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.