A Review of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark

The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban TragedyThe Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good book that takes us through the failures exhibited by all levels of government in Flint, Michigan that led to a poisoned municipal water supply. First and foremost this book is about the human impacts of the failures, which left the citizens of Flint with a poisoned water supply. How did it happen, and could it have been avoided? Anna Clark shows us the failures, which were attributable to some grievous errors by local, state, and federal government. The human costs of these errors are highlighted as well as how local government in Flint was administered, and what role the administration of local government played in the disaster that unfolded there.


Flint, like many older urban areas that relied on auto manufacturing, first lost industry, followed by a steep decline in tax revenue, and eventually population. Flint’s financial problems were exacerbated by the State of Michigan diverting “local aid” (sharing of state sales tax revenues) from Michigan localities to the state budget. It was, for Flint, the perfect economic storm. In looking at local governance the Flint water story is inexorably linked to the Michigan law that created a system of “emergency managers” for localities experiencing financial difficulties. The state law in Michigan, allowing the Governor to appoint an “emergency manager” (initially referred to as an “emergency financial manager”) took on several forms over the years, and was actually wiped off the books by Michigan voters in a referendum in 2012. (Public Act 4) The Michigan Legislature quickly enacted a replacement (Public Act 436) that brought back the ability of the Governor to replace local government with a state appointed manager, which Governor Snyder used to appoint the Flint emergency managers leading up to, and during, the crisis. The issue of the relative merits of state appointed oversight of local government is deeply entwined in this story, as the Emergency Managers that were appointed did a shockingly poor job of administration.

Anna Clark takes us through the poor decisions, initially made at the local level by emergency managers and elected officials, that brought Flint into water crisis. These poor decisions were compounded by inexplicable, and serious oversight failures by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, (MDEQ) the Michigan agency charged with oversight of local decisions in order to determine that both state and federal law and regulation are being complied with. The EPA, representing the federal government, failed in their oversight duties as well, allowing a major piece of the Federal Clean Water Act to be ignored by Flint and the MDEQ.

So what happened to put Flint into this terrible situation? Faced with what city leaders felt was price gouging from the Detroit water system, which supplied Flint (and many other localities) with clean water Flint determined to join a new water collaborative just being formed, the Karegnondi Water Authority. This decision immediately created the necessity for Flint to determine how they would secure water while this brand new authority was formed, and infrastructure built. From this basic decision error after error occurred that put Flint on the fast track to disaster. Some of those errors were later shown to be willful violations of law. The author, correctly in my view, takes on this initial decision as an error, and one that should have been examined closely by the state of Michigan. The determination to create massive additional capacity, at a huge cost, when existing capacity was more than sufficient to meet existing needs, has to be the first question asked, and the author covers it even though that decision, standing alone, was not the primary cause of the eventual disaster. From the book:

“A ready explanation for what had happened in Flint quickly took on the appearance of fact: a flawed and hasty decision motivated by careless and petty cost-cutting to meet a budget. But this was not quite the case. Flint’s move to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority—which is what precipitated its temporary switch to river water—was a long-considered plan, years in the making. It was also a strange one, since it involved building an entirely new drinking water system in a state that already had more than any other. The MDEQ was charged with monitoring all those utilities, but after years of budget cuts and instability its capacity was limited. The MDEQ had lost almost one quarter of its salaried employees—1,224 people. The drinking water office and the lab that tested water samples were both strapped, according to an exhaustive federal audit in 2010, even as they were expected to navigate a growing number of regulatory requirements. The water office lost 8.7 percent of its budget over the course of a decade, the Detroit Free Press reported, while the lab lost 43 percent of its full-time staff. Nonetheless, the MDEQ had “one of the largest, if not the largest, number of community water systems to regulate,” Snyder’s investigative task force noted. The KWA would add yet one more to the mix. And while it was touted as a solution to the exorbitant cost of water, the KWA in fact did nothing to address the core structural problems behind the problem of affordability in a shrinking city such as Flint. “In a state and in a region where we had excess water capacity, why did we think we needed more?” said Chris Kolb of the Michigan Environmental Council, one of the co-chairs of the governor’s task force. Why indeed. It’s fairly unusual nowadays for a public water system to be built from scratch. That’s especially true if the water source hasn’t run out or become toxic. But Jeff Wright, Genesee County’s drain commissioner, the leading proponent and eventual CEO of the KWA, lobbied fiercely, on the grounds of savings, independence, and stability. The arguments were persuasive: Detroit charged a premium for supplying water over a long distance, plus there were annual rate increases, and it didn’t allow Flint a seat on its board. The KWA would provide water from Lake Huron (the same source as Detroit’s system), it promised a cooperative model, and it would charge communities a fixed, flat rate. Michael Glasgow, who ran Flint’s treatment plant, saw another advantage: “I viewed the plant as a city asset that should be put to good use,” he said.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 161-162). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Not only did Michigan allow a very large expansion of water capacity but they also allowed Flint to violate some financial rules in order to be able to afford the capital expense associated with the project. Flint’s financial position was precarious, as shown by the book:

