No, Gov. Snyder, Flint’s water wasn’t poisoned by “Government”: It was by your Appointee

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Perhaps it is inevitable but it is a shame that some people are gaming out how to profit politically from the lead poisoning of the children of Flint, Michigan (pop. 99,000). In the state capital, the Establishment is trying to blame the crisis on “government” or “bureaucracy,” to reinforce the Reaganite message that government is the problem, not the solution.

In his state of the state address, Gov. Rick Snyder said that the people of Flint had been let down by their government at all levels, city, state and Federal. State workers were furious, perceiving that the governor had in effect blamed them for the debacle.

In fact, Flint’s water had been fine under non-colonial, elected government. It was supplied by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department from Lake Huron and was treated.

But Snyder’s rather arrogant state government delights in using the prerogative established in Michigan law to take over a city and set aside its elected officials. In highly racially segregated Michigan society, this measure typically entailed white politicians from the center and west of the state appointing mini-dictators to take over cities with a big African-American and working class population, with the Victorian implication that the latter couldn’t properly govern themselves. [By 2013 half of Michigan’s African-Americans lived under an appointed Emergency Manager.]

So Snyder staged a coup in Flint and appointed a city caretaker,or Emergency Manager, one Ed Kurtz, depriving the citizens of their voting rights. And Snyder’s appointee decided that a little money could be saved by switching the city’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Dept. to the local Flint River. DWSD complained bitterly about Kurtz setting the two cities against one another. [The decision was implemented by Kurtz’s successor as EM.)

[Emails just released admit that the decision was ultimately signed off on by then State treasurer Andy Dillon, but I can’t imagine he initiated the policy:


Flint River is full of highly corrosive chemicals and would have needed to have a purification plant operating for it to supply safe tap water. But since the whole policy was to save money, the small amount needed to put in water purification was not spent for that purpose. When the corrosive waters of the Flint River flowed through the city’s old, lead pipes, they ate into the pipes and released lead into the drinking water.

It is really bad to drink a lot of lead. It is especially bad for children. It can affect intelligence, cognition, self-control– for the rest of their lives.

Even when evidence began getting back to the state that there were high levels of lead in the bloodstreams of Flint children, nothing was done, what with all the money being saved on water and all. [The Emergency Manager called a Flint city council vote to go back to Detroit-provided water “incomprehensible”]

So this is a story of arrogance and then stonewalling and foot-dragging. It is a story of how democracy was set aside in favor of a kind of colonialism, where the governor appoints an unelected viceroy. It is a story of how technocrats from Lansing thought they knew what was best for locals. It is a story of Neoliberalism, of exalting the market as a golden calf that must be worshiped even if the people have to be sacrificed to it. Reducing the cost of government by appeal to market ways of saving money has been taken to the point where it sickens the people being governed; they just aren’t the important element of this equation.

But what is really interesting is the language around these dire mistakes. Many news reports have said with a straight face that “the city” of Flint switched the source of water to the Flint River. But while the Flint mayor went along with the Emergency Manager, it was Kurtz who was the decision-maker here.

The “city” of Flint had been overthrown in a coup and wasn’t in a position to make such decisions.

Then in his address, Gov. Snyder said that Flint had been failed by “government.”

But “government” did not make the decisions here. Snyder’s appointee did. Elected
government of a local sort was abrogated by Snyder. Now he is blaming “government” for doing a bad job.

Government in fact generally does a good job, and is as efficient or more than most large corporations. Moreover, unlike the private sphere, government is typically responsive to the voters. Except where it has been set aside.

The GOP in Lansing is therefore trying to spin their own mistakes as the mistakes of ‘big government’ or of ‘the bureaucracy:’

“Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Olive Township, used the speech as an opportunity to push for government reforms, saying in a prepared statement released after Snyder’s speech, “Bloated, unresponsive bureaucracy does not meet the needs of our citizens.”

Senator Meekhof needs to understand that Flint needs more and better government now, not less. The city’s pipes have to be re-done. And its children will need special medical care and education measures for years.

What Flint needed was not a slimmer government but the right to make its own decisions via its own elections. Government was not the problem– the penny-pinching of an appointed viceroy was the problem.

