Lucas Maiman: Flint in the age of unaccountability

Monday, October 30, 2017 - 4:49pm

Three and a half years ago, the city of Flint, Mich., switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. Now, 15 current and former state and local officials face criminal charges in connection with a 17-month-long investigation into the contamination of Flint’s water. 

While Gov. Rick Snyder has attempted to distance himself from what happened in Flint, evidence suggests that state-appointed managers played a pivotal role in switching the city’s water source. Similarly, Snyder and other government officials failed to act when it became clear that Flint’s water was poisoning its citizens.

But guess who is notably absent from that list of 15 government officials? Of course, the answer is Snyder.

Snyder’s lack of accountability is far from surprising. Is his getting a pass from Attorney General Bill Schuette appalling? Certainly. Disenchanting? Sure. But surprising? Well … hardly. Powerful men like Snyder are permitted to play under different rules. They behave with impunity. Their actions circumvent the same laws that check us. In a sense, they are treated like some of the banks during the financial crisis — “too big to fail.”

If any cycle of news demonstrates the pervasiveness of powerful men getting away with abhorrent conduct, it is this one. Just this month, The New York Times published an explosive investigation that revealed sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein dating back to 1990. Even more recently, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly reappeared in the news, with The New York Times reporting that 21st Century Fox, his employer, gave him a contract extension worth over $100 million even after learning of his payment to settle a $32 million sexual harassment case, at least his sixth such settlement since 2002.

Despite widespread knowledge of their “misdeeds,” these men flourished for decades. Challenging their power was risky even for powerful Hollywood A-list actors afraid of exposing Weinstein for fear of losing his patronage and costly for the Fox News Channel that benefitted handsomely from O’Reilly’s TV ratings.

In Flint, though, there is an opportunity for that script to be revised. While perhaps not as salacious as the Weinstein and O’Reilly cases, the Flint story preserves a similar spirit. People were unjustly injured, and the main aggressor has been allowed to avoid consequences. And, like those other cases, there appears to be a trove of evidence and testimony, if pursued by Schuette and federal prosecutors, that could hold Snyder accountable.

First, recall the studied ignorance that Snyder and his cronies exhibited when Flint residents began to complain about the water:

When fecal and total coliform bacteria were detected in August and September 2014, boil water advisories were put in place for less than a week. But when, in October 2014, a General Motors plant in Flint ceased using the water because it corroded car parts, Snyder arranged to hook GM back up to Lake Huron water, while keeping the people of Flint on Flint River water.

In January 2015, even after the state found that the level of disinfecting chemicals in the water exceeded the threshold set by the Safe Water Drinking Act, Flint’s water was deemed safe for the general population. Flint residents were left to drink and bathe in contaminated water from the Flint River.

Later the same month, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offered to reconnect Flint with Lake Huron water, waiving a $4 million fee to restore service. City officials declined, citing the increased costs they believed the new switch would bring. Three months later, Flint City Council members voted to stop using river water and reconnect with Detroit water. The state-appointed manager, Jerry Ambrose, however, overruled the vote. Of course, the public later learned the state government neglected to pay the $100 a day to add a federally mandated anti-corrosive element to seal the lead in Flint’s pipes.

The people of Flint now must pay a never-ending debt with their health.

Researchers from Virginia Tech tested 271 Flint homes and found that the 90th percentile level for lead was 27 parts per billion, grossly exceeding the 5 ppb minimum unsafe lead level. Lead levels this high can cause “cardiovascular problems, kidney damage and memory and neurological problems.” Another study published earlier this month found that the contaminated water caused the city’s fertility rates to decrease by 12 percent in women and fetal death rates to increase by 58 percent. And lead was not the only contaminant in the water. From June 2014 to October 2015, a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak sickened at least 91 people in the Flint area, killing 12 of them. 

Through all of this, Snyder has maintained his innocence. He claims that he did not know that lead in water was a problem until October 2015, yet emails show that Snyder’s top advisers asked him to switch Flint’s water supply back to Detroit water as early as October 2014.

Similarly, Snyder says that he was not made aware of the Legionnaires’ outbreak until January 2016 even though an aide testified he had told Snyder of the outbreak in December 2015.

Snyder, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who walked while top lieutenants were indicted for the Bridgegate scandal, seems poised to evade responsibility for the criminal negligence of his administration. While at least 15 officials under his watch have been charged, Snyder might have created enough “plausible deniability” to escape prosecution, despite his obvious role in and willful indifference to the water crisis.

Perhaps Schuette, who describes himself as a “fighter with the guts and the vision to write Michigan’s next chapter,” will have the courage and stamina to pursue his boss. But don’t count on it. He has his own political future to consider as he seeks to succeed Snyder. But then again, perhaps sensing the changing tide following the falls of Weinstein and O’Reilly, Schuette and others who have enabled and protected Snyder will belatedly find the courage to punish Snyder for the lives ruined in Flint.

Lucas Maiman can be reached at lmaiman@umich.edu.