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Explainer: What You Should Know About the Flint Water Crisis

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This image from the Flint Water Study shows water samples from a Flint, Mich. home. The bottles were collected, from left, on Jan. 15, Jan. 16, and Jan. 21, 2015.
This image from the Flint Water Study shows water samples from a Flint, Mich. home. The bottles were collected, from left, on Jan. 15 (bottles 1 and 2), Jan. 16, and Jan. 21, 2015.

What is the Flint water crisis?

Earlier this month Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, declared a state of emergency in the County of Genesee and the City of Flint because of elevated levels of lead found in its general water supply. The governor declared the emergency because the contaminated drinking water poses a serious health risk to the residents of that area. The adverse health effects of lead exposure in children and adults are well documented, notes the Centers for Disease Control, and no safe blood lead threshold in children has been identified.

The crisis has been blamed on a failure of government at all levels. As Washington Post reporters Lenny Bernstein and Brady Dennis wrote, “Local, state and federal officials — including the top Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Midwest and Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder — are accused of ignoring, denying or covering up problems that left thousands of children exposed to toxic lead in their drinking water for about 18 months.”

To date, four government officials—one from the City of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and one from the Environmental Protection Agency—have resigned over the mishandling of the crisis.

What caused the water crisis?

According to the U.S. Census, 40.1 percent of the population of Flint, Michigan is living in poverty, making it the second most poverty-stricken city in the nation for its size. The poverty of its residents combined with mandatory spending on former city workers (retirees from the city government are taking 20 percent of all city spending) has led to a financial crisis that has put the city into emergency receivership.

In an attempt to save money, the city council voted in 2013 to purchase water from the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) rather than from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). KWA was not expected to be completed until the end of 2016, so the city decided to rely on its backup, the Flint River.

The Flint River, though, contains high levels of chlorine, which is highly corrosive to iron and lead—materials used widely in the pipes carrying water in Flint.

How did the lead get into the drinking water?

Since the late 1960s, Flint purchased its water from the DWSD, which treats the water with orthophosphate, a chemical that, as Time magazine explains, “essentially coated the pipes as water flowed through them, preventing lead from leaching into the water supply.” The water from the Flint river, however, was not treated with orthosphate, even though it contains eight times more chloride than Detroit’s water.

When was the contamination discovered?

According to Shikha Dalmia, area residents started complaining about the taste and color of the water right after the switch in April 2014.

In January 2015, hundreds of residents attended a public meeting to complain that the city’s water was causing skin problems for some children. The state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley told the crowd the city “can ill-afford to switch course” by returning to purchasing the water from Detroit. That fall, General Motors announced it was discontinuing use of Flint water in one of its plants, because the high level of chlorides found in the Flint River could corrode engine parts.

In September 2015 an independent research team from Virginia Tech (a group that paid for some of the research out of their own pockets) released the Flint Water Study, which found that at least 25 percent of homes in Flint had levels of lead that was well above the federal level and nearly every home had water that was distasteful or discolored.

That same month the Hurley Medical Center in Flint released a study confirming that the proportion of infants and children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River as its water source.

Authorities initially disputed the findings of both studies, but local and state officials finally acknowledged the crisis in October 2015, and Flint returned to using water from Detroit.

Why wasn’t the lead detected sooner?

According to the Detroit News, a water expert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February 2015, confirmed the suspicions in April, and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo. But the EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman did not release the information, claiming her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public. The EPA was in conflict with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality over not only what to do about the crisis, but what to tell the public.

Marc Edwards, an expert on municipal water quality that led the Virginia Tech study, said that the situation essentially amounts to a cover-up.

It was the injustice of it all and that the very agencies that are paid to protect these residents from lead in water, knew or should’ve known after June at the very latest of this year, that federal law was not being followed in Flint, and that these children and residents were not being protected. And the extent to which they went to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered.

Rather than address the legitimate science questions, they mounted a public relations campaign to discredit the residents, to discredit us. I have never seen this level of arrogance and incompetence. It was mostly confined to a few key individuals, but other people are guilty of being far too trusting of those individuals, and not listening to the people who were drinking this water.

Could the crisis have been prevented?

