What's Next for Flint?

POST BY Curt Guyette Investigative Reporter

A newly announced plan to permanently keep Flint on the Detroit-based regional water system has both sparked hope and raised important questions.

And if the six arrests for disorderly conduct made at last Thursday’s town hall meeting held to discuss the plan are any indication, government officials have a long way to go before residents traumatized by the ongoing crisis are convinced the deal is truly in their best interests.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver disclosed the plan at a press conference on Tuesday, saying she supports a deal to allow the city to continue buying its water from the Great Lakes Water Authority for the next 30 years.

The city is currently bound by contract to begin purchasing its water from the Karegnondi Water Authority once Flint’s treatment plant is upgraded to handle raw Lake Huron Water pumped through the newly built Karegnondi pipeline.

Flint borrowed $85 million – in a possibly illegal deal -- to construct that pipeline and is committed to paying $7 million a year until the debt and interest are paid off. In addition, the city is contracted to buy up to 18 million gallons of water per day (gpd) from the KWA.

The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) – which was created during Detroit’s bankruptcy to take over the city’s sprawling regional system – is offering to provide Flint with a credit equal to the amount of its annual bond payments. It is also offering to assume rights to that 18 million gpd that Flint would longer need if it stays with the GLWA.

The deal would allow Flint to either shutter or sell its aging, costly water treatment plant. The latest estimate is that it would cost more than $100 million to treat the Karegnondi’s raw Lake Huron Water.

Instead, much of that money could be used to provide badly needed repair and replacement of the city’s failing water mains and other infrastructure.

It would also keep the city from having to deal with yet another change in its water source.

Until April 2014, Detroit had provided Flint with treated water for nearly 50 years. Flint’s water plant was used only as a back-up source in case there was some disruption in the flow of water from Detroit.  Then, as a result of its commitment to the Karegnondi project and the ill-fated decision to save a few million dollars – an appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source to the Flint River.

The tragic results of that ongoing disaster—dubbed the Flint Water Crisis—are now well-known, as a city of nearly 100,000 people has spent the past three years grappling with a lead-poisoned water supply.

In October 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder allowed Flint to return to the treated water provided by the GLWA. The proposed deal announced by Mayor Weaver would keep the city from having to go through yet another costly, disruptive change in water sources.

Weaver said another advantage of going with the GLWA would be that it allows Flint residents to benefit from the authority’s water assistance fund, which helps low-income residents pay their water bills.

Which brings us to one of the questions we have.

In 2015, we reported that, according to its own study, the GLWA admitted that the $4.5 million being allocated to assist poor people in paying their bills was entirely inadequate.

Referring to the GLWA’s planned Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), the report warns: “Unfortunately, the scope and structure of these efforts pales (sic) in comparison to the endemic problems induced by persistent poverty in our communities. WRAP will provide support to a select number of families in need. Preliminary estimates indicate that 2,000 to 5,000 households will be provided assistance each year under WRAP.”

It is important to keep in mind those households aren’t just located in Detroit, but are spread throughout a southeastern Michigan region filled with poor people.

“The numbers are daunting – indicating that over 685,000 individuals are living below the poverty line in the three largest counties [Wayne, Oakland and Macomb] in the GLWA service area,” the report noted.

So how much assistance would actually be available to the people of Flint—a city with a poverty rate of 40 percent and water bills that are already among the highest in the nation?

Another question has to do the 18 million gpd in water rights the GLWA is assuming.

Who will be buying that water?

We submitted to the GLWA, but have yet to receive an answer.

The proposed deal is being hailed by officials at all levels of government as a win for all. But the Flint Journal,  in an editorial voiced a sound note of caution.

“Forgive our skepticism, given this is not the first time officials have celebrated Flint's water future,” wrote the paper’s editorial board. “A smiling photo-op with politicians cheering each other with full water glasses three years ago ended with catastrophic results. That's when the city turned to the Flint River for drinking water and elevated blood lead levels were eventually detected in some children as the improperly treated water caused lead to leach from service lines and plumbing. A Legionnaires' disease outbreak, which coincided with the water switch, left 12 dead and dozens more sickened.”

If the deal does pan out, however, it will produce a circular conclusion that only serves to highlight what a terrible fiasco this tragic series of events has been for the people of Flint.

Forced off the system that had been providing clean, safe water for nearly half a century; made to drink dangerous, improperly treated river water; forced to wait for a costly new pipeline to be built, only to end up returning to, and staying with, the source it abandoned three years ago -- that’s a lot of tragedy and waste to only end up back in the same place.

As Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) told the Free Press, if the people cutting this deal had gotten together four or five years ago, "all these problems wouldn’t have happened. It’s really frustrating because it shows you the failings of the emergency manager law and the fact that people don’t have a voice."

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org. His “Democracy Watch” blog can be found at http://www.aclumich.org/democracy-watch-blog.

(Photo: Flint River)

...if the six arrests for disorderly conduct made at last Thursday’s town hall meeting held to discuss the plan are any indication, government officials have a long way to go before residents traumatized by the ongoing crisis are convinced the deal is truly in their best interests.

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