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We need a thorough investigation into how the Snyder administration handled the Flint water crisis

Oct 9, 2015

When I learned the governor had reversed himself and was willing to help reconnect Flint to Detroit water, what first popped into my head was what Gerald Ford said the day Richard Nixon resigned and he became President.

He told us the system worked, and we were “a government of laws, not men.”

Well, you might say that what happened yesterday showed that our democracy works, that journalists and outraged citizens forced the state to reverse course.

The Snyder administration was betting nobody would much care about rundown, wretchedly poor Flint, and treated it with scarcely veiled contempt.

There is truth in that.

The Snyder administration was betting nobody would much care about rundown, wretchedly poor Flint, and treated it with scarcely veiled contempt.

Jerry Ambrose, the Snyder-appointed emergency manager, switched the city to Flint River water to save money.

When residents complained that the water tasted and smelled bad, Ambrose ignored them. When Flint city council voted in March to return to Detroit water, Ambrose called that “incomprehensible,” and issued his now-infamous statement:

“Water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.” - Jerry Ambrose, former state-appointed emergency manager for Flint

There was already plenty of evidence this wasn’t true.

General Motors had stopped using Flint River water at its local engine plant because of fears it was corroding the metal. We now know it was also corroding old pipes and leaching lead into some people’s drinking water.

Soon, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report indicated there might be lead in the water. But the state pooh-poohed this.

Brad Wurfel, the spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, told Michigan Radio three months ago:

“Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water can relax.” - Brad Wurfel, MDEQ Spokesperson

This, however, was horse exhaust.

Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter working with the American Civil Liberties Union, knew better.

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech, got a grant from the National Science Foundation to pay for a more comprehensive testing program.

Those tests revealed significant and dangerously heightened lead levels.

Residents erupted in outrage.

First, the Snyder administration tried to hush this up by giving water filters to inner-city pastors to distribute.

Then, a week ago, Snyder announced a paltry million-dollar program, mainly to distribute more filters, but the crisis could not be contained.

So yesterday, the governor announced that returning to Detroit water was the right thing to do.

While some rejoiced, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, who is from Flint, cautioned that this was not a “victory for our community, but a fix that is unfortunately necessary.”

The state wants the impoverished city of Flint to pay $2 million of the $12 million needed to buy Detroit water until a new system is ready.

And he and others denounced a final bit of outrage:

The state wants the impoverished city of Flint to pay $2 million of the $12 million needed to buy Detroit water until a new system is ready.

If you think this story is limited to Flint, think again.

Water tests at schools raised the possibility that there may be lead contamination in other cities.

One thing is clear:  There needs to be a thorough investigation of how the state handled this crisis. Even Snyder said he supports an “after-action report.”

The question is, how thorough will it be?

Brad Wurfel, the MDEQ spokesman who gave out misleading information, is the husband of Snyder’s press secretary, a situation awkward at best.

Yogi Berra, who died last month, is remembered for saying it isn’t over till it’s over.

My guess is that this saga still has a long way to go.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.