Congress closes Flint water investigation, as politicians continue to fail the city at every turn

On Friday, a Republican congressional committee officially closed the Flint water crisis investigation without finding anything that the public didn’t already know. Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote a letter to Congress saying, “The committee found significant problems at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and unacceptable delays in the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the crisis.” Well, duh.

The report not only fails to offer any new information about what happened or how to solve the problem, but essentially turns the Flint water crisis into a partisan issue and an attack on the EPA’s climate change efforts. Meanwhile, the water in Flint remains unsafe to drink.

Chaffetz said the committee found federal regulations are so “outdated” they set states “up to fail.” Republicans also recommended that the EPA take millions of dollars set aside for climate change to improve water infrastructure on a national level, although there is no reason besides politics that water safety and climate change efforts can’t c0-exist.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who’s also on the committee, responded by saying Michigan Governor Rick Snyder withheld key documents that would’ve helped the investigation, pinpointed exactly where those federal regulations started to help the state fail, and offer solutions. Sure, environmental agencies failed Flint in the response to the crisis, but lawmakers were failing the people of Flint long before the state of emergency was declared last December.

Flint, where the budget was more important than the people.

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CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

As far back as 2007, Flint was preparing to switch its emergency water source to the Flint River. In 2012, plans were made to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River and the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The city, where most residents are black and 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, was the only city in all of Gennesee County that would make the switch.

As a cost-cutting measure, the city made the switch official in April 2014. But long before that, the Flint River had contamination issues. The switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River was actually delayed in April 2014 because they were still working on a disinfectant system at the water treatment plant, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

In December 2015, after residents complained about the water and multiple “boil water advisories” from the city had been declared and subsequently lifted, the DWSD offered Flint an option to reconnect the city’s water to its supply. DWSD even waived a $4 million reconnection fee. But Flint officials declined, since the whole point was to save money and being connected to DWSD water would cost around $12 million each year. So, even as residents were getting sick, tests continued to reveal multiple contaminants, and even General Motors decided, as a private company, to buy water for its plants from the DWSD because Flint’s water was corroding parts (exactly what it was doing to the pipes running into residential homes), the city of Flint decided to “wait and see.”

Because the whole point of the switch was to save money, no one wanted to rush to conclusions (or costly solutions).

Water contamination happens, but Flint dropped the ball on treatment. 

All water supplies have some level of contamination, which is why we have water treatment plants. But they have to be regulated and managed properly. The city of Flint and the Michigan DEQ weren’t treating the water properly. The lead in Flint’s water comes from corroded pipes. Michigan Radio explains it best:

“Corrosion control treatment is what coats the inside of old lead pipes and plumbing, preventing water from corroding lead and other heavy metals from the pipes and getting into people’s tap water. Think of it like Pepto Bismol but for pipes.

After a year of back and forth — with competing test results about the levels of lead in the water from the EPA, the Michigan DEQ, and even researchers from Virginia Tech — Flint finally reconnected to DWSD in October 2015. But investigations reveal that as early as the time of the switch, the DEQ wasn’t treating the water properly and planned on “waiting a year” to get the right treatment down, according to Michigan Radio.

And instead of just copping to the problem or admitting that it really screwed up, as residents carried jugs of contaminated water to City Council meetings and pediatricians found elevated levels of lead in children’ blood streams, the government rushed and cut corners. City and state officials, including Governor Snyder, keep pointing to other agencies and defending their actions.

The EPA says the state took too long; the state says the EPA guidelines steered them wrong. The state blames President Obama for only declaring a state of emergency and not a disaster, which gave the state less federal money to resolve the problem. The Republican committee continued to do the same in the investigation closed Monday, concluding that the EPA (an agency Trump’s incoming administration finds wasteful) spending too much money on climate change and not enough on water infrastructure is about politics, not public service.

This is going on all over the place, and it won’t get any better.

The Guardian reports that there are 33 cities in 17 states that have used testing “cheats” when it comes to lead in water. In Corpus Christi, Texas, the city had three reports of shitty water before putting out an advisory (that has since been lifted) that residents not drink the water due to a chemical leak at an asphalt plant. Flint is not going to be the last we hear about contaminated water in cash-strapped cities. And by the way, Flint still doesn’t have clean water. As recent as November, Congress was just approving bottled water delivery to residents.

Now that the official congressional committee has blamed the EPA, the state can hold up the report and shirk responsibility instead of addressing the systemic issues within the state (and the actions of individuals) to resolve the issue. This will only get worse, as the incoming administration will be led by a businessman who cares about the bottom line and refuses to accept responsibility for anything. The culture of pointing fingers and partisan politics will likely get worse.

So, one more time, the residents of Flint are pawns in a political battle instead of being taken care of.