Michael Swartz / January 22, 2016

Flint’s Murky Political Water

Democrats and Republicans blame each other for government failure.

If not for Detroit, its close cousin about an hour south, the city of Flint, Michigan, would be the epitome of the Rust Belt. A city that has lost over half its population in the last half-decade or so as manufacturing abandoned it for greener pastures, it’s now in the news as a city with a water supply so fouled that residents are being sickened with a slow drip of lead poisoning from its corroding, ancient network of water pipes.

To hear the national media tell the story, you would think it was a racial issue: Mostly poor, minority residents of Flint were ignored and abused by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder’s mea culpa came earlier this week, as he admitted, “Government failed you … by breaking the trust you place in us.”

However, this is just the manifestation of issues that started long before Snyder took office in 2011. For many years the city of Flint was happy to purchase its water from the city of Detroit, which piped a steady and safe supply to the city — for a fee, of course. As a cost-saving measure, Flint opted to build its own pipeline to nearby Lake Huron, but that project is still under construction. In the interim, Detroit stopped sending water to Flint, so the city decided to tap into the polluted Flint River. The poorly treated river water corroded the antiquated pipe network, forcing citizens to either resort to bottled water or take their chances. Unfortunately, many people are exhibiting symptoms of lead exposure.

So why was Flint’s infrastructure in such bad shape? For starters, according to The Wall Street Journal, “Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.” Combine that with the industrial abandonment of the city and it’s no surprise that the tax base is insufficient to keep up the city’s infrastructure.

Once the switch was made to water from the Flint River, the complaints began almost immediately. Local officials assured residents all would be fine, but eventually both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the federal EPA became involved. That tug-of-war lasted several months, with both sides knowing Flint’s water was unsafe but arguing over the next steps. This inaction and the national fallout over the situation has led to this week’s resignation of the EPA regional administrator.

But because Flint and the state of Michigan are governed by opposite parties, the blame seems to be cast on whoever occupies the opposite side. Federal and local officials are saying MDEQ (and, by extension, Governor Snyder) are at fault, while the state blames the Obama EPA for dragging its feet. Even the completion of the new pipeline from Lake Huron may not completely solve the problem since it’s the city’s system that has these issues. To completely eliminate the problem would take years and billions of dollars to replace piping, and Flint is in no position to do so despite federal and state infusions of cash thanks to this crisis.

So once again people suffer as another story is logged in the annals of inept government.

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