Break it Down: A Water Emergency in Flint, MI

Posted on January 27, 2016

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January’s Topic: Concerns and Considerations for Local Gov Preparedness

Case Study: Flint, Michigan’s Water Crisis

Sean Jacobs, MPA

Sean Jacobs, Local Government Management Professional, Connect – LinkedIn

Residents of Flint, Michigan are facing an unprecedented water crisis as their sinks, bathtubs, and water hoses have been gushing lead-contaminated water for more than one year. First identified in 2014, and now, 16 months later, Flint water is still considered safe to use.

Why is lead-contaminated water a problem?

Lead poisoning is entirely preventable which is alarming in the case of Flint, Michigan. Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust. Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure, and significant public health problems in many parts of the world. (Source: The World Health Organization, WHO). Read more about the dangers of lead.

How did Flint’s lead contamination water problem occur? 

Between 2011 and 2015, Flint was in receivership, with city finances controlled by a series of four emergency managers appointed by Governor Snyder. Flint Emergency Manager, Ed Kurtz, and City Financial Manager, Jerry Ambrose, were focused on restructuring Flint’s city government to cut costs.

In 2013, the Flint city council voted to switch their water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the new $233 million Lake Huron-sourced Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The switch was approved by the Flint emergency manager.

In 2014, the City began tapping the polluted Flint River for water to cut costs instead of using Detroit’s supply from Lake Huron.

For months, nearly 100,000 residents may have been exposed to elevated lead levels in the Flint’s water.

Flint Director of Public Works told Michigan’s ACLU that the decision to use the corrosive water came directly from Snyder’s office. In an interview with the ACLU, Croft stated that the decision to go against the State of Michigan’s Environmental Department’s warning was financially motivated and that responsibility led “all the way to the governor’s office.”

Almost two years later, the Flint mayor says the local government is facing $1.5 billion in costs to fix the problem.

How is the responsiveness?

President Obama has declared a state of emergency, lawsuits have been filed, and federal agencies are investigating who’s at fault. Sunday afternoon, 01-24-2016, about 30 militia supporters clothed in camouflage gear and bearing “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, protested outside of Flint’s City Hall to demand accountability amid a national discussion over how the city’s water supply became contaminated. Volunteerism: Rock Band, Pearl Jam, donating $300,000 to the cause and Cher donated 180,000 bottles of water distributed in Flint.


The World Health Organization (WHO) found similarities between Flint, Michigan and Kabwe, Zambia which are the following:

  • Both once bustling industrial hubs, one depends on the auto industry and the other on mining;
  • Both abandoned by the industries which once sustained them.
  • When industry declined, Flint and Kabwe were hit with a series of bad decisions, a lack of attention, and environmental injustice.

Now, both Flint and Kabwe need the world’s attention to clear up a mess.

Anyone found to have knowledge and disseminated the Flint River Water instead of the City of Detroit’s Lake Huron must be criminally prosecuted, sentenced to life in prison without parole, and preferably, the death penalty. There is zero justification for not having clean water in a community. Ranking financial cost savings as more important than the quality of life through quality drinking water endangers local residents’ and local businesses’ quality of life and murders people through. Elected officials along with appointed staff and commission members, local residents, local businesses, and other stakeholders and voices “must leave their egos at the door.”

Put yourself in your local community’s shoes. Would the Governor and Mayor drink the same lead contaminated water? If yes, then that is a lie. It eliminates the public’s trust and makes it critical for elected officials to be legally bound to a code of ethics like professional staff and appointed, commissioned members.

Supplemental Reading:

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