Government *can* be the solution to some problems, and must be in this instance.


Related video:

RT America: “Blame game in Michigan: Flint officials try to manage water crisis”

32 Responses

  1. “………Snyder’s rather arrogant state government… delights to take over a city……..”

    In fact, residents of a municipality or its city council may initiate the process for state financial review under the emergency manager law.

    In the City of Hamtramck, its City Council requested the governor appoint an emergency manager. The reason for this is that the emergency manager may invalidate collective bargaining agreements negotiated by public service unions and save the municipality millions of dollars per annum; this was the impetus for the Hamtramck City Council in requesting an emergency manger to take over operation of its government.

    “….this measure typically entailed white politicians from the west and center of the state being appointed by the white, Republican governor to take over cities with a big African-American and working class population…….”

    This is incorrect.

    The City of Hamtramck is about 13% black and has a white mayor, but had an African-American appointed as emergency manager, Cathy Square, who served for about 18 months.

    Detroit has had a black emergency manager – Kevyn Orr.

    Benton Harbor has had a black emergency manager.

    The legality of the emergency manager law in Michigan is being tested by a federal court lawsuit on the grounds it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment since its allegedly being used against predominantly black communities on a frequent basis and, also, it violates the voting rights of residents to the representation of their choice.

    The Flint tragedy is sad – but blame can go around to many in state and local government.

    • It’s Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine finally come home to roost in America. The blame lies squarely on the capitalist global agenda that the GOP has made into a holy mandate. Welcome to Bolivia.

    • I am glad is someone is challenging the legality of the emergency manager law. I don’t see how you can overturn the will of the people like that. The US Constitution guarantees that all states will have a republican form of government. Hopefully some smart attorney will be able to form a nexus to show that this means a republican form of government cannot be abrogated by the state government. And as far as abrogating collective bargaining agreements, from what i have read, this is hardly settled law and abrogating them unilaterally through this law may also be illegal. A contract is a contract.

      • Just because the state is a republic doesn’t mean localities have any rights. As far as I can tell, there is a camp of right-wing theorists who believe that states have limitless power to crush challenges to their authority, which seems to be historically true with all the ugly stories of 19th century corporate-owned governors sending their National Guard units to gun down strikers.

        For some reason state governments have usually been the most dominated by the rich, while Federal and city government have had openings for progressive movements. I’m not surprised that this might mean there’s legal precedent for the state tyrannizing cities demanding better services.

        • I used to work in city government and am aware of the supremacy of state law. However, this is an altogether difference in nature than what is usually adjudicated regarding the state’s legal supremacy. The situations you cite are very old and the law evolves, often to fit the times. The Supreme Court used to rule that because of the supremacy of contracts government could not regulate working conditions. Well, that started changing in the 30’s and now the view is completely different. There are other instances where the constitutional interpretation has changed greatly over the years.

      • The Sugar Law Center filed that suit in United States District Court in Detroit and plaintiffs include board members of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) district, who was placed under emergency manager control.

        Here is a link to the lawsuit information:

        link to

        The DPS was rife with corruption, violence and mismanagement prior to the state EM appointment with students bringing toilet paper to school since the district ran out, the district running up a $160 million-dollar deficit, rapes and shootings of students rampant on school grounds – one of the most absurd news reports were that school board members received chauffer-driven transportation as a perk while the district teetered on the brink of financial collapse.

        City of Detroit and Wayne County government were so bad that the FBI obtained corruption convictions of over 30 city and county officials. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick received a 28-year prison sentence and longtime Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano received only 6% of the Democratic primary vote in a failed re-election bid.

        Under this backdrop, many Detroit residents saw Governor Snyder as a liberator when Kevyn Orr was appointed as emergency manager. The City of Detroit, whose population approaches 90% minority residents, elected, in a landslide, a successful white hospital executive from the suburbs, Brian Duggan, who established Detroit residency and pledged to cure the mismanagement that plagued the Motor City.

  2. Professor Cole, thank you for this report from Michigan. Usually I look to you for clarification about some confusing situation in the Middle East, but recently I have been puzzled by the reports from your part of the Mid West. The story seemed to reveal something beyond incompetence; an unbelievable malice. It has been hard to understand how Americans could deliberately do this to other Americans. Your article helps me understand, yet in the end much remains mysterious to me. What kind of person thinks like this? What kind of person behaves this way? Trying to understand that makes me think of great genocides in the past in other countries. It is disturbing to imagine that such people are in charge here.

