D)s after their name will earn yet another few percentages of lifetime support for Flint voters.

deepdiver on January 26, 2016 at 3:19 PM

The lead came from the corroded pipes. That is a fact. The EPA knew there was lead in the water & sat on the report. The city leaders knew what the EPA knew. They too sat in this report. Everyone knew the pipes were old. No one told the public for months.

I live 20 miles south/west of Flint. I was born in Flint. I grew up in flint in the 60’s, 70′ & early 80’s. Both my grandfather & uncle worked & retired from Flint PD. Since 1974 when new Flint Charter was established, Flint has been all Democrat since 1974.

Oh BTW Michael Moore NEVER lived in Flint. He lived in an all white city called Davison. Tired of his BS calling Flint his home.

Conservative4Ever on January 26, 2016 at 3:19 PM

The Flint River water is not toxic! I wish people would quit saying that.

The water happens to be more corrosive than other sources. The water is not toxic to fish, wildlife, or humans. It makes it easier for lead to leach out of the water pipes in the city, which is causing the issue.

The water was lead free leaving the Flint Treatment plant. It picked up the lead on the way to homeowner’s taps because it was more corrosive than the Lake Huron water.

These homes still have lead piping.

Check your homes and your city’s distribution system. Ensure your pipes are lead free.

airupthere on January 26, 2016 at 3:41 PM

Sounds like the city, state and feds all have some explaining – especially the city and especially the EPA and someone in the State Environmental office.

BTW – sounds like the governor being aware of the need to do a deal to pacify the locals in Flint, went along with their plans just to get along. I’m sure initially no one was aware of the impact – except maybe some locals but even that may be kind of foggy.

Isn’t there a candidate running for president who talks about his ability to make a deal and boastfully throws around facts and figures that are completely wrong? I’m sure he would never do something like this.

He would just get things done.

Zomcon JEM on January 26, 2016 at 4:19 PM

I think all unintended consequences that come from not knowing the technical details or their implications before making a decision one way or another.

I am awed by Flint’s governing body deciding to end a water contract with one authority before the other authority had its facility up, tested and verified as capable of providing water.

It seems obvious that all the details, presumably someone would have thought about lead pipes, were not available to the decision-makers. That was stupid. Covering up or ignoring the consequences, now that seems criminal.

Russ808 on January 26, 2016 at 5:56 PM

The pipes are made of lead. Something in the river water reacted with the pipes and caused the leaching. There are millions of miles of lead pipe across the country. 3 to 6 million miles according to this US News article I have open on another tab…

You probably drink water that has traveled through lead pipes on the way to your home….

Youngs98 on January 26, 2016 at 2:52 PM

Oh, heck. I know of water systems that still use wooden pipes! Funny thing: Wood isn’t poisonous, and doesn’t corrode. And as long as the water has chlorine in it, it’s not going to rot, either. And a century later, they still hold water just fine.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

ReggieA on January 27, 2016 at 10:09 PM