The Poisoning of a Populace | Sara Christiansen

Residents of Flint, Michigan must feel as Samuel Taylor Coleridge did when he wrote, “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” After floating in a sea of governmental apathy, manipulation and cover-ups for nearly two years, the truth revealed to Flint residents through Freedom of Information Act requests must taste like a tall drink of clean, refreshing untainted water.

Issues first started in 2013 when Gov. Rick Snyder (R) appointed a series of
emergency managers to oversee the city of Flint’s receivership. As a cost-savings measure, the Flint City Council voted in March 2013 to cancel the city’s partnership with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, which obtained water from Lake Huron, in lieu of local water acquisition from the nearby Flint River. Mark Kurtz served as emergency manager, at the time. In April 2014, Kurtz’s successor, Darnell Earley, presided over the measure in what city officials believed would provide sustenance for near-depleted financial coffers.

Photo of protesters
Activists mark the one year anniversary of the switch to Flint River water by marching in the streets of Flint on April 25, 2015. Photograph: Sam Owens/AP

In spite of initial complaints from city residents that their newly acquired tap water smelled and tasted different than it used to, public concerns were deemed“crazy” by local officials. In fact, Earley’s successor, Jerry Ambrose, vehemently opposed any consideration to return to the city’s previous partnership with Detroit, arguing that the current arrangement provided annual savings of $12 million.

Not long after the Flint River became the city’s sole source of water, residents began experiencing a wide variety of maladies. Long-time Flint resident Ida Nappier is one of many who reported hair and eyelash losses and repeated bouts of diarrhea followed by dehydration. Eventual testing performed by health department officials inevitably showed dangerous levels of E. coli in the water supply causing officials to issue warnings for residents to boil water before drinking it. Citizenry were also cautioned to avoid the use of tap water when washing food or dishes and brushing teeth.

City officials responded by elevating the levels of chlorine in the public water supply to ward off the presence of E. coli bacterium – resulting in little-evidenced improvement, and many preventable dangers.

In January 2015, residents were notified that high levels of trihalomethanes or THMs were discovered in the city’s water supply. THMs often exist as a by-product of excessive chlorination. Serious health risks have been linked to increased THM levels, including kidney and liver failure, cancer and birth defects. Findings reveal that officials knew about these inflated levels as early as May 2014, but waited eight months to notify residents of the same. In some instances, THM levels were twice the maximum allowed under EPA standards.

Even more alarming than the issues of hair loss, rashes, E. coli and THMs is the unnerving leaching of lead into the public water supply – inevitably causing wide-scale lead poisoning of an entire populace.

While the Detroit Water and Sewage Department treated its water with orthophosphate, Flint city did nothing of the kind. Orthophosphate serves as an anti-corrosive that coats the pipes it passes through – thereby preventing any lead seepage into the water. Without any inhibitors, lead from the city’s ancient pipes flowed freely into city water.

Worse yet, the Flint River has eight times the level of chloride that Lake Huron did. Chloride, itself, is highly corrosive to metals – thereby exacerbating the potential for disaster as the untreated water flowed freely into the homes of Flint residents.

Small samplings of stories detailing the effects of the lead-laced water supply include:

Photo of different bottles of colored water
Water samples from a Flint, Mich. home. The bottles were collected, from left, on Jan. 15 (2), Jan. 16 and Jan. 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org.

Freedom of Information Act requests issued by the Flint Journal-MLive found that the city strategically tested homes without lead pipes while conducting early studies aimed at proving the safety of the public water system. FOIA reports revealed that only eight of 68 households tested had lead pipes– thereby tainting the study’s neutral sampling.

For Virginia Tech civil engineering professor, Marc Edwards, this situation sounded all too familiar. In 2005, Edwards – himself, an expert on drinking water safety – filed several Freedom of Information Act requests with Washington, D.C. authorities that helped him dig deeper into the CDC’s claim that city drinking water was unaffected by transmission through rusted pipes.

In the D.C. case, information from Edwards’ FOIA requests revealed CDC emails noting that children tested for high blood lead levels had been drinking bottled water before blood draws. Such skewed data did not present accurate findings concerning the blood lead levels which can drop slightly with decreased exposure. In 2009, Edwards published reports with properly gathered data evidencing dangerously high blood lead levels in D.C. children.

After learning that an EPA official’s leaked memo regarding the dangerously high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water had been dismissed by city officials, Edwards stepped onto the Michigan scene to repeat measures he’d taken in DC, back in 2005.

Edwards’ first step was to compile a team of Virginia Tech colleagues and on-ground volunteers to conduct water samplings from the homes of Flint residents. After finding near hazardous-waste levels of lead in the public water sampled, Edwards confronted state officials, requesting intervention. Seemingly uninterested in Edwards’ findings, Michigan state officials dismissed his original results.

Without hesitation, Edwards issued FOIA applications for internal documentation of governmental records and correspondence. While Michigan is one of only two states in the nation that affords a partial FOIA exemption to the governor’s office, Edwards was still able to uncover startling findings. Communications revealed to Edwards provided evidence that all levels of government – federal, state and local – were complicit in downplaying health concerns surrounding lead transference from the city’s water supply to the homes and bodies of all those who drank or bathed in it.

FOIA requests from Edwards and others revealed:

  • The administrator of the regional EPA office, Susan Hedman, sent a July 2014 email to then-Mayor Dayne Walling indicating that a leaked EPA memo “should not have been released outside the agency.” The memo, written by Miguel del Toral, concerned his initial findings surrounding Flint. “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment. The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint.”
  • A Sept. 2015 email from Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, revealed that the governor’s office believe the water crisis had become politicized. “The DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and DCH (Department of Community Health) feel that some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football,” wrote Muchmore.
  • Former DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel notified Snyder’s director of urban initiatives, Harvey Hollis, and Dan Wyant, DEQ director, on March 13, 2015, of an increase in Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area. “More than 40 cases reported since last April,” noted Wurfel in the mailing. “That’s a significant uptick. More than all the cases reported in the last five years or more combined,” wrote Wurfel. Altogether, nine deaths resulted from the 87 cases of Legionnaires that occurred across Genessee County during a 17-month interval. The public was never informed.

Feb 5(2) 2016

New findings surrounding this water crisis are likely to be revealed for decades to come, as the effects of this lead exposure manifest themselves in Flint residents, themselves – both past and present. This problem didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed tomorrow. Thanks to the FOIA, those affected may eventually learn who knew what and when now that they know why and how.

Small solace to those who’ll have to live with the health issues surrounding this nightmare. As pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha put it, “This poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable.”