Case Study: Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis Part 2

Resident of Flint, Michigan had suffered with horrible water quality, money issues and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The situation was not over though. In part two of this case, you will learn about dangerous levels of lead in the water and government agencies obscuring the facts. Included in the link below are official government documents from the situation for you to explore as a transparency activity.

Government documents related to Flint Water Crisis


The EPA in February 2015 notified the MDEQ it had detected dangerous levels of lead in a Flint resident’s water. The lead contamination became impossible to deny in October 2015 with the announcement by the MDEQ that three Flint schools tested positive for dangerous levels. Since the water in the Flint River was not properly treated, lead from the old pipes leading to homes, schools, and businesses was seeping into the Flint water supply due to the switch in water source.

Lead can cause serious problems for anyone exposed to it. For example, cognition impairment, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty are common ailments in children exposed to it. Lead is thought to delay fetal development in pregnant women. It affects the heart, kidneys and nerves of anyone who consumes it. Although medicine can lessen the amount of lead found in victims’ blood, there is no medical intervention to reverse its effects. City Council members voted 7-1 to stop using the Flint River water supply in March 2015, but Jerry Ambrose, a state-appointed emergency manager, overrode the votes stating reconnecting to Detroit’s water supply would be too costly and was no safer than the water from the Flint River.

Further confirming the lead problem in 2015, a Virginia Tech research team found that 40 percent of homes had elevated lead levels. The research team also found Flint River water was 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron, which supplied water to Detroit. The researchers said the state should declare the water unfit for drinking or cooking because lead levels were so high the water would be classified as hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel told journalists he was skeptical of the Virginia Tech study’s findings. Adding to the controversy, the governor also announced 87 cases and 10 deaths of Legionnaires’ disease were found in the Flint area between June 2014 and November 2015. The link to the crisis was suggested, but Nick Lyon, director of the MHHS, said these cases could not be directly connected to the water.

The city switched back to Detroit water on October 15, 2015, and the city declared a state of emergency on December 14, 2015, with Michigan following through January 5, 2016. The residents immediately knew that something was wrong with their water, but the government officials took more than16 months to switch the water source. In November 2015, residents filed a federal class action lawsuit alleging 14 state and city officials (including Gov. Snyder) knowingly allowed residents of Flint to be exposed to a harmful water supply.

Although Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were filed, Michigan is one of only two states which protect governors from having to comply with such requests. Journalists file FOIA requests as a way to access unreleased information that is often controlled by government. However, since 1976, Michigan’s governor has been exempt from such requests. In Michigan, lawmakers are also exempt from FOIA. At Snyder’s State of the State Address in January 2016, some Democratic lawmakers wore blue scarves or clothing as well as buttons that said “What did you know and when did you know it?” and “No exemptions for transparency.” to symbolize their support for Flint.

Snyder’s office released more than 127,000 pages of emails from state departments involved in the Flint water crisis in April 2015. Some described this information release late on a Friday as a “massive late afternoon email dump.”

In February 2016, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Detroit said that not only were the inspector general and criminal investigation division of the EPA looking into the Flint water crisis, but also the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service were aiding the investigation.

Three government employees including a former laboratory and water quality supervisor, a district water supervisor for MDEQ, and a district water engineer were charged on six felony and misdemeanor counts including tampering evidence (felony) and willful neglect of duty (misdemeanor).

Other current and former state workers were charged with counts including misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly misleading the public and concealing evidence as the investigation continued in July 2016. As of November 2016, the state and city are still under orders to deliver bottled water to homes at which the government has not yet checked and ensured filters are working properly. The leader of a nonprofit group helping Flint residents said more than half of the homes with installed water filters were having problems with the equipment.

Moral of the Story: An Ongoing Crisis

The year-long investigation into the crisis was quietly closed by congressional republicans in December 2016. The committee provided no new findings or information about the crisis that has affected approximately 100,000 residents. However, after a year of arguments, Congress provided $170 million to help Flint and other communities with water supplies contaminated by lead. While the oversight panel’s senior democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said the investigation should continue, noting Snyder’s refusal to provide or search for key documents related to the crisis which would have helped the committee to determine what the governor knew and when and why he did not act sooner, it is highly unlikely the investigation will continue.

For more information and video accounts of the Flint water crisis, please see:

Next Page: Lesson 2 Assessment