    • boomer Bob: One key to the Flint fiasco is the nature of Michigan’s Dept. of Env. Quality. They seem to operate for natural resource exploitation rather than to protect the health of the people and environment they live in. As evidence I offer you my experience of the “open” meeting the DEQ held in my area about fracking, an auditorium at a Community College with 6 police standing around the presenters, no one in the audience allowed to hold a sign or speak, only to write questions on cards. The DEQ did not want public comment but obedience instilled by fear. These are the people who (having drunk the cool-aid mantra that has turned “regulation” into a dirty word) lied saying that they had provided corrosion control in Flint when they actually had neglected that step out of ignorance or avarice. Perhaps this helps you understand better what happened in Flint.

      • Thanks Margot, that does help explain. I can imagine something similar happening in the “red” state where I live, where the state’s “Environmental Quality” Commission seems to be a tool of industry. Today’s NY Times has an editorial about Flint which quite aptly uses a term popularized by the Freddie Gray’s case in Baltimore: “depraved indifference.” As we learned from that episode, “depraved indifference” can be a criminal offense, at least in some states.
        link to

  3. Minor but relevant quibble: you write that “it is really bad to drink a lot of lead.” In fact, there is no lower limit to the toxic effects of lead; it’s really bad to drink even a little lead. While government agencies like the CDC and OSHA necessarily set limits for regulatory purposes, the effects of lead scale with dosage, and unlike many substances, don’t disappear at low levels of exposure. Flint’s water is an unmitigated disaster that cannot be fixed for those exposed.

    link to

  4. I think the problem began long before. With the passing of NAFTA and the subsequent loss of the manufacturing industry and jobs that then provided a tax base for local governing, the downstream effect was the change in the State’s population/income, leading to the ultimate destruction of the people’s right to self rule (creation of emergency manager positions) and thus public oversight.

    The poisoning of the people is a reprehensible crime and those responsible should be punished.

    People should also be worried that the current round of Free Trade Agreements being “negotiated” will make things worse. Flint and Michigan as a whole, should serve as a warning of what could be ahead.

    • Virginia : “The poisoning of the people is a reprehensible crime and those responsible should be punished.”

      Sorry, this was malicious and hateful and not just reprehensible. Hesitating once the egregious action was uncovered makes it deliberate.

      Appointees, as such, are generally not experts in the field to which they are assigned, “Good job, Browne”. Like a captain of a sinking ship, Snyder should go down with it.

    • I sure would like to hear more on the PTT from Professor Cole and other writers! I do fear it will spell the end to all local, State, and national authority over environmental standards.

      • Regarding the treaty’s implications for national authority, I had originally taken as exaggeration the warning that the treaty could supersede legislation, but recently I heard an explanation of the history of Supreme Court rulings related to the issue. Evidently it is a serious concern. I don’t purport to know the answer, but like you I think it is an important topic.

    • While NAFTA has been really bad for the country, it took extra steps and further ideological implementation of laws which have been incredibly damaging to get to this point. In short, I hope no one thinks that NAFTA is wholly or even mostly to blame. This is the result of radical reactionaries having taken control of large parts of the GOP and implementing their disastrous policies. This is way beyond NAFTA.

  5. When a multi-term Governor attempts to operate his state like a business rather than a government, the continuous mass poisoning of little children occurs in fact.

    This entire tragedy smacks of elitism, racism and sloth.

    Republican Governor Rick Snyder is preparing his SIXTH State-of-the-State Address as this long-term ignored crisis unfolds.

  6. Flint River is full of highly corrosive chemicals and would have needed to have a purification plant operating for it to supply safe tap water.

    Who put those pollutants in the river? Government or private enterprise?

    • My guess, private enterprise with permission of a well paid politicians who ordered (by law) underpaid bureaucrats to look the other way.

    • Letting business pollute and then sticking the government with the duty of cleaning it up where absolutely necessary is our standard operating procedure. Probably no laws had to be violated.

