There’s good news: The City of Flint, Michigan, could soon reconnect to the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, a water source that doesn’t leach lead from aging pipes into the municipal water supply.
And there’s bad news: Three Flint elementary schools have water with lead levels more than 15 parts per billion, which is the limit according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. At one school, Freeman Elementary, water tests found lead levels of 101 ppb. Add this to months of data showing elevated lead levels in homes across Flint, and a higher percentage of children with elevated blood-lead levels.
Lead poisoning causes behavioral and developmental problems in children. It is irreversible. Pregnant women and children are most vulnerable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no acceptable level of lead exposure.
And in at least three Flint schools, children have been drinking lead-contaminated water for up to 16 months.
Sixteen months, as Flint residents told the state again and again that their water wasn’t right. Sixteen months, as independent researchers meticulously documented rising lead levels in water and in the blood of Flint children. Sixteen months, as the state worked to disparage and discredit the work of respected scientists, even as its own data supported those findings.
At a press conference, Gov. Rick Snyder appeared chastened.
Snyder appoints the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the agency charged with ensuring that drinking water throughout our state is safe.
In Flint, it failed.
Flint’s decisions first to join a new regional water authority, and then to pump water from the Flint River _ ending a decades-long relationship with Detroit’s system — were made while Flint was under state oversight, during the tenure of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager charged with balancing Flint’s budget. That system is justified by the governor’s constitutional responsibility to attend to the health and wellness of all Michiganders.
In Flint, he failed.
This newspaper twice endorsed Snyder for governor, albeit with grave reservations. But because of the relative weakness of his opponents, the leadership he displayed in resolving Detroit’s protracted financial crisis and our hope that he would use his business acumen to ensure that government better served people, he narrowly won our endorsement.
Last year, in a detailed analysis of Snyder’s record, this editorial board expressed our dissatisfaction about Snyder’s first term: “The governor balanced the budget at the expense of cities and school districts. His disdain for politics is inappropriate in the state’s chief politician; his deficiencies as a deal-maker have sometimes resulted in terrible consequences for Michiganders.”
This, we wrote, was Snyder’s most profound flaw: “He has got to see people, not sums, as the bottom line of the state balance sheet.”
We wrote that he rarely exhibited strong, decisive leadership, that he must “grow into a more sure-footed, principled leader.” That we were fearful of what Snyder’s second term could hold.
Snyder defended the state’s decisions, saying it had followed EPA and MDEQ testing protocols. The state did the minimum required, his responses implied. Why should it have to do more?
This is what Snyder does not understand. To lead a state, accountancy is not sufficient. To lead a state, a balanced budget is not sufficient. To lead a state, doing only what is required is not sufficient.
The modern vogue for paring services and cutting budgets is an insidious misunderstanding of the foundations of government. Fiscal conservationism is correct to suggest that government should recognize the value of a dollar. But it is absolutely incorrect when it considers the value of a dollar more significant than other values. A dollar saved at the expense of public safety. A dollar saved at the expense of Flint’s children. A dollar saved at the expense of the public trust. These are equations that can never balance.
At this math, Snyder has consistently failed.
When Flint began to pump river water, it opted not to add a chemical that would have created a film inside its aging service pipes, preventing lead from entering the water. MDEQ signed off on that plan. Snyder’s representatives have said both decisions were in progress before Flint’s emergency managers were appointed, belying the reality of an emergency manager’s broad authority in the city he or she is charged to lead.
That Flint has aging service lines with lead materials shouldn’t have been a surprise. That Flint would need to treat the water it pumped to ensure it could flow safely through those lines shouldn’t have been at issue.
Here is all we can surmise: Pumping Flint River water saved money. And that, as they say, was that.
Snyder says that his team will issue an “after action report,” with recommendations about how things could have been done differently. This is a necessary step and should be conducted by a team with sufficient independence from Snyder’s office _ and the MDEQ _ to reach impartial conclusions.
Snyder has asked the Michigan Legislature to contribute $6 million of the $12 million it will cost Flint to purchase its water from Detroit. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the city itself will cover the remaining costs. The transition could be complete within two weeks. We applaud the Mott Foundation for its contribution and urge the Legislature to approve its portion of the funds required without delay.
Snyder and other officials have said Flint will continue to work to replace lead service lines. This is necessary work. The state has devoted $1 million to pay for water filters for Flint residents, another helpful measure.
People. Not sums.
Thus endeth the lesson. It is one our government should not forget. It is one Flint’s children can’t forget.