THE SWITCH: A LOOK INTO FLINT

‘Infrastructure’ refers to the fundamental facilities provided to individuals by their government. Most American’s interact with federally funded infrastructure the moment they use their bathroom sink in the morning and on their commute to work, whether that be by bus, by car, or by train. The water pollution crisis of flint Michigan is a stark example of an infrastructure failure and the devastating effects on public health produced by such. In understanding the massive impact infrastructure failure has on those living below the poverty line the consequences of America’ decline in infrastructure investment become clear.

In 1983, Pat Choate and Susan Water published a book titled “America in Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure”. The book painted a detailed picture of the decline in infrastructure funding in the United States since the 1950s and the effects of such. The book incited public concern surrounding the United States’ decaying infrastructure as understood from the book’s unpacking decades of poorly maintained infrastructure paired with ominous photographs of abandoned public facilities across the nation.

This public concern was met with a reevaluation of infrastructure policy within the U.S. legislature and bore an explicit definition of “Public Works Infrastructure” as it related to the United States Government’s domain;

“ — both specific functional modes — highways, streets, roads, and bridges; mass transit; airports and airways; water supply and water resources; wastewater management; solid waste treatment and disposal; electric power generation and transmission; telecommunications; and hazardous waste management — and the combined system these modal elements comprise. A comprehension of infrastructure spans not only these public works facilities, but also the operating procedures, management practices, and development policies that interact together with the societal demand and the physical world to facilitate the transport of people and goods, provision of water for drinking and a variety of other uses, safe disposal o f society’s waste products, provision of energy where it is needed and transmission of information within and between communities.” (US National Research Council).

According to the Water Encyclopedia, “water supply infrastructure consicts of what is built to pump, divert, transport, store, treat, and deliver sake drinking water. In the United States this infrastructure consists of vast numbers of ground water wells, surface-water intakes, dams, reservoirs, storage tanks, drinking-water facilities, pipes, and aqueducts” (Water Encyclopedia). In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency, establishes drinking-water standards to be met by municipal water systems. While the EPA is the standard bearer for safe water, under the Safe Drinking Water Act state governments are mandated to “have programs to certify water system operators and make sure that new water systems have the technical, financial, and managerial capacity to provide safe drinking water” while the EPA has no mandate to provide funds or services to state governments in meeting these standards (EPA).

Public spending, or funding provided by the Federal, State or local governments, for water infrastructure falls largely on state and local governments. In 2014, “They provided $320 billion, and the federal government accounted for $96 billion” on transportation and water infrastructure (congressional budget office). Additionally, because funding for infrastructure falls predominately under discretionary spending on the federal budget it has been subject to caps that will remain I place since 2021. Even as the cost of infrastructure expenses rises, the federally allocated funding has remained fixed and places more strain on state and local governments to compensate for their own infrastructure needs.

While the scarcity of public infrastructure funding is a concern widely distributed throughout the country, lower income areas face additional strain when financing infrastructure projects and maintaining existing systems. Large cities that contribute considerably to the economy of their state have the advantage of leveraging their population size and economic output at the state level to gain financing in their area. Large cities are also often centers of commerce and can therefore levy sales taxes on both their residential population and their “day time population”, or the volume of individuals that work in a city during the day and live outside the city, that can effectively finance infrastructure projects.

Lower income areas rely significantly more on state funding for infrastructure because of their smaller role in the state economy and minimized tax revenues. The city of Flint, Michigan has been in considerable economic decline since the 1970s. Once a major hub of General Motors, the corporation employed over 40% of Flint’s population and most of flint’s economy surrounded the GM plant. When General Motors closed nearly all of it’s facilities in the city, Flint’s economy crashed. Unemployment was devastating for Flint families and thus commenced a mass exodus of Flint’s population in search for work.

Because of the drastic decline in Flint’s population, the economic conditions for Flint’s local businesses were dire and many buckled under them. “Between 2009 and 2013 41% of Flint’s residents lived below the poverty line, compared to the state average of 16.8%. A quarter of its families have an annual income of below $15,000 a year. The city’s child poverty rate of 66.5% is nearly 10 percentage points higher than Detroit’s”(MSNBC). The intersection of population decline and economic collapse in the city led to a sharp decrease in the city’s tax revenues and an increase in the city’s reliance on the State of Michigan to provide additional funding for public works infrastructure.

