In 2014, Flint was plunged into a water crisis. However, this was not the result of over abstraction or drought. Instead, the city’s water scarcity which continues today was caused by poor regulation. The tragedy in Flint demonstrates the critical role that regulators play in ensuring both the quantity and quality of the water delivered to communities.
Over the last five years, it has become clear that senior officials were aware of the water quality issues in Flint but continued to claim that the water was safe to drink. This inaction had serious consequences including multiple lawsuits and the trial of Michigan’s health director accused of involuntary manslaughter. From the start, much of the blame for the disaster was directed at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report [pdf] from March 2016 said that the MDEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”
The failures were not limited to responding to residents’ concerns about the water quality either; the chain of blunders date back to the original switch of city’s water source to the Flint River which triggered the crisis. The report said the shift was rushed, a concern which had been raised at the time by former utility’s administrator for Flint, Michael Glasgow. Furthermore, the report blamed the MDEQ for not treating the river water with corrosion control as is mandated by federal law. A 2017 review [pdf] of the MDEQ by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily criticised the state, reporting multiple errors including failing to properly implement key provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule.
While the EPA may be prepared to dish out criticism, they must reflect on their own failures as well. The EPA are supposed to enforce federal safe drinking water laws, but they did not do enough to protect the residents of Flint. When the alarms were first raised, federal officials believed the city was exaggerating in order to get more financial help. Additionally, a report by the Inspector General of the EPA [pdf] found issues in the relationship between the MDEQ and the EPA. For example, a clear oversight role was not implemented, communication between the two organisations was weak and the EPA failed to use all tools at its disposal to ensure the compliance of the MDEQ. Criticism can also be levied at the EPA for the weakness of the thirty-year-old Lead and Copper Rule which has since been revised to strengthen requirements for lead testing.
It is understandable that the trail of lies has resulted in serious damage to the trust of residents in the water and those who are supposed to protect its quality. Some believe trust will never be restored, and it certainly does not help that there are continuing issues with regulatory transparency, communication with the public, and the pace of replacing service lines [pdf].
Bottom Line: The failures of the regulators in Flint demonstrate the critical role that regulators play in ensuring that utilities provide water of sufficient quantity and quality. Both the MDEQ and the EPA failed in their duty to enforce laws on safe drinking water. In theory, a city like Flint should not be short of drinking water since it is located so close to the Great Lakes but the events of the last decade show that poor management can create water scarcity where it never need to be.
* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