Flint Water Crisis

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For the most recent updates on the Flint water crisis, please visit The Great Lakes Law Blog by our friend, Noah Hall.

The city of Flint, Michigan, is in the middle of a man-made public health crisis caused by failed public policy. Toxic levels of lead continue to be present in Flint’s drinking water from early 2014 through today.

Due to the corrosive nature of the Flint River water, high levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water. What caused this to happen? Flint made the decision back in the spring of 2014 to switch their drinking water from the Detroit water supply. The plan was for Flint to switch over to a new water supplier, Karengnandi Water Authority (KWA), but remain with essentially the same source: Lake Huron. However, KWA was still constructing their pipelines and would not be done with construction until sometime in 2016. In the meantime, Flint officials decided to use the Flint River water as an interim water source.

As soon as the switch was made in 2014, residents complained about the odor, taste, and smell of the water coming out of their faucets. The city began violating several drinking water standards and issued water “boiling advisories” to kill off the harmful bacteria E. coli.  Water tests also revealed high levels of the chlorination byproduct trihalomethane (TTHM), which is linked to cancer and other associated health problems. Despite issuing “boiling advisories,” city officials claimed the water was safe to drink.

In the summer of 2015, Virginia Tech water quality expert Marc Edwards and pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha began independently researching Flint’s water and the impact on the city’s residents. Both Edwards and Hanna-Attisha found high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, which results in elevated blood lead levels in children. Their findings were presented to the public in September of 2015. The findings eventually led Flint to reconnect with the Detroit water supply in October 2015, but the switch did not remediate the situation entirely.

In the beginning of January 2016, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency with President Obama declaring a federal state of emergency soon after. President Obama issued Flint $5 million in federal aid along with $80 million in federal aid to the state of Michigan to repair its aging water infrastructure and supply Flint residents with water filters, bottled water, water filter cartridges, and water test kits. There are also ongoing state and federal investigations on the underlying issue and who caused the crisis.

In Flint, two MDEQ officials and Flint’s water quality supervisor face multiple charges including tampering with evidence.  State investigations are ongoing and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says “These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come.”  A recent congressional hearing examined the roles of Governor Rick Snyder and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy.  Discussion was heated and polarized, and conclusive agreements are yet to be had at the federal level.