Until 2013, the city of Flint Michigan got its drinking water by paying the city of Detroit for use of their water resource. In an effort to discontinue Flint’s reliance on the city of Detroit for their water resource on March of 2013, city officials voted 7–1 to do two things:

1) Stop buying water from Detroit

2) Join the new Karegnogi Water Authority

(MLive April 6 2013)

The Karegnogi water authority was a project that would construct a new pipeline linking the city to Lake Huron and add $19 million over eight years. This was widely seen as a cost effective measure in providing Flint citizens with safe drinking water. The problem emerged in the fact that this move contained a two-year period between the discontinuation of Flint’s water contract with Detroit and the completion of the Lake Huron pipeline. The city officials did not vote on what measures should be taken during this interim period in which Flint would still need access to drinking water.

The City of Flint had been put under “emergency management” in 2011 under Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s Public Act 4. This status effectively removed all powers of Flint’s elected officials and gave them to an Emergency Manager, which was appointed by Governor Snyder. State officials were given the authority to “break collective bargaining agreements, privatize or sell public assets, and fire public officials” without ever being elected. While the placement of Flint under emergency management was a significant exertion of state power and an unexpected move in the eyes of its residents, the city’s economic devastation left it with little leverage in the state house. Flint was seen as a money pit from the state level and was incompatible with Governor Snyder’s conservative economic platform.

Flint’s emergency manager Ed Kurtz was appointed by Rick Snyder in 2012 and iwas given the mission of restructuring the city government of Flint to cut costs as the city was on the verge of insolvency. Ed Kurtz gained essentially all control of the city of flint

ED KURTZ

Ed Kurtz chose Jerry Ambrose to be the city’s chief financial officer who testified that in 2012, 16 months prior to his approval of the switch to Flint River as an interim water source, Ed Kurtz had considered the option of using Flint River as an alternative water source but upon discussing the proposal with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, rejected it. In a 2014 deposition Ambrose stated; “There was a brief evaluation of whether the city would be better off to simply use Flint River as its primary source of water over the long term. That was determined non feasible — the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality indicated they would not be supportive of the use of the Flint River on a long term basis as a primary source of water” (DailyBeast).

According to an assessment published by the Michigan Department of Natural resources in July 2001, the Flint River had been measurably impacted by “fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances” since the 1970s and named over 100 polluted sites along the Flint River watershed in need of “monitoring and cleanup” (MDNR).

“We thought it was a joke” said Rhonda Kelso, a longtime flint resident. After the switch residents immediately began to notice considerable differences with their water, Kelso continues, “The water would come in brown and my daughter was like ‘Mom…why is the water brown?’”(CNN). According to researchers from Virginia Tech the discoloration many residents reported was actually Iron, and the Flint River was highly corrosive “19 times more so than Lake Huron” (Flint Water Study).

The city of Flint was incorporated in 1855, when water mains were becoming commonplace among American cities. Even as the toxic properties of lead were emerging, until the mid 20th century the metal was ubiquitous in plumbing, and over half of the service lines in Flint are made of lead. In 1991 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule restricted lead levels in drinking water supplies and “Under this rule, additives were required to prevent corrosion on legacy pipes, the main source of contamination” (Fortune).

As reported by Fortune, Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor from Virginia Tech performed experiments demonstrating that because the water from Flint River was significantly more corrosive than that of Lake Huron the “reactions between the water and the pipes would create ideal conditions for the spread of pathogens”. When the move to switch to Flint River as a water source was made the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Human Services were warned by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official Miguel Del Toro that “they were putting Flint residents at risk by not instituting anti-corrosion safeguards for Flint River water”(Politifact). Still the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the Flint River water with an anti corrosive agent. In doing so they violated federal law and allowed the corrosive water to erode the service lines to Flint homes exposing residents to considerable amounts of lead.

