Friday, February 5, 2016

What The Hell Is This About #2: Flint

It's another sad reflection on the state of affairs in contemporary America today that I had no earthly idea anything was going on in Flint until a post by Michael Moore calling for the arrest of Michigan Governor Snyder floated by on my Facebook feed. Rachel Maddow seemed to be pretty pissed off about it as well.

So what happened? Well, the New York Times has a pretty good timeline of events and the thing that shocked me is that this has been brewing since 2014- when the city of Flint switched their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April of that year. Residents began to complain about issues almost immediately after, but the first real warning sign and alarm bell (at least to me) should have come in October 2014 when a local GM Plant stopped using water from the Flint River because it was corrosive to car parts. Yet people were told that the water still safe for people to drink...which does not compute in my brain even a tiny bit- perhaps if your water source is corroding car parts you should take a second look at where you're getting your water from? Maybe? Just going to put that out there...

If I'm understanding this right, basically the water from the Flint River was so corrosive, it stripped lead from Flint's aging pipe infrastructure and dumped it straight into their water supply- and one thing every scientist agrees on is that ingesting any lead is not a good thing. Even though Flint switched back to it's original water source in October of last year, damage was already done. Lead was already in the water. Different regulators seem to have different level as to what constitutes bad or alarming levels- but everyone is on the lead is bad team. The good news/bad news- at least described in this column- and yes, I wasn't crazy about the overall tone of 'well, it could have been a lot worse' either- is that the government has been pretty aggressive about going after lead and as little as a decade ago, something like this really could have been a lot worse. Not that I imagine that's particularly comforting to people in Flint, but at least the government doesn't have it's head all the way up it's ass on the issue. Just, you know, far enough to poison a large city in Michigan. (Proof of head-in-assness on the part of the government: apparently every major city east of the Mississippi is under reporting heavy metal levels in their water. Which in the wake of this seems like an incredible ill-conceived idea.)

Regulators seem to be dropping the ball all over the place- the EPA knew. State regulators knew. The Governor (and I'll get to the issue of accountability in a second) was getting told that everything was AOK, just jim-dandy and the water was safe. (Both Conservative and Progressive sources seem to agree that the EPA knew that the water was bad for months and didn't tell anyone.) But the failure- and it seems to be a failure on multiple levels of governance seems to stem from the fact that nobody wanted to deal with this- this quote, if accurate is especially damning:
"some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state."
So, the people directly affected by this crisis, were, of course, politicizing the issue? Oh man, levels of W-T-F associated with that quote are rage inducing. What if it was your kids? If it was mine, I'd be chaining myself to someone's desk to get something fixed. (Plus, why are you still sending water bills to people? Fuck that noise.) Which brings me to the most important issue: accountability.

Democratic/Progs have been pretty damn vocal about this story- and good for them, because honestly, if not for the very loud drumbeat of people like Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow, I'm not entirely sure this would be as well-known as it should have been. They've also been pretty clear on the need for Governor Snyder to resign- though Hillary Clinton didn't quite go so far as Mr. Moore to call for his arrest. (Republican/Con sources have been asking if a Democratic Governor would have been subject to the same calls for his resignation...  my gut says probably not, but it's a silly point to make to begin with. There was a massive failure here and people were poisoned- does it matter what party people belong too as long as heads roll over this?)

An EPA Official has already resigned- and my instinct said that everyone should go from the Mayor on up- but this article dropped some knowledge on me, namely that the current Mayor, Karen Weaver was only elected this past November vowing to address the city's water problems and one of her first acts right out of the gate was to declare an emergency in the city- which seems sensible. So, while I've seen some (mainly Conservative sources) calling for her resignation as well, I think she gets a pass on this one as she got elected to fix things.

Should the Governor resign? I was initially unsure- I felt like since he made the mess, he should fix it, investigate it and find out what went wrong and if that investigation concludes that the failure that lead to this mess included his office then yes, he should resign- but if the people of Michigan can't trust him to fix the problem or find out what went wrong, then yes, he should resign. But really, that's up to Michigan. (This article from The Daily Beast and this article from Reason don't exactly paint the Governor's office in a good light though- really, whatever the motivations- if it does come out for sure that the decision to use the Flint River as the main water source for the city did come from the Governor's Office- then I know if I was a Michigan resident, I'd want his ass out. The buck has to stop somewhere and if there was a failure at multiple levels of government there should be accountability at multiple levels of government as well. (This broke last week from Mother Jones- and if it turns out to be true, then yes, Snyder needs to resign.)

Democrats/Progs have been beating the usual drumbeat of 'AUSTERITY KILLS' on this issue and with good reason- I understand that if you're broke, you've got some hard decisions to make about what stays and what goes to get you back in the black, but the one thing you should never, ever put on the chopping block is your water supply. I think I read somewhere that Flint's chief difficulty surrounded their pension obligations, which were considerable. But again- as much as I hate to admit it, if you really, really have to choose between retirement account or potentially compromising your water supply- and when I say really, really, I mean, like you have no other choice- salaries of elected officials have been cut, services are at bare bones, etc, etc- as shitty as it is, you shouldn't fuck with your water supply.

But with the expansion of Michigan's 'Emergency Manager' law championed by Governor Snyder and state Republicans to help clean up some of this fiscal mess, real questions are being raised about the democratic nature of such reforms and those questions seem especially legitimate when you find out that Flint's City Council voted to switch their water back to the original source and was overruled by the city's Emergency Manager- which undermines the most basic notion of democracy.

What always irritates me about austerity is that it's never handled in an even-handed fashion- politician never cut their salaries. Corporations shimmy their way out of taxes. And cuts, when they come down are from the bottom up and not the top down. At the end of the day, as a voter, I expect people I vote for to manage the money effectively- but if you've been wading through two decades of economic bad news like Flint has, managing the money effectively may be a lot harder than any pundit, would-be-blogger or journalist can imagine.

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