“The KWA got what it needed to move forward. But how was the distressed city going to pay for its part? Flint was so broke that when it was offered loans in 2012 to improve its water infrastructure, it had to turn them down, even though half the debt would be forgiven. “When your pockets are empty, further debt is irresponsible,” said the emergency manager at the time. And in January 2013, an MDEQ report had detailed necessary repairs at Flint’s treatment plant but noted that the repairs could not “proceed due to the city’s current bond debt.” The efforts to sign Flint on to the new water authority were especially surprising, given that the state treasury, which approved the contract, was also responsible for the city’s financial well-being through the emergency management program—a system that’s supposed to make tough decisions, such as reducing debts and redundancies.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (p. 163). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

After the State approved the formation of the new authority (a $300 million capital cost) the issue of Flint’s financial participation in the venture, in light of the financial problems of the City, was front and center. How would Flint float additional debt when they were at “debt capacity?” From the book:

“So the state arranged a work-around: Flint’s share of the money for the construction of the KWA was given a special pass so that it did not count against the debt limit. The work-around was through something called an administrative consent order, or ACO. This is a tool that the state uses to force local governments to fix an urgent environmental problem, even if they must issue bonds that exceed their debt limit to do so. Even among state workers, the ACO raised eyebrows. In December 2013, an MDEQ employee received a call from an attorney “seeking what I’d characterize as a ‘sweetheart’ ACO intended to ease the city’s ability to access bond funding for their possible new water intake from Lake Huron,” as she described it in an email.42 The attorney and “Treasury officials have already been communicating with Steve [Busch of the MDEQ] about an Order of some sort in light of Flint’s financial situation.” KWA’s bond attorneys exerted pressure on the negotiations. In an email delivered to Earley and future EM Jerry Ambrose about a month before Flint’s 2014 water switch, one attorney said that “we cannot continue with the transaction without the ACO.” If the delay continued, “the KWA will have expended its initial resources and be forced to stop construction and the project will be delayed for at least one construction cycle.” Ambrose asked the Treasury for help, and an employee was instructed to “get a call into the Director,” presumably of the MDEQ, “to push this through.” The ACO was finalized two days later. It was written in a way to account for minor work on wastewater lagoons at the Flint treatment plant’s lime sludge facility—so to appear to address an urgent environmental problem—but it also covered the entirety of the KWA bond debt. To make sure that it would be legally intact, Stephen Busch and Flint’s environmental attorney conferred on the wording: “Steve, I checked with the City’s bond counsel, here is the Language that we MUST include in the consent order so that the City can move forward on this.”So the tool that was meant to fix an environmental emergency in this case included language that required Flint to “undertake the KWA public improvement project.” In this way, the KWA could count on a broke city to pay for almost a third of its construction. And it did this through the Treasury, which was the steward of Flint’s financial health. But the KWA actually added to Flint’s debt, and it bent state law to do so. Rather than borrowing to invest in schools or public safety, Flint ended up paying for a pipeline that literally paralleled one that already existed.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 163-164). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

This approval, given with state oversight, laid the foundation for the disaster that was to follow. It tends not to be the focus of the Flint water story but it caught my eye for obvious reasons. The serious criticisms of both the State of Michigan and of the actions of the emergency managers starts here, and is richly deserved. How anyone could approve lifting a debt cap in Flint for a project like this is simply not understandable, and defies basic tenets of municipal finance.

Flint compounded the initial financial error by determining to leave the Detroit system while waiting for the new authority to be able to deliver water. Flint, the owner of an antiquated water treatment plant, decided to retrofit that plant, and use it to deliver water to residents from the Flint river. That decision started Flint into the water abyss, and was made despite warnings that the Flint plant was not ready to produce quality water, and that the Flint River, as a water source, was problematic.

“But construction on the KWA hadn’t even begun yet. The new system wouldn’t be able to deliver water for at least a couple more years. Until it was ready, the other Genesee County communities that were moving to the new system simply paid the DWSD for continuous water service. Flint, however, made the unusual decision to enlist a different source of water during this transition period. The city turned to its emergency supply: the Flint River. To treat the river water, the old Dort Highway plant needed a series of upgrades. Many of these improvements would be required anyway, since the plant would soon have to treat raw water from the KWA.But getting the facility up to speed was difficult, and while cost estimates varied widely, only a fraction of the early figures proposed by the engineering consultants was spent on the project. The month of the water switch, Michael Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, didn’t believe the plant was ready. He emailed three people at the MDEQ, the state environmental agency, with a warning. “I have people above me making plans” to distribute the water as soon as possible, Glasgow wrote, but “I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 17-18). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

