Flint and unexpected consequences

Apr 18, 2018 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Flint and unexpected consequences
Courtesy photo

When I began investigating Flint's water problems three years ago, it wasn't with the intent of laying the groundwork for future lawsuits. I was hired by the ACLU of Michigan to report on issues related to the state's emergency manager law, and Flint was one of the cities where democracy had been stripped away and replaced by an austerity-driven autocracy.

After witnessing angry residents cram into public meetings to wave bottles of the foul-looking water coming out of their taps — and denials by public officials that there was any problem with the water — it made sense to look into what was going on, and how it might relate to the state takeover.

It was simply a matter of pursuing a potential story, not knowing where it might go. And it has led to some truly unexpected places. Last year, for example, I was invited to San Francisco to speak at an event held in conjunction with an updated production of Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People, which was written in the 1880s but tells a story that is eerily similar to the tragedy that occurred in Flint.

When I arrived in the Bay Area, the top headline in that day's San Francisco Chronicle announced the alarming discovery of lead-laced drinking water at several local schools. It's safe to say that revelation was directly related to the awareness raised by the Flint water crisis and the worldwide attention it eventually received.

Who could have imagined such far-reaching results? Certainly not me.

I bring all this up now because two things have me musing about Flint and unintended consequences. As it turns out, this month marks both a grim anniversary for the residents of Flint and the announcement of a significant step forward in safeguarding the future of the city's schoolchildren.

It was four years ago, on April 25, 2014, that the totally avoidable manmade disaster began to unfold.

Instead of the clean, safe water Detroit's system had been providing for nearly 50 years, improperly treated water from the highly corrosive Flint River began flowing into the city's homes, businesses, churches, and schools.

As the world now knows, that fateful decision — made unilaterally by a state-appointed emergency manager looking to save $5 million — had disastrous results. The motivation was to save money, and ensure bondholders never missed receiving a payment. But putting the city's water treatment plant into operation before it was ready to do the job, and failing to add federally mandated corrosion control chemicals to highly caustic river water, clearly demonstrated a callous disregard for the well-being of nearly 100,000 people.

For those who embrace the mantra of "running government like a business," Flint has shown the terrible downside of putting that philosophy into action.

Cost-cutting to improve Flint's financial bottom line resulted in both financial catastrophe and incalculable human suffering in a city where the poverty rate is around 40 percent and more than half the population is African-American.

The fallout includes:

  • At least a dozen people dying from Legionnaire's disease and scores more made severely ill because inadequate chlorination failed to kill water-borne bacteria that cause the pneumonia-like ailment

  • An estimated 200 or more miscarriages and fetal deaths caused by the exposure of pregnant women to lead-poisoned water

  • Already depressed property values falling even further

  • Fifteen people charged with felonies, including two former emergency managers accused of committing involuntary manslaughter as a result of the Legionnaire's disease deaths

  • Ongoing distress and trauma regarding concerns over the current condition of the water; and

  • The evisceration of public trust in government officials who fervently and repeatedly denied there were any problems with the water until independent testing conclusively proved otherwise and the cover-up was irrefutably exposed.

Also irrefutable is the damage done to an untold number of Flint children exposed to lead-tainted water they drank at home and while in school. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that causes irreversible damage even at low levels. It can reduce IQ, create learning disabilities, and lead to behavioral problems.

The good news is that the harm, which can't be undone, can be mitigated.

That is why the ACLU of Michigan, along with the Education Law Center and law firm White & Case LLP, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Flint's children. It was a drastic but necessary measure given that the State of Michigan, Genesee County Intermediate School District, and Flint Community Schools have failed to identify the children impacted and provide the services needed to ensure they succeed in school and life.

While investigating the water crisis, and helping to reveal both the extent of lead contamination and the efforts by government officials to cover it up, I never gave any thought to how that reporting might lead to lawsuits involving the ACLU. But that's exactly what happened.

The first involved Safe Drinking Water Act litigation, which resulted in an unprecedented $97 million settlement that guarantees state funding will be available to replace all of the city's more than 18,000 lead service lines.

The education lawsuit was likewise unexpected. In fact, when the crisis first erupted, no attention was paid to the public schools and their capacity to deal with the fallout. Even after the ACLU of Michigan brought the problem to the attention of government officials, the organization finally had to sue in order to force the state and local education officials to make sure that all children were able to receive screening for disabilities. In the course of this groundbreaking litigation, it has been shown that the schools, perhaps despite their best efforts, lack the resources to address a crisis of this magnitude.  

Though the case is far from being concluded, it is already producing positive benefits for those Flint children who have been damaged.

In a partial settlement announced this week, the state has committed to providing more than $4 million to fund an unprecedented program that will identify the impacted children. It is the first step in getting them universal screening, and in-depth assessments when necessary, to determine the services they need. That program will be headed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who, in September 2015, produced research showing a dramatic spike in the levels of lead found in the blood of Flint children after the switch to the river.

The battery of available assessments will include neuropsychological testing, which is important for evaluating the effects of lead on cognitive development, memory, and learning.

Identifying the children in need of help, however, is only the first step. Doing so is crucial, and having a plan in place is significant. But diagnosing problems alone accomplishes little if an array of educational and support services aren't subsequently made readily available to every single student in need of them. Ensuring that the school districts provide those services is a key part of the ongoing litigation.

As ACLU education attorney Kristin Totten points out: "The settlement is a critical first step in creating a system to identify the needs of the children of Flint. However, the heart of this lawsuit remains, which is ensuring kids with disabilities receive the education guaranteed them by law. As we move forward, we are fully committed to protecting those rights."

It's a tragedy that it has taken so long to get to this point, nearly three full years after the Flint water crisis was first exposed. Valuable time that can't be regained has been lost. And it is uncertain how much longer it will take for all the necessary programs and services to be agreed to, funded, and implemented.

But to get anywhere, a first step must be taken. In reaching the settlement agreement announced this week, that initial stride forward has been made in what will be a long march to assure Flint's children are able to find their brightest future possible.

That should be an intended consequence everyone can support.

The initial victory in that education case is encouraging. But it also needs to be kept in perspective.

The lager battle, in terms of ensuring that all the educational services and resources needed will be made available, has not yet been won. And that issue is only one among many in a much broader battle, being waged on multiple fronts, to gain some measure of compensation for the immense harm that has been done to the residents of a beleaguered city.

In terms of the big picture, justice for the people of Flint, as this grim anniversary is being marked, remains a distant hope.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or [email protected].