Study Confirms that Disregard for Poor and Minorities Led to Slow Response to Flint Crisis

Sunday, March 27, 2016
Morgan Walker, age 5, is tested for lead poisoning (photo: Brett Carlsen, Getty Images/AFP)


By Julie Bosman, New York Times


An independent panel has concluded that disregard for the concerns of poor and minority people contributed to the government’s slow response to complaints from residents of Flint, Michigan, about the foul and discolored water that was making them sick, determining that the crisis “is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”


The panel, which was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October, when he first urged Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents to stop drinking the city’s tap water, laid blame for the water problems at the feet of government employees on every level.


Its report (pdf) was released at a news conference Wednesday in Flint.


It particularly focused on state employees: analysts in charge of supervising water quality, state-appointed emergency managers who prized frugality over public safety, and staff members in the governor’s office who adopted a “whack a mole” attitude to beat away persistent reports of problems.


But the report also concluded that, “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.”


In making that declaration, the five-member panel put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country — flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease.


It also validated complaints long argued by many Flint residents, but largely dismissed by Snyder and others: that race and poverty contributed to the often scornful reactions to their complaints.


“Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,” the report concluded.


In an interview after the report’s release, Ken Sikkema, a panel member and former state legislator, said the panel sought to raise a general alarm about the role of race and income and to highlight inequities that may emerge in environmental responses.


“It needed to be addressed,” Sikkema said. “It’s not just race, it’s income status, too. Low-income people shouldn’t be subject to a different level of environmental protection than high-income people.”


Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint, said he welcomed the panel’s pointed attention to the issue. “It’s certainly true from my perspective,” he said. “I could not imagine this happening in an affluent community that was not a majority-minority community and the same reaction occurring.”


Many of the panel’s other findings reiterated facts and ideas that had emerged in thousands of pages of documents, and several congressional hearings, about bureaucratic indifference and mistakes that not only caused the crisis but prolonged it. More investigations are continuing, with the possibility of criminal charges, and the report notes that other investigators with subpoena powers might unearth even more egregious information.


The 116-page report faulted local Flint officials and an overly deferential federal Environmental Protection Agency and concluded that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency responsible for monitoring the water supply, had “primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint.” That agency, it said, “caused this crisis to happen.”


“They missed the boat completely,” said Chris Kolb, a task force member and the president of the Michigan Environmental Council. “They never backed off on those decisions no matter how many red flags they saw.”


The report said that ineptitude and inadequate systems in the state’s Health Department had “prolonged the Flint water crisis.” And it concluded that the emergency managers whose decisions led to the contamination also bore responsibility for the tainted water supply.


“Emergency managers, not locally elected officials, made the decision to switch to the Flint River as Flint’s primary water supply source,” the report said.


The decision to switch the water source — and the failure to add crucial chemicals to the city water supply to block pipe corrosion, the source of the water’s lead contamination — was made in an attempt to save money, the report says. And it warned that emergency managers, who are usually appointed to deal with governments that are in dire financial crisis, as was the case in Flint, were not equipped to handle health and environmental issues, which demand a special expertise.


State Sen. Jim Ananich, who represents Flint, said he hoped the report would lead to a review of the emergency manager law, as the task force recommended. The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and Detroit public schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance. (Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, went on to oversee the Detroit schools until this month.)


“It goes in and takes away democratic rights, primarily in communities of poverty,” Ananich said.


The panel, created by Snyder in October, met to discuss the findings and conducted some 60 interviews. Its members are Dr. Matthew Davis, a pediatrician and professor of public policy; Kolb; Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint; Eric Rothstein, a water consultant; and Sikkema.


The panel made 44 recommendations, including that the governor’s office review the state’s emergency manager law, that environmental regulations be clarified, and that the governor’s office improve its method of assessing information.


It chastised government officials for inadequate funding of government services, urging that all levels of government establish “budgets for public health activities at federal, state and local levels to ensure that highly skilled personnel and adequate resources are available.”


“The consequences of underfunding,” it said, “include insufficient and inefficient responses to public health concerns, which have been evident in the Flint water crisis.”


It also urged Snyder to “issue an executive order mandating guidance and training on environmental justice across all state agencies in Michigan, highlighting the Flint water crisis as an example of environmental injustice.” The report added: “The state should reinvigorate and update implementation of an environmental justice plan for the state of Michigan.”


Snyder, who has been heavily criticized for the slow response to the crisis, accepted the report at the news conference in Flint. “There are a lot of excellent recommendations here,” Snyder said, adding that the state was putting some of them in place. He has repeatedly apologized for the mistakes and indifference cited in the report and argued that he was repeatedly reassured by “career bureaucrats” and “so-called experts” in state government that the water was safe.


Two resignations followed the release of a draft of the task force report in December: Dan Wyant, the director of the Department of Environmental Quality since 2011, and Brad Wurfel, the communications director. The final report did not recommend any specific firings or resignations.


To Learn More:

Final Report (Flint Advisory Task Force) (pdf)

Michigan Emergency Management System Accused of being Inherently Discriminatory (by Charity Smith, Courthouse News Service)

                Michigan Officials Accused of Blocking Flint Water Investigation (Reuters)

Gov. Rick Snyder’s Top Officials Knew of Flint Water Link to Disease Surge 10 Months before Snyder Told Public (by David Eggert and Ed White, Associated Press)

Top EPA Official Resigns over Muted Response to Flint Water Contamination (by Timothy Gardner and Fiona Ortiz, Reuters)

EPA Admits to Slow Response to Flint Water Contamination Crisis (by David Shepardson, Reuters)


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