The Cast of Characters:
- Michigan Governor Rick Snyder
- EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy
- Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)
- Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania)
- Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
- Miguel Del Toral – EPA water specialist, first to report contamination, was ignored by EPA
- Susan Hedman – former head of EPA’s Midwest Region
- The citizens of Flint Michigan
It plays like a poorly-scripted whodunit, and in fact I am willing to bet there will eventually be a movie or two about this, the Flint Water Crisis. In addition to the poorly-scripted plot, there is a cast of characters, none of whom are very likeable, and all of whom are on our payroll. In January, I wrote a post for this blog about the water crisis in Flint, https://jilldennison.com/2016/01/30/just-dont-drink-the-water/ . But that was not the end of the story, nor is this post the end of the story, but merely another episode in a continuing saga. While residents of Flint must still rely on bottled water and the children still have lead running through their veins, the finger pointing about which I wrote in January, has begun in earnest. And what is worse, is that the taxpayers will bear the ultimate financial burden.
A Congressional Oversight Committee held hearings last week to attempt to determine who was to blame for the contamination of the water in Flint. While many said “I’m sorry”, none actually stepped up to the plate and said “I and my agency were negligent and I am to blame. I bear full responsibility.” It turned into more of a finger-pointing match than anything, at the cost of taxpayer dollars, and after reading accounts (plural) of the hearings, I am left wondering why they even bothered. As far as I can tell, nothing was gained. I am pretty sure the residents of Flint, many of whom were observers to the process felt the same.
I will not bore you with the details … you can get those on any legitimate news site, once you scroll past all the stories about the trumpeter … but a few key highlights bear repeating:
- Republicans targeted EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the EPA; Democrats slammed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the state. The resignations of both have been called for by multiple players on both sides.
- McCarthy claims that her agency’s staff “begged” the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to address the growing lead threat. At every turn, she said, the state agency dragged its feet in responding. She repeatedly declined to admit that EPA had done anything wrong and said “the crisis we’re seeing was the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that the city would stop purchasing treated drinking water and instead switch to an untreated source to save money. The state of Michigan approved that decision.”
- Snyder blamed “systemic failures” at the state’s environmental protection agency. He also claimed that a water specialist at the federal Environmental Protection Agency was “silenced” when he tried to warn about the lead contamination in February 2015. “I do want to thank Miguel Del Toral, a water specialist at the EPA, who spoke up early about the crisis,” Snyder said. “Tragically, his superiors at the EPA told local leaders in Flint to ignore his call for action.”
- Susan Hedman, who resigned in January. “I don’t think anyone at EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more.”
So, nobody did anything wrong, but everybody could have done more. Pretty typical bureaucratic double-speak with no conclusions, no solutions.
In past months more than a dozen lawsuits, including several class action suits, have been filed against Governor Snyder, the State of Michigan, and the City of Flint. The first was in November, the most recent just under two weeks ago. Most analysts believe it is highly unlikely that Flint residents will actually receive financial compensation. One major hurdle is the legal doctrine known as “sovereign immunity,” which shields state and federal governments from most lawsuits. Another hurdle is the legal element known as “specific causation”, which says that not only was it possible that the contaminated water caused specific injuries, but that it did, in fact, cause them. As if all of this weren’t problematic enough, the simple fact is that there is no money in the coffers of Flint, Michigan.
So, while the citizens of Flint are suing, yet not likely to receive a dime after what will likely be years of litigation, the cost of the lawsuits will be astronomical and somebody is going to have to foot that bill. Can you guess who that someone will be? There will be investigations, more hearings, attorney fees for both sides. The latest estimate is $2.7 million, but I suspect at the end of the day (end of the decade), that will prove to have been a conservative figure. Additionally, there is still the matter of replacing the infrastructure that caused the problem in the first place. And yet, the people of Flint, Michigan will not have received any compensation. We are all losers in this situation, but none have lost so much as the people of Flint who have paid not only financially, but with a lifetime of health problems.