On Monday, Michigan officials began laying out their plans for how they will rectify the water-supply disaster in Flint, Mich., that has exposed thousands of children to lead.
The task is enormous. Contaminated taps citywide need to be replaced, and the lead pipes in Flint’s water system need to be addressed. Estimates run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet perhaps the most difficult problem for the city to repair, experts say, is trust.
For a city beset by violence, poverty, and mismanagement, the water crisis represents a breaking point for some in Flint and a broader lesson for cities nationwide.
“Government only works when there’s some level of trust or collaboration from the public, and it seems like there’s going to be a lot of tensions going forward,” says Eric Scorsone, associate professor and founding director of the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension Center for State and Local Government Policy in East Lansing.
Indeed, Flint residents have begun to weigh whether it’s worth waiting to see if officials will deliver on promises to clean up not just the city’s water, but its methods of leadership.
“I had already planned on moving because of the crime, the schools, and the abandoned buildings,” one Flint native, James Chad Richardson, told Yahoo News. “Then the water is like, OK, wow. How many punches to the head am I gonna take?”
The trouble began in April 2014, when Flint switched its water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The decision came during the tenure of state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was tasked to enact cost-cutting measures to stabilize the city’s debt-ridden finances.
Residents began complaining about the water’s taste and smell almost as soon as the switch took place. But officials began to act only in October 2015 – after Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards tested samples of the water and found levels of lead far above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations.
By then, more than 8,500 children had been exposed to lead. Toward the end of last month, officials said that about 200 Flint children have shown elevated blood-lead levels since the crisis came to light.
But the disaster, and the resulting loss of public trust, could also have a huge socioeconomic impact – one that other cities ought to learn from, says Glen Daigger, a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The unstable situation in Flint could easily lead real estate prices to drop and new businesses to balk at establishing a presence in the city – potentially making it even harder for Flint to recover financially, he says.
“The cost of a poorly functioning system [like Flint’s] is not just the repairs to the pipes. You really have to think about the situation not so much ... from a technical perspective,” Professor Daigger says. Rather, “it’s one really of confidence, of people having gone through what the citizens of Flint have been going through.
“Quite frankly, confidence has to be restored ... and restoring confidence has to be founded in fact, so that this community can pick up and start moving forward from a social and economic perspective,” he adds.
GOP Gov. Rick Snyder has said the full replacement of the city’s pipes is not imminent. But Michigan state authorities have acknowledged the loss of public trust and, in some ways, have begun to move to address it.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality was set to release a plan Monday outlining four rounds of testing. Each round would take about two weeks and is aimed at establishing a base line for lead in Flint’s drinking water and identifying where in the city people are being exposed to contaminants, the Detroit Free Press reports.
Also, Michigan Democrats – noting that the current disaster stems in part from issues related to a state takeover of local operations – have introduced a bill that would repeal the law that lets the governor appoint an emergency financial manager to take control of a local government’s finances. Many Michigan residents appear to support such a repeal.
And on Sunday night, top state officials convened in Flint not only to discuss the lead pipes in the city’s water system, but also to come up with programs to strengthen the ailing city’s economy, law enforcement, and overall management, according to a separate report by the Free Press.
“We know that the state has a credibility issue,” Richard Baird, a top aide to Governor Snyder, told the paper. “People are just scared to trust and we get that. We are going to think about ways that residents trust us again. Otherwise, all of this could result in people still saying they won’t drink the water.”
For Professor Scorsone at MSU, the overhaul needs to take place at multiple levels of government, which suggests the creation of an agency that coordinates efforts between state and local governments.
“That would help across the board – not just in water, but in a lot of other areas,” he says. “Right now, we have no centralized place [to oversee] state-local interrelationships.”
Others are plotting a different route to recovery. As part of a broader effort to hold Michigan’s various government entities accountable for their role in the crisis, a group of environment advocates and civil rights organizations have filed a lawsuit in US district court against state and city officials, asking the court to compel the defendants to replace all the lead service lines in the city.
“The people of Flint have lost their trust in government. Every single level of government in this case has failed the people,” says Anjali Waikar, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is among the groups that filed the lawsuit. “Rebuilding that trust is a long road. That’s why we think in this case, we need to have a federal court step in.”
Charles Haas, director of the environmental engineering program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, offers both hope and caution for what lies ahead in Flint.
“I think technically it’s possible to restore the quality of water to Flint,” he says. But “when you get to the social trust aspect, I’m not sure how long it might take.”