January 10, 2016 by Chris Kite
Michigan is one of those states that can be incredibly red or incredibly blue, depending upon where you look. But it has a populist conservative law that allows an emergency manager to take over management of cities and school districts when they are in financial crisis.
It has been used extensively in Michigan as few states have seen financial hardship as severely as Michigan. This is largely due to Michigan’s dependence on the auto industry and a steady decline in middle class union auto industry jobs. As good paying union jobs have declined and as union contracts have been negotiated to pay lower wages and give less job security, the economic impact on local economies has been devastating.
As financial managers have taken over cities in Michigan, they have taken typical right wing approaches like disbanding unions, dissolving school districts, and making draconian budget and service cuts.
None has been less tragic than Flint Michigan, a city that has seemingly been in decline for all of history. It goes all the way back to the 1960s as the auto industry stopped investing, the city suffered “white flight,” crime rates increased, and the city became a very bleak place.
The city has had several emergency managers, many of which made controversial decisions that had huge negative impacts on city employees and citizens. But none has been as horrific as the mismanagement and incompetence seen in the decision to change the city’s water supply from Detroit (which gets it’s water from the Detroit river, which flows from Lake St. Clair/Lake Huron to Lake Erie) to the Flint River.
This was a decision to save money. Because Detroit water was expensive. It apparently didn’t bother those in charge that the Flint river was know to contain trihalomethanes (THM’s). These are an environmental pollutant that can be carcinogenic.
But in making purely financial decisions, this didn’t matter. They switched water supplies and quickly started having problems. People noticed the water looked, smelled, and tasted funny. There were boil orders when people began to suffer nausea and diarrhea from the high levels of bacteria.
So the city increased chlorine treatment and thus created a real problem with TMHs. The water is so bad the local GM plant discontinued using it for fear of corrode car engines. GM was worried about corrosion of car engines, but the water continued to be the source of drinking, cooking, and bathing water for the city.
To make matters worse, Flint residents continued to have astronomical water bills that were as much as eight times the national average.
Then came the latest blow. The water supply is of a very different pH than the old “great lakes” water and it started leaching lead from the pipes. And as we know from history, lead is a very bad thing to have in a water supply.
Meanwhile, little is being done to deal with the problem. The state has not stepped in to supply safe water. They have not requested help from the federal government. Which is typical of Governor Rick Snyder and his hard core right wing fanaticism.
This is a perfect example of the harsh reality of typical Republican ideal of “fiscal responsibility” and punishment of citizens and workers that found themselves in a dire situation. People getting sick from their water when they are very close to the high quality fresh water of the great lakes shouldn’t happen. But when you make rash decisions in an effort to save investors and bond holders, rather than being concerned about citizens and workers, this is exactly the type of thing we should expect.