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Task force: Flint water crisis was "environmental injustice," and the state is to blame

Mar 23, 2016

Task Force Co-Chair Chris Kolb and Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) listen as the report is presented
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

The Flint Water Advisory Task Force released its final report after a five-month investigation into the Flint water crisis, and according to co-chair Ken Sikkema, “It doesn’t paint a very pretty picture about certain state agencies, and even local agencies.”

After interviewing 63 people and reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents, the five-member independent task force released its findings and made recommendations.

Sikkema, a former state Senate majority leader, joined Stateside to talk about the report and the changes he hopes to see as a result.

So, who is to blame for the poisoning of Flint’s water supply?
 

By having an emergency manager that has virtually dictatorial control over a city, you lose the checks and balances that representative government provides

“It’s our judgment that the primary agency responsible for what happened in Flint is the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” said Sikkema.

“But on top of that, state-appointed emergency managers were running the city at the time, so it’s really that combination of those two that drove us to our finding that the state is primarily accountable.”  

Sikkema said the report was more public policy-focused and not intended to find criminal or financial liability. The goal was to find out what went wrong and to make recommendations to avoid a situation like this from happening again.

Among the task force's recommendations is a “cultural change” at the MDEQ and improved communication and data gathering with the governor’s office. One significant recommendation called for a thorough review of the state’s controversial emergency manager law.

The report cites three major deficiencies with the law.

"By having an emergency manager that has virtually dictatorial control over a city, you lose the checks and balances that representative government provides," said Sikkema. "The emergency manager law system in Michigan doesn’t really give these emergency managers much support when it comes to the non-financial aspects of running a city. And people lose their voice when you basically strip locally elected officials from any power, so there needs to be a more structured way to ensure their voices are heard."

The task force felt very strongly that not only was Flint a case of environmental injustice, but we need to expand that dialog throughout the state

“You don’t have to eliminate the emergency manager law,” he added. “You’ve got to deal with cities that are distressed financially, so you’re going to need some form of state receivership.”

One of Sikkema’s takeaways from the report was that Flint was an example of environmental injustice.

“There’s a lack of understanding in many parts of the state of what environmental justice is and what it isn’t,” said Sikkema. “Because it isn’t about racist intent or deliberately violating people’s civil rights. It’s really about equal treatment and citizen voices having meaningful impact on decision-making in government. And in both cases, they both lacked in Flint. The task force felt very strongly that not only was Flint a case of environmental injustice, but we need to expand that dialog throughout the state.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the report, as well as the task force’s recommendation to investigate the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).

You can read the full report from the Flint Water Advisory Task Force here.