City of Flint, Michigan water, filter distribution, and sample turn-in, in October 2016. USDA photo by Lance Cheung
Congress’s Flint nightmare ended last Friday, when the U.S. House Oversights and Government Reform committee closed its yearlong investigation into the city’s contaminated drinking water disaster. The committee’s assessment: the federal Environmental Protection Agency is to blame more than Michigan’s own leaders.
I’m quite sure Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is breathing a sigh of relief.
In his letter to the House Appropriations Committee closing the investigation, Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, found that the “federal regulatory framework is so outdated that it sets up states to fail.”
“Congress put EPA in this role as a backstop in the event that a state or territory failed to provide safe drinking water,” Chaffetz wrote. “In this case, however, even the federal safeguard failed Flint’s residents.”
“Flint’s city council was in a state of dysfunction. A former councilman who resigned in December 2015 after serving a decade on the council stated, ‘Chaos is not an effective governing style, and Flint is a shining example of that.’”
No, that’s it. The end.
Snyder’s glacial governance during the early stages of the crisis drew slings and arrows—and calls for his impeachment, even by fellow Republicans, from across the country. But that was then.
The year 2016 began with unseemly personal attacks that threatened to unravel the GOP. It ended with the party controlling the federal executive and legislative branches, thirty-two state legislatures, and thirty-three governorships. The GOP commands both the legislative and executive branches in twenty-four states.
The winning team is in a forgiving mood. Not only has the GOP re-embraced the Reagan Maxim that conservatives don’t eat their own, they’re going out of their way to spread the love downstream.
Chaffetz’s letter casts Snyder as a victim—forced to take over a bleak city with corrupt officials, bamboozled by low-level lackeys, and blocked by byzantine federal water regulations.
Despite these obstacles, Chaffetz contends, the governor has introduced “the world’s toughest” lead and copper rule. The state of Michigan also gets credit for indicting thirteen current or former state and local employees, including two emergency managers appointed by Snyder.
“Unlike Michigan, the EPA and the federal government have taken no action against the people responsible for the crisis,” Chaffetz wrote.
Protecting the governor from fallout after the state’s cheap-water policy poisoned Flint residents shows that what’s foul is fair when it comes to the most powerful. It’s an abuse of trust that Flint’s residents have seen before.
In fact, the problem with Flint’s water supply didn’t begin in 2014. Nope, it dates back to the 1930s, when pollutants lowered the oxygen level and killed off fish.
In 1960, the Michigan Water Resource Commission cited Flint for unlawful pollution of the river by commercial and industrial firms, including the city’s largest employer, General Motors.
In 1964, the U.S. Geological Survey noted “high levels of chloride in the river, which often comes from road salt,” the Detroit Free Press reported last January. By 1967, Flint decided to buy its water from Detroit, thus reducing the impetus to clean the Flint River.
And then, in 2014, following plant closures, falling tax revenue, and local government malfeasance, Flint was placed under state control. In a cost-saving move, the unelected manager pushed the city back to Flint River water. The water treatment system was inadequate and the failure poisoned Flint’s overwhelmingly poor and working-class residents. Children are especially susceptible to the long-term effects of lead poisoning.
And Flint is not alone. EPA data shows that 1,400 water systems around the country exceeded lead standards in the last three years. “The EPA estimates that roughly $384 billion is needed to replace and secure America’s drinking water infrastructure,” Chaffetz noted in his letter.
And now, the new President is in the process of placing this nation’s environmental protection in the hands of people who equate safeguards as an impediment to progress and profits.
What could go wrong?
Fredrick McKissack is a former Progressive associate editor, and a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.