FEMA Doesn’t Care About Flint Water Crisis
There. I said it. It wouldn’t be the first time The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ignored a crisis in a poor, Black community. Or have we already forgotten about their lackluster handling of Hurricane Katrina? The definitive difference here is that we now have clear evidence of FEMA’s lack of action in a time of crisis. Specifically, a crisis of contaminated water. Or are FEMA’s hands tied in some way? I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. First, if you’ve been scrolling past anything that has Flint Water Crisis in the title for the last two years, I’m going to bring you up to speed in just a few minutes.
Here is how this whole mess started
In 2011, Rowe Professional Services, a local business in Flint, determined it would be more expensive to treat water from Flint’s river than treating lake water. In 2013, Flint’s city council voted to switch away from Detroit’s water supply (DWSD) to the Lake Huron sourced Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). Detroit accused Flint of trying to start a ‘water war’ and attempted to block the switch. When they failed, the State Treasurer, Andy Dillon approved the switch. Detroit attempted a final offer to keep Flint on their water supply. Flint declined.
The failures involved in the Flint water crisis are almost impossible to count. But here are the big ones.
#1. Detroit terminated Flint’s water supply agreement.
If Flint had remained on the Detroit water supply until the Lake Huron supply was ready, this entire situation could have been avoided. However, Detroit issued a twelve month termination of their agreement with Flint despite knowledge that the Lake Huron project would not be completed until at the earliest June 2016.
#2. Flint was forced to switch to the unsafe Flint River water until the Lake Huron supply was ready.
On April 25, 2014 Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River. The Flint River has always served as a backup supply despite the indication that was known in as early as 2011 that the water was unsafe and needed treatment. Complaints about the water’s taste, color, and odor were reported made shortly after the switch. However, it was not until four months later, in August that the city issued boil-water advisories due to coliform detection.
#3. Denial, misinformation, or good old fashioned lies?
A test on August 21, 2014 showed high levels of a byproduct of water disinfection called THMs. Long term exposure to these THMs has been linked to cancer and other diseases. And this is where the denial, misinformation, or lies begin to spiral out of control. In October 2014, A General Motors engine plant worries the Flint water treatment plan will corrode its machines and announces a plan to switch suppliers. By November 2014, testing in eight locations revealed only one that exceeded maximum contamination levels. Finally, on January, 2 2015, Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Flint responded swiftly, stating that the water in Flint was safe to drink on January, 6. Just four days after the violation is issued. Only three days after, on January, 9 the University of Michigan’s Flint campus finds that water samples taken on site are high in lead. Shortly after, Flint resident Lee Ann Walters finds lead in her water. Her child is diagnosed with lead poisoning soon after.
#4. Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to their water supply, including providing a $4 million waiver!
In February 2015, Jerry Ambrose, the new state appointed Flint emergency manager declined an offer from Detroit to reconnect to Detroit’s water supply. The offer also included a $4 million waiver of the connection fee. Jerry Ambrose declined, stating at the time that there was “no imminent threat to public health” and the problem was being “communicated poorly.”
#5. Multiple attempts to address the severity of the issue are either ignored or swept under the rug.
In June, the Coalition for Clean Water files a lawsuit to force a switch back to Detroit’s water supply and a judge rejects the proposal. Shortly after, a leaked memo from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mentions concern about the high lead levels in Flint’s water and actually confirms that federal regulators have not yet had the chance to “verify and assess” the extent of the issue. Keep in mind, this comes well over a year after reports of water contamination in Flint. contributed a water sample to a city report. Her sample is dropped from the study with officials stating that because she had a water filter, the lead content in her sample would have been lowered. In fact, it was proven to be the sample containing the most lead. Dropping the Walters sample and one other brings the Flint water supply within acceptable testing levels.
By September of 2015, outside researchers look for their own answers.
A Virginia Tech study showed high lead levels throughout the city of Flint. To illustrate exactly how toxic the water has become we have to understand lead toxicity. While no known lead content in water can be considered safe, the EPA limits lead in drinking water to fifteen parts per billion. Anything over 5,000 parts per billion is considered hazardous waste. Remember Lee Ann Walters? Water samples from her house registered as high as 13,200 parts per billion. Clearly there was a Flint water crisis now.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, considered by many to be the heroine of Flint’s water crisis, publishes her findings on September 24, 2015. She finds that the number of children with elevated blood-lead levels has nearly doubled since Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River in April 2014.