  7. Your description of the Tea Party regime over enemy cities as “colonial” is what we need to wake up the people on this site who want to cripple the Federal government as punishment for its crimes overseas. The greatest crimes ever carried out by Americans were done by greedy private property owners who wanted entire races within our borders exempted from governmental protection so they could be dispossessed and exploited by market forces. There is nothing to prevent those crimes from happening again except a strong Federal government under an electorate that refuses to separate equality from freedom.

    • I have read quite a bit of Cold War history, as well as have lived through that period. My conclusion reached maybe 20 years ago is that through stupid policies and decisions, our own leaders have damaged our country much more than all our enemies combined. And many of these stupid decisions involve allowing private enterprise to ride roughshod over the public good.

  8. Vims

    @billmon1 Not enough attention being paid to the fact this occurred under Flint’s emergency manager.

  9. George

    @billmon1 funny to me how this random collection of ppl trying to form a society together that we call a government has a bad name.

  10. The emergency manager law was revised by Republican-dominated Michigan in 2010-11 to become more draconian than ever before (for example charging the entity to be managed, whether a city or school district, the 6-figure salary to be earned by the EM–debt piled upon debt!). The people of Michigan petitioned to put it on the ballot and threw it out summarily in 2012. Then the legislature re-introduced it, added an appropriation so that it could no longer be resisted by petitioned referendum, and then inflicted it upon Flint. So it is anti-democratic in a number of ways–going against the vote of the people of Michigan. And our Attorney General Bill Schuette claims that he took the same-sex marriage case to the Supreme Court because he did not want lower courts to deny the vote of Michiganders a decade ago against same-sex marriage! But did he challenge the new Emergency Manager law that also directly defied the will of the voters, within a few months of their vote? Nope.

  11. EPA stayed silent on Flint’s tainted water

    Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.

    link to

    link to

    • Just today the news is that a couple of top EPA administrators have been forced to resign. At least there is some accoluntability in the EPA. Will there be any in the Michigan state government? I’m not holding my breath.

      • “Will there be any in Michigan state government?”

        Gov. Snyder’s longtime chief of staff Dennis Muchmore – a key figure in the scandal – had his recent resignation announcement effective on Jan 20th, although he did not attribute his quitting to the Flint lead controversy but claimed he was becoming a lobbyist.

  12. From what was reported at the time, the Flint city council voted in 2013, seven to one, to withdraw from the Detroit water system and enter a contract with neighboring cities and counties to build a new system that would use Lake Huron water. But it would take three years to build, and Flint had to sign a contract to pay for a portion of the construction costs. After the City Council made its decision, the Emergency Manager approved it, and sent it on to the State Treasurer for final approval. Detroit was upset, and gave notice it would cancel the contract it had with Flint. Flint failed to reach a deal with Detroit, and in April 1914 Detroit stopped supplying water. Flint then decided to obtain water on a temporary basis from the Flint River, until the new system’s construction was complete. So the democratically elected city council made the fateful decision. Incidentally, the one dissenting vote against contracting to build a new system was by a council member who want to have a system for Flint – that took its water from the Flint River.

  13. In a late-breaking story carried by the Detroit News, Flint’s McLaren Hospital has confirmed that their water supply was contaminated with the Legionella bacteria in 2014 and an expert they hired has opined that the Legionella contamination likely emanated after the City of Flint changed their water source from the City of Detroit to the Flint River.

    There had been a spike of Legionnaire’s Disease deaths in Genessee County and its county seat Flint shortly following the city changing its water source to the Flint River. Some estimates are as high as 10 Flint-area deaths due to Legionella contamination that may be water-related.

  14. Miguel Del Toral, an EPA official, is emerging as a hero in this tragedy. In June of 2014 he raised red flags in a report disclosed to Michigan state officials and city officials in Flint.

    He indicated the test results of the home of Leann Walters “blew his mind” as lead readings were highly elevated. EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman had been angered that the report was leaked outside the agency before being examined and cleared by higher-ups at the EPA.

    Dr. Hedman has since resigned from the EPA.

    Del Toral has objected to being called a hero – instead claiming it was Ms. Walters, the Flint mother who tried to expose the water problems, whose actions should be deemed heroic.

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