Amidst hundreds of complaints surrounding the rusty color of the water, four months after the switch, the city detected E coli in the water. Schools began spending much needed funds on bottled water to prepare and wash all school food. In response, the city began treating the water with large amounts of chlorine. Flint resident Amber Hasan recalls a shower she took using the chlorinated water; “my eyes are burning in the shower and I was like ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going on?’ I get out of the shower and can’t see for a minute because my eyes are burning”(Michigan radio). During this period numerous other residents reporting severe and rapid hair loss.

The Environmental protection agency recommends that lead in drinking water should be below 15 parts per billion, and Flint’s water contained upwards of 150 parts per billion. While lead is toxic for both adults and children, young children are especially vulnerable to absorbing and retaining the chemical. In a study published by Flint’s Hurley medical center in 2015, it was reported that the proportion of infants and children with above average levels of lead in their blood nearly doubled since the city switched in 2014. Kidshealth.org lists a wide spectrum of symptoms regarding long-term lead exposure in kids: anemia, decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, speech and language problems, developmental delay, seizures, and unconsciousness. The World Health organization has childhood lead exposure labeled as a major public health concern and is believed to contribute to 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities every year world wide.

In the wake of charges being filed against several city officials involved in the lapses and cover-ups precipitating the water crisis, Ben Wolford of POLITICO conducted a poll of American mayors regarding infrastructure decay and spending. His findings revealed that “Nearly 1 in 3 American mayors think they may have already hurt their own citizens by making cost saving decisions on critical infrastructure”. His findings also revealed “More than a third of mayors said the next occupant of the White House should make infrastructure the top urban issue, ahead of even economic inequality and education”. This poll cites overwhelming consistency among mayors of both party affiliations, and that most local officials feel a lack of emphasis on infrastructure and a lack of funding for infrastructure from the federal government as they had in years past.

In the Hamilton Project’s May 2015 journal titled “Financing U.S. Transportation infrastructure in the 21st century” the degrading quality of American infrastructure is explored in depth. The journal shows the steady decline of federal infrastructure spending in the U.S. since 1956 and the mirrored decline in spending at the local levels of government. This decline in spending is also matched with a seemingly paradoxical attitude from both major parties that infrastructure be emphasized as a major concern in government.

The City of Flint never recovered from the loss of employment it suffered when GE cut down the number of their facilities in the city in the 1980s. The company employed 80,000 residents in the 70s and today just 5000. With the massive loss of employment nearly half of Flint’s residents moved out of the city; in 1965 the city had 200,000 residents, and a 2013 census report said the population had dropped below 100,000. This mass exodus caused devastating financial backlash on many of the local businesses as well, and precipitated overall economic collapse in the city. Among the insurmountable effects of the economic collapse were aging infrastructure and large plots of land left contaminated with hazardous chemicals left behind by industry leaving the city.

Ironically, following the switch to Flint River, a GE engine plant brought in semi-trucks full of water to replace the flint water supply. Spokesman for GM’s Flint operations, Tom Wickham explained; “So what happened was we had employees who were checking the parts and they noticed there’s something wrong here. There was some corrosion, some rust forming and they decided to wave the red flag.” GE even attempted to first treat the chlorinated water but it wasn’t effective enough. The project was pricey, or as Wickham put it “I don’t have that number and that’s not something we’d disclose, — what I was told at the time was, ‘it’s just a lot of money’”(MichiganRadio). Eight months after the switch GE officially changed its water supplier to Detroit; and as one of Flint’s largest water customers meant the city lost almost half a million dollars a year.

WHAT THE WATER DID TO GM’s PIPES

It was just one month after GE switched water suppliers that the city notified residents its water was in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The city have used too much chlorine in treating the water, so much so that its by-product Trihalomethane was present in the water at well above federally set levels. Long term exposure to Trihalomethane increases the risk of cancer and other health defects.

