The city of Flint is still dealing with the awful aftereffects of a water quality crisis that began more than eight years ago. In April of 2014, Michigan officials switched the city’s water source to the Flint River. The highly corrosive water was not properly treated, leading to widespread lead leaching and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The results have included numerous deaths and widespread learning disabilities among the city’s children.
In 2021, National Public Radio reported:
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office Thursday announced criminal charges for eight former state officials, including the state’s former Gov. Rick Snyder, along with one current official, for their alleged roles in the Flint water crisis.
The drinking water debacle is linked to at least 12 deaths and at least 80 people sickened with Legionnaires’ disease after untreated water from the Flint River caused lead to leach from old pipes, poisoning the majority Black city’s water system.
While it seems clear the biggest failures in Flint were made by the government, some observers have characterized the crisis in Flint as primarily a failure of water privatization. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, for example, characterized the decision to switch water sources as “a straight-up power grab in service to corporations seeking to privatize water and public infrastructure.”
Similarly, environmental justice activist Thomas Stephens of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Managemen told listeners of Democracy Now: “The very essence of life itself, water, is being privatized and being subjected to a corporate bottom-line approach that is in violation of the human rights of the people, the most vulnerable people, in the state.”
A headline at The Intercept conveyed a similar message: “From Pittsburgh to Flint, the dire consequences of giving private companies responsibility for ailing public water systems.” The headline’s implication is that a large private water company, Veolia, was responsible for the Flint disaster. But, The Intercept notes “the initial elevation of lead levels there has been traced to the city’s decision to switch its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which occurred before the city hired Veolia.”
When Flint switched water sources, it transitioned from one government water supplier to another. The new supplier, Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) is governed by an appointed 15-member board and was created pursuant to Act 233, Michigan Public Act of 1955. Its financial reports follow government accounting standards. As such KWA is not a private, for-profit entity.
In February of 2015—almost 10 months after Flint switched water sources—Veolia received a $40,000 contract to evaluate the city’s water supply and make recommendations after residents complained about water quality issues and the city had received three violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The violations did not involve lead contamination. Two were related to bacteria and one involved total trihalomethanes (TTHM), a disinfection byproduct that has been linked to bladder cancer.
Veolia was asked to assess the Flint water system in light of bacteria and TTHM issues, not for lead. However, there are credible allegations that Veolia’s investigation was insufficient. Families of four children impacted by contaminated Flint water have sued the company and, in January of 2022, a judge denied Veolia’s motion to dismiss the suit. Recent testimony at the trial indicates that Veolia employees were aware that lead was in some samples of drinking water, but that company management decided to remove any mention of this issue from the company’s report.
Despite the mandate for VNA [Veolia North America] to focus on TTHMs, when VNA detected corrosive water that could result in lead issues in the future, VNA brought the issue to the attention of City officials, investigated the lead testing data provided by city officials, and made recommendations to address the potential future issue.
Further, although lead is not specifically mentioned in Veolia’s report from March of 2015, the company did make the following recommendation:
Contract with your [Flint’s] engineer and initiate discussions with the State on the addition of a corrosion control chemical. This action can be submitted and discussed with the state at the same time as the other chemical and filter changes saving time and effort. A target dosage of 0.5 mg/L phosphate is suggested for improved corrosion control.
Phosphate is known to reduce lead levels in drinking water, so had this recommendation been followed, the health impact on Flint’s children may have been reduced. But this recommendation came 11 months after the water supply switch and only six months before the lead issue was widely publicized, so most of the damage had already been done.
Irrespective of whether Veolia could have done more to warn the city about lead problems, it is important to recognize that government officials have managed Flint’s water system since 1912 and made the decisions, or failed to make the decisions, that triggered the water crisis. The government’s chronic management and financial issues set the background for the failures in Flint.
State-appointed receivers made temporary improvements to balance budgets and improve short-term liquidity, but failed or were simply unable to address the structural causes of Flint’s fiscal distress…
These cost pressures are felt acutely in the water system, leading to increasingly unaffordable user rates for residents. Between 1980 and 2018, Flint’s inflation-adjusted user rates increased by 320 percent. In an effort to spare residents confiscatory rates, cities often look for opportunities to cut costs. Often, the choice is to defer maintenance. In Flint, deferred maintenance has led to water main breaks and leaks that have become a hazardous and expensive problem. Flint loses 40 to 60 percent of its potable water to leaks—a typical amount is 10 percent. This drives up user rates further.
Given the rapid escalation in Flint’s water rates, it is somewhat understandable that city officials and emergency managers would have preferred less expensive water from KWA as a short-term way to reduce costs—if they were unaware of the problems that came with it.
As the University of Michigan report notes, business-type activities like water systems are intended to be self-sustaining. Even if Flint wanted to subsidize the water system with general revenues, it would have been a challenge to do so because tax revenues have been flat to declining since 2000 due to employers and individual taxpayers moving out of the city.
This certainly doesn’t excuse the government’s failures and the decision to use KWA, which had serious negative unintended consequences that were not identified and remediated quickly enough to avoid serious harm.
As the public awaits conclusions from the numerous criminal and civil court cases related to the failures in Flint, private companies continue to provide water services in numerous cities to millions of Americans. So it is important to focus public policy discussion on how both public and private water providers can improve their procedures to avoid such terrible consequences in the future.
Given the nation’s need to rebuild and modernize so many local water systems, public-private partnerships are going to continue to play a key role in delivering safe water to Americans. Public and private actors in the process need to follow best practices, use water contracts that ensure taxpayers and citizens get full transparency and accountability from private providers on water quality and rates, and governments must conduct meaningful oversight to ensure the terms of the contract are met.