QuickTake Q&A: Flint’s Water Crisis and Its Many Different Costs

The city of Flint, Michigan, knows from hard times. Battered by the closings of General Motors assembly plants since the 1970s -- the subject of the 1989 Michael Moore documentary "Roger & Me" -- the city lost about half of its population while poverty soared. The city was in financial receivership and under the jurisdiction of a state-appointed emergency manager, who controlled its spending, when it sought to save money on its drinking water. That turned out to be a mistake. Switching to a different source triggered a citywide health emergency that will carry financial and health costs for years to come.

1. Just how bad is Flint’s water?

Hazards found in Flint’s drinking water range in severity from E. coli bacteria, which can cause intestinal infection, to high levels of lead, which can stunt development of children. At least 87 people in Flint and its surrounding county came down with Legionnaires’ disease after the switch in supply, and 10 of them died, though those cases haven’t been definitively linked to the water. For a time Flint’s water also showed high levels of trihalomethanes, or THMs, which are byproducts of disinfectant chemicals and can cause liver and kidney damage and increase the risk of cancer.

2. What caused the problem?

Flint’s emergency manager approved a switch in 2013 from Detroit’s municipal system to a regional authority through a pipeline to be completed in 2016. In the interim, Flint’s water was drawn from the Flint River, as it had been until the 1960s. The failure to add corrosion-controlling chemicals to the water was a crucial oversight that wound up degrading Flint’s supply pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water. Blame for that decision has bounced among state, city and federal officials.

3. How did the crisis come to light?

Flint’s 98,000 residents started complaining about the color, taste and odor of what came out of their taps, and of rashes and hair loss, soon after the new water source came online in April 2014. GM noticed a new rusting problem at its engine plant and switched to a different supply system. For months, state officials offered assurances that the water was safe. That changed in February 2015, after a Flint official tested one home’s orange-tinted water for lead.

4. Who’s at fault?

City, state and federal officials and agencies have pointed fingers at each other. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has been a particular focus of criticism, though Republicans in Congress tried deflecting blame to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, filed criminal charges against nine state and local government workers, alleging their actions contributed to the water contamination. His office also filed a civil lawsuit against a water company and an engineering firm that did work in Flint.

5. What will become of Flint?

Flint reconnected to the Detroit water system in October 2015, though the damage to the city’s pipes was already done. Residents have been told the water is now safe for bathing but are advised to use filters for drinking water. Mayor Karen Weaver said fixing the century-old water system could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

6. What’s next?

The state has pledged to carry the full cost of supplies for clean water in the city while monitoring of contamination levels continues. Federal officials said the process of replacing thousands of unsafe lead service lines could take years. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the state and the city.

The Reference Shelf

  • A story on how Flint fears are helping sales of bottled water.
  • A Bloomberg View editorial on how Congress can help Flint and other cities.
  • A Faye Flam column on the perils of lead-tainted water.
  • A QuickTake explainer on Detroit’s life after cars.
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