While GE had the financial capacity to fund a switch in their personal water supply, the majority of flint residents did not. Housing prices in the city have continued to plummet and as 62 year old Sandra Ballard said to the New York Times “It costs to move”. She also spoke of struggling to afford her current rent of $350 a month, “You’ve got to put first and last month’s rent down. Believe me I wish I could get out of here” (NYTIMES). Flint residents are already in a tough situation and the added medical costs many have endured as a product of the contaminated water have tightened belts even further.

The switch to Flint River as the water source was a decision motivated by cutting costs in the Flint City budget. Perhaps the move initially appeared to the several individuals who made the decision as an opportunity to gain money to reinvest into the city. The effects of the switch were the exact opposite. Not only has the state of Michigan had to delegate funding to the recovery of this crisis but federal spending has been required to service the error. The savings initially promised to the city officials is far gone and the economic situation in flint is even more dire.

The Hamilton project unpacks the benefits infrastructure investment could have in America. Overall, national well-being would increase with an increase in investment to infrastructure as eroding roadways have negative consequences on regional economies with traffic accidents and delays. Also considering the American economy in its current state, interests rates are lower than ever before and an infrastructure-based investment would have a guaranteed high return of capital. Incidences like Super storm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina point to instances where America’s aging infrastructure is exacerbated by a natural disaster and federal intervention and investment is hastily required.

Among the thousands of jobs lost through the financial crisis, the unemployment rate among construction workers 3% higher than the national average due the tightening of infrastructure spending. With the country’s manufacturing jobs steadily declining, infrastructure investment could precipitate economic growth by empowering the working class.

The water crisis of Flint Michigan is an example of an astounding infrastructure failure that impacted the lives of thousands of people. Children were exposed to lead. People died who should not have. The health effects of this infrastructure failure are devastating in themselves but also because of the fact that they could have been prevented.

When examining the water crisis in flint it is hard to dispel the notion that this poverty stricken area was left behind by its state government because of its status as a low-income area. The guidelines in the Safe Drinking Water Act articulate the standards of what safe drinking water is clearly. Decades worth of scientific research on the Flint river deemed it unfit for public consumption. After the switch to Flint River the water was moved through the pipes of Flint homes untreated. When attention was called to the poor quality of the water the state government responded by treating the water incorrectly and produced hazardous chemical waste in the water.

Had the families in Flint had the disposable income to finance the infrastructure project themselves perhaps this would not have occurred. Had the families in flint had the income to employ ivy league attorneys perhaps they could’ve fought the switch to flint river in the first place. If the families in Flint had higher socio economic status not only would they have been better equipped to combat the choices made by unelected officials in their city but perhaps they would look ahead with more hope than fear.

The families in Flint Michigan that hover around the poverty line look at the future with uncertainty. Parents look at their children that have been exposed to lead for years questioning whether they will need medical attention in the future. The families in flint Michigan cannot afford to finance long-term medical treatments if their children are impacted. The state of Michigan will likely have to make up for mistakes made by state officials in flint and provide financial assistance to families impacted by the water crisis years in the future.

The irony of the water crisis in Flint hinges on the fact that while all the choices involved in switching the city’s water source to flint river were made in the hopes of cutting costs in a city on the brink of insolvency they ended up creating a much more costly problem. Bringing the city of Flint safe water will be expensive both for the state of Michigan and the federal government. Providing necessary resources and medical attention for those impacted by the flint water crisis will be expensive.

While the final numerical amount of money will need to be spent in reversing the tragedy in Flint Michigan cannot be determined today, it will cost far more than the initial $19 million Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz expected to save in switching the city’s water source to the flint river. It is clear that minimizing costs in an economically unviable city motivated state officials in Michigan to neglect proper water infrastructure protocol. As the cost of infrastructure materials rise and federally allocated funds remain fixed state officials seem to be given an impossible task.

With federal infrastructure investment being a massive job provider and sustainable investment opportunity the current caps on infrastructure funding in the federal budget appear to be counterproductive on nearly every level. In the flint water crisis we can see that the first individuals to feel the wrath of the decline in infrastructure spending are those living below the poverty line. The flint water crisis is an example of America’s decline in infrastructure spending creating much more expensive problems.

WORKS CITED

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