“Stephen Busch, a light-haired district supervisor from the MDEQ’s drinking water office, was at the ceremony too. A year earlier, when the city was wrestling with its long-term water options, he had expressed worry about what would happen if Flint treated its own river for drinking water—bacterial problems, exposure to dangerous chemicals, additional regulatory requirements. In other words, the state’s environmental agency had thought that the city should avoid the Flint River. And now Flint was using the river anyway. For all his earlier concern, though, Busch seemed tranquil at the treatment plant that April morning. Regarding the drinking water, he said, “Individuals shouldn’t notice any difference.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 18-19). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Once Flint threw the switch on the retrofitted water plant and began to draw water from the Flint River the errors just continued, and those errors were made at the local, state, and federal levels. Those errors led to water contaminated by lead, and other serious contaminants. Resident concern, and then resident outrage, was met with apathy, and multiple assurances that there was nothing wrong with the water. From the book:

“Explanations for the brown-tinged water were vague and contradictory. When asked about the discoloration by the dogged Ron Fonger of the Flint Journal, the city spokesperson said he wasn’t sure. A couple of weeks later, Mike Prysby of the MDEQ told a reporter in Detroit that the color was the result of workers’ “unauthorized drafting of water from fire hydrants in these areas for street sweeping activities.” That, plus frequent main breaks, stirred up sediment and rust in the pipes, which caused the discoloration. The unauthorized hydrant use, he said, “will be discontinued.” So some officials said that open hydrants would help solve the discoloration problem: they cleared the water by moving it through the system faster. Others said that open hydrants were contributing to the problem: the surge of water caused iron to flake off the mains. The city’s annual water quality report opted for an all-encompassing explanation: the rusty color was due to the “change in source water, water main breaks, and routine maintenance” that caused the cast iron pipes to deteriorate faster than usual. Among the steps taken to fix the problem would be more flushing—open hydrants—and budgeting for the repair of a twenty-four-foot water main in an unspecified “area of concern.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 39-40). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

The City simply put out bad information, and when they were forced to test they tried to create conditions that would help them to show results that were at odds with reality.

“The city turned in a total of seventy-one. As usual, collectors had been instructed to pre-flush the water. They also sidestepped the EPA guideline to focus on high-risk locations—that is, homes that are likely to be serviced by lead lines, where contamination would be expected to be more severe. Flint couldn’t easily find those homes even if it wanted to, since the records on the location of lead pipes were kept on decaying maps and spotty index cards. But after Rosenthal sent his warning, nearly one quarter of the final tests were done at a stretch of road where a major part of the water main had been replaced some years earlier. When mains are updated, lead pipes, if they are there, are often removed, too. In Flint, these samples recorded very little lead. Finally, the rules require that homes tested in the first batch in 2014 be retested in the second round to make it easier to spot changes in the water quality. Yet only thirteen homes were retested—and all of these had scored low lead levels the first time around.51 Despite all that, Flint still exceeded the federal limit on lead, according to a report dated July 28. Even by the state’s own numbers, Wurfel’s claims on Michigan Radio didn’t hold up. The water wasn’t safe after all. The state would have to work with the city on a major notification campaign, advising residents on how to protect themselves. But then the MDEQ did a curious thing. It supervised a revision of the results, with two of the seventy-one samples—both with extremely high lead—dropped from the calculation. One of them came from LeeAnne Walters’s home. Scrapping those tests brought the city’s lead level down to 11 ppb. That’s high, but within acceptable limits. When these revised results were made official, Michael Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, added a handwritten note, “Two samples were removed from list for not meeting sample criteria.” LeeAnne Walters had been giving these public reports her close attention, and she noticed that her sample was excised. She wanted to know why. The MDEQ explained that she had a filter, which altered the water’s quality and invalidated the sample. (In fact, Walters had been told to remove the filter before the test, and she had done so.) The second sample was disqualified because it didn’t come from a single-family residence. Being stringent about the Lead and Copper Rule only when it lowered the lead count, while exploiting loopholes at every other turn, made the water seem perfectly compliant with the law.”

Clark, Anna. The Poisoned City (pp. 119-120). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

The bad faith shown by the above excerpt is outrageous, and these types of activities have led to multiple indictments. The State MDEQ was complicit, with that agency failing on multiple fronts. The above mentioned Lead and Copper Rule, part of the Federal Clean Water Act, is enforced in Michigan by the MDEQ, with oversight from the EPA. The initial move to the Flint River through the Flint water treatment facility made no provisions for anti-corrosion treatment of the water. That failure was a major reason for the calamity, as the Flint River water corroded aged lead pipes and leached lead into Flint’s water. The lack of corrosion control became a political football, but the EPA has recently issued an Inspector General report on that topic (and other regulatory failures of the EPA Region 5 office) that has shed some real light on that topic.

Ultimately this story had enormous human costs, bringing lead and other contaminants to the residents of Flint, harming adults, and having especially damaging impacts on children. Anna Clark has done a terrific job of bringing this story forward. There are so many important issues dealt with in this book, and the author covers them all admirably. I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

The indictment of two Flint Emergency Managers is covered by the national media.

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