Finally, A Settlement In Flint

And Why Local Politics Matter When It Comes To Our Water

It’s about time.

On Wednesday a judge approved a $626 million deal to settle lawsuits filed by the people of Flint, making money available to those most vulnerable—the children who were exposed to unsafe, toxic levels of lead in their drinking water. Adults with injuries, business owners, and anyone who paid water bills at that time will also have access to money from the settlement.

An estimated 10,000 kids were exposed to drinking water with unsafe levels of lead in Flint, a town of about 100,000 people.

It’s now November 2021 and this crisis began in April 2014. That’s 7 years! That’s way too long for any family to deal with health issues and water problems, and all the fear that goes with them.  

How did this crisis happen? Let’s look back.

Former Governor Rick Snyder, elected in 2010 and who now faces criminal charges, started assigning emergency managers to take the place of elected officials in cash-strapped cities throughout the state of Michigan.

Snyder and the Republican-led legislature passed a bill in 2011 officially called the “Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act,” but known to many as the “Emergency Manager Bill,” essentially replacing government officials elected by the people with Snyder’s political appointees.

The new law gave these high-paid managers unprecedented powers, such as taking over pension systems, setting school schedules, and removing elected officials from office. In the law’s own words, the managers were allowed to “exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission, or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.”

Michael Brown, who was born and raised in Flint and served as temporary mayor in 2009, became the city’s emergency manager (EM) in November 2011. In his first few days, he eliminated pay for the mayor and city council, laid off key city officials, and even shut down some city offices. He was the first in a series of four emergency managers appointed to help mend Flint’s economic challenges. At the time, the city’s unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent was one of the highest in the state, the population was declining, and the city was operating with a consistent deficit in its general fund.

An elected official dealing with issues in their district has to answer to the people, while an emergency manager is accountable only to the governor. EMs are charged with saving money at all costs, while being paid six figures to do it. Brown’s salary in Flint was approximately $170,000 a year. And he was not alone. These managers were appointed to many cities, and residents throughout the state were not happy about it.

By 2012, Michigan voters had repealed the emergency manager law, ousting Brown in Flint for a time, but just six weeks later the legislature passed a new bill that was nearly identical to the original one. Flint put a new manager in his place, Ed Kurtz, who originally kicked off the exploration of how the city could save money on its water bill. The plan was to stop buying water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which had been steadily increasing its rates.

Darnell Earley, the emergency manager from October 2013 through January 2015, took the reins in Flint and promised bold steps to address the city’s continuing problems.

He made the final decision to switch the water source away from Detroit’s water system, which drew its source water from Lake Huron, the third-largest body of fresh water in the world. Flint would join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), requiring the city to build its own pipeline to transport water from Lake Huron into the city.

As a temporary drinking water solution, the city resurrected the Flint Water Service Center (FWSC). The center was maintained for years as a backup facility, but that’s not the same as being equipped to supply water to a 100,000 residents. Now the Flint River would become the city’s main water source while the pipeline was built. The river flows through the center of town and served as the main drinking water source for residents from the 1880s until the 1960s, when the city began buying water from the Detroit system.

The story of Flint’s river resembles how many towns have suffered thanks to industrial waste. Flint’s river was inundated with unregulated industrial waste, starting with lumber mills in the 1800s, then paper mills at the turn of the twentieth century, and finally, General Motors automotive factories before World War II.

As the population swelled in Flint and the river accumulated more toxins, it made sense to find a cleaner, more reliable water source.

The river also had two important differences from Lake Huron water: it was warmer and its flow was less constant. Both factors made this drinking water friendly to bacterial growth and rising levels of organic matter.

With high concentrations of bacteria and organics, the river water would require extra chlorine to properly clean it. Chlorine can react with organics in the water, causing the amount of disinfection byproduct trihalomethanes (THMs) to skyrocket.

Flint also had an antiquated lead pipe system, which can be very reactive to treatment chemicals like chlorine and can cause major corrosion, and that’s what happened.

Some local experts did express concerns about switching to the river as the city’s water source.

Brian Larkin, then associate director of the Governor’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, sent an email message to others in the governor’s office, writing, “The expedited time-frame is less than ideal and could lead to some big potential disasters down the road.”

The water quality supervisor at FWSC, Mike Glasgow, also said in an April 2014 email sent to the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), “I do not anticipate giving the okay to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction.”

Saving Money Poisoning People

Flint River water started flowing through the city’s pipes in April 2014. The switch was estimated to save the city millions of dollars.

Flint mayor Dayne Walling called it “regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard. This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, and we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”

By May, almost immediately after the switch, residents started complaining about both the smell and the color of the water.

In August and September, the city issued three boil-water advisories after high levels of bacteria were detected. In October, General Motors announced its plans to stop using the water because it was corroding auto parts. The company negotiated a private deal to buy Lake Huron water for its Flint plant. GM was one of the largest water consumers in town, so the city was now looking at the loss of close to half a million dollars a year.

Throughout the crisis official made many missteps.

One of the most egregious was that while lead was leaching into the water supply for almost two years, public officials said everything was fine. Former Flint mayor Dayne Walling went as far as to drink the contaminated water on local TV to assure residents it was safe to drink.

Both state and local officials have been criminally charged in connection to the water disaster in Flint.

Congressman Dan Kildee, who was born and raised there and represents Flint, has said, “Every American deserves to have access to safe drinking water. America is the richest and most prosperous country in the world—we can afford to provide safe drinking water to our citizens.”

I’m happy the infrastructure bill has passed to help communities like Flint continue to replace their lead service lines. And there’s still so much work to do, even in a place like Flint with so much national media attention.

Many homes in Flint still need their service lines identified and replaced. Interior plumbing in homes has not been replaced and many can’t afford it. Plus, the city’s distribution mains haven't been replaced.

Most of the settlement money—$600 million—is coming from the state of Michigan. Imagine that to save a few million dollars they poisoned all these residents and now have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The settlement reached here is a remarkable achievement for many reasons, not the least of which is that it sets forth a comprehensive compensation program and timeline that is consistent for every qualifying participant,” U.S. District Judge Judith Levy said in a 178-page opinion.

But legal settlements cannot make up for the pain and suffering in this town or in any community. I’m hopeful the folks who need it most while be able to put money toward their medical bills. Parents can hopefully hire tutors for children with learning disabilities associated with lead poisoning in their children.

Our friend Flint resident Melissa Mays, said her three sons have had medical problems and learning challenges due to lead.

“Hopefully, it’ll be enough to help kids with tutors and getting the medical care they need to help them recover from this,” she told The Guardian. “A lot of this isn’t covered by insurance. These additional needs, they cost money.”

Justice doesn’t come all at once; it usually comes in steps. This settlement is not the end of problems in Flint, just a good start to mending this environmental tragedy.

Attorneys in this case will get their legal fees and community members will continue to do the great work they’ve been doing all along to raise awareness, help one another, and make sure that other communities don’t have to go through what they did.

Lead is not just a problem in Flint, thousands of communities across the country dealing with lead in their drinking water. If you’re one of them, here are more resources.