As Shikha Dalmia notes, the problem could have potentially been avoided by simply adding phosphorous to the water. That fix would have only cost the city a mere $50,000 a year.

What happens now?

Gov. Snyder announced last week that the state of Michigan would provide Flint with $28 million in aid to pay for things like filters, replacement cartridges, bottled water, more school nurses, and additional intervention specialists.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also investigating the contamination of Flint’s drinking water supply to determine if government officials committed any criminal wrongdoing.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Just another example of government failure. When will mainstream economists track real government failure as hard as they track imaginary market failure.

  • Brandon W Gregory

    I have been staying up to date with Flint,Michigan disaster and how the government on all levels have failed to provide basic human needs to all the residents of that region. The easy answer is to say that there are racial implications I see it more as the government of Michigan attempting to short change a community.If all it would take is a $100 a day to keep the water clean and safe aren’t the residents of Flint regardless of race, creed or color worth that ?To me that is human decency not racial genicide.

  • Bart_R

    Every additional molecule of CO2 in water results in one or two additional chlorine ions depending on conditions; in Flint’s case, it’s the two ions.

    Six decades ago, when the backup water supply was designated, CO2 levels in air were a quarter lower than today, making the Flint River so much less acidic. It’s easy to see how a mentally lazy, underfunded, political agenda driven leadership might not grasp the very obvious chemistry that led to this calamity and its cost in human misery they can never undo. After all, they’re paid by their campaign donors to deny CO2 causes any problems at all.

    How much phosphate would it have taken at 1953 CO2 levels to prevent uptake of heavy metals into Flint River water?

    Essentially zero.

    • John Burns

      the heavy metals aren’t in the river water. they are in the water supply lines leading in to the homes and business from the mains.

  • rickrabin

    The lead industry continued to sell and promote lead pipes for decades after they knew that lead pipes caused lead poisoning.

    • John Burns

      and the city building departments continued approving the installation of lead pipes

    • Larry

      I’ve never heard of lead water pipes. Lead is too soft under pressure. There used to be lead in solder used to join copper pipes. Lead has been used in waste pipes.

  • Clare Cheney

    I don’t understand why they can’t go back to purchasing the water they were purchasing before?
    NOTE: I guess they have gone back to the Detroit system. Still not sure why they are having some problems.

    • oldroadworker

      Because the Flint river corroded the pipes and switching back to Detroit water doesn’t fix the pipes, they already did switch back. This article is full of lies, Rick Snyder’s emergency manager made the switch, not Flint’s City Council!

  • KR Rayberry

    A couple other points I would have liked to hear about tin this article:

    1) How was the condition of the river water not known prior to the switch?
    2) Who has been in charge in the past X amount of years that got Flint into this situation in the first place?

    Bart_R’s comment below is interesting assuming it is correct.

  • Ella

    Quote: It may seem like this is deep in the weeds, but this is why it’s important: This is a major health crisis for the state, and it’s a crisis that is man-made. There’s no doubt that a series of actions all played a role in the elevated lead levels in the bloodstreams of some Flint children. When the governor’s own timeline says the ‘City of Flint decides to use the Flint River,’ it can’t be dismissed as shorthand for the truth. **The wording conflates an earlier city vote to transition from Detroit to the KWA with that of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager to use the Flint River as an interim source of water**.

    Another quote: It’s true that city officials voted in 2013 to switch to a new water supply when a new pipeline was completed in 2016. But more relevant is the documented evidence that the decision to use Flint River water in the interim was made by state-appointed emergency managers, not democratically elected city officials To cite the council vote without mentioning the state’s role in switching to Flint River water is a transparent attempt to deflect blame – and possible financial responsibility – for a man-made tragedy.

    Earley and Pscholka’s remarks also minimize the indisputable (and more damaging) role that state (and federal) officials played in failing to properly treat Flint River water, and in failing to more quickly make public evidence of rising lead levels.

    Both from

    I just think these “deep in the weeds” sorts of details are pretty vital, in that the simple statement about the city council voting to change to the KWA doesn’t really tell the story of how an Emergency Mgr — unconstitutional in spirit if nothing else — actually had control of the city when the change to the Flint River was made/decided/etc.