With their backs against the wall, Genesee County officials declare a public health emergency.
About a week after multiple independent researchers prove that Flint’s water is hazardous to the people, the city releases a lead advisory. Experts begin to declare that Flint lacked an approved corrosion control plan. The corrosion of pipes was caused by the harsh water treatment plans. As the pipes corroded, lead levels in the water increased.
Flint ends up right back where they started.
It is not until October 2015, a year and half after the switch to Flint River’s water, that Genesee County Health Department and United Way begin distributing water filters. Amidst growing public outrage, cornered by scientific findings, and finally forced into addressing the issue, Flint switches back to Detroit’s water supply. Flint officials say it will take weeks for Detroit water to flush Flint water out of the city’s water system.
At this point, it is still unknown how long it will take for lead levels to return to acceptable levels. These delayed efforts and unclear solutions are familiar to the residents of Flint by now. In the midst of the water crisis, Dayne Walling loses his seat as mayor to Karen Weaver. A class action lawsuit has also been filed against the state of Michigan and Flint’s government employees.
Nearly two years after switching to a contaminated water supply, Flint’s new Mayor issued an update to her “Fast Start” program. Operating under the assumption that the contaminated water supplies have been identified, crews will replace the lines at two houses a day if weather permits.
Where was the federal government during all of this? 99,000 people were instructed to drink contaminated water for a year and a half and the government did nothing to intervene.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should have been involved from the very beginning! At the very least, the moment studies proved the water was contaminated with lead FEMA should have swept in to save the people suffering from the Flint water crisis. But is that really what FEMA does???
Every year FEMA publishes the National Preparedness Report. It outlines all of the plans FEMA has and highlights its accomplishments in the previous year. As early as the 2012 National Preparedness Report, FEMA has boasted that “[the] Nation has developed a mature set of assets for addressing hazardous materials incidents.” In the same report, FEMA stated: “There are over 1,100 state and local hazmat response teams positioned throughout the country… Together, these teams provide hazmat response coverage to over 76 percent of the Nation’s population.”
A National Response System (NRS) already exists, consisting of 15 federal agencies that make up a National Response Team (NRT). The 2012 report also informs us that “approximately 98 percent of the U.S. population is within a 12-hour drive of one of these joint assets; these teams can also deploy via air and water routes” with Flint falling in one of most densely covered areas. A summary of an exercise that simulated a catastrophic earthquake details the ability of FEMA to procure as much as 21 million liters of water. To further illustrate exactly how capable we are as a nation to help a community without potable water we can review how Vermont responded to Tropical Storm Irene.
“Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont on August 28, 2011, damaging more than 500 miles of state highways and closing 34 state bridges. The resulting damage isolated 13 communities, forcing Vermont’s National Guard to airlift food and water.”
It’s hard to say how much water is actually needed for cooking and drinking for the 90,000 residents of Flint, MI. However, a few key facts that prove FEMA is more than capable of appropriately handling the Flint water crisis are available. For example, let’s look the 2015 National Preparedness Report published by FEMA which reviews the “45 major disasters” in 2014. On page four is our first indication that FEMA is equipped to respond to a contaminated water supply.
[Bold added for emphasis]
“A chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, resulted in a “do not use” order for residents of nine counties, affecting 300,000 people. For some residents, the order remained in place for more than a week. At the request of West Virginia officials, FEMA delivered more than 3 million liters of water to the region. In addition, a Laboratory Response Network laboratory tested 581 drinking water samples and provided Public Health Emergency Preparedness-funded epidemiology support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
So why is FEMA ignoring the Flint water crisis?
They’re not. In fact, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has requested assistance from FEMA just as West Virginia did. However, because the Flint water crisis was arguably caused by poor leadership and aging infrastructure, FEMA denied the request. And his appeal. It’s all in the fine print of FEMA’s duties. The Flint water crisis is considered a man made disaster and not a federal emergency. This limits the powers of FEMA to intervene from a legal perspective. So in the same way bureaucracy is passing around the buck of accountability for the Flint water crisis, it is actually preventing a capable federal department from stepping in to provide assistance.
This is the country we live in, folks. Don’t worry, though. The buck stops right over there.