Susan Montgomery / Shutterstock.com

January 9, 2016; Detroit Free Press

The story of Flint, Michigan’s troubled water supply and the health hazards faced by its residents is now being described as a human rights violation. As readers will recall, this is the second time that access to safe water as a human rights issue has emerged in Michigan over the past two years. In June 2014, Rick Cohen wrote that the UN criticized the mass turn-off of water accounts in Detroit. But in that case, residents were turned off for nonpayment; in Flint, residents were inadvertently paying to poison their own children. Ruth McCambridge described the Flint situation for NPQ last month:

Since the city began using the Flint River as its water source in 2014 to save money against a more expensive option while a larger more permanent transition was made, the proportion of lead in the bloodstreams of local children has almost doubled. This presents both an immediate and long-term generational public health crisis of as yet unknowable proportions. High lead levels, of course, can affect the intellectual and behavioral development of infants and children and can cause anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. These effects are often irreversible.

To solve the problem, Flint’s water supply was reconnected to water drawn from Lake Huron. But the threat of lead poisoning will remain until significant and expensive repairs can be made to Flint’s infrastructure to eliminate the damage done during the months the city relied on corrosive water drawn from the Flint River. The Detroit Free Press described this continuing challenge.

Michigan’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, said Thursday that Flint residents should either use a lead filter on their drinking water taps, or drink bottled water, until further notice. The Flint water is safe to drink if a properly installed and a properly maintained lead filter is used, Wells said. She also called on parents to have children younger than 6 blood-tested immediately for signs of lead poisoning.

On Thursday, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, tried to quiet the growing political fallout. CNN described the governor’s attempt to move beyond the controversy.

“This is about solving problems, improving the water situation in Flint, and actually trying to improve all of Flint for the longer term,” Snyder said at a news conference following a meeting with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. The governor said he wants tangible measures, such as additional testing and filters for the Flint community, but also long-term solutions to provide health care for those who were affected by the lead in the water. He apologized for the crisis, calling it an “unfortunate situation.”

According to NBC News, Snyder refused to say just when he knew that the Flint water crisis was being mishandled, saying only, “We’re going to do this in a comprehensive fashion, not a piecemeal fashion.” Critics of the governor think the answer is already known. In November, the ACLU and the Environmental Defense Fund notified city and state officials of their intent to sue those they believe responsible for the crisis:

Since April 2014, the City of Flint and Michigan state officials have failed to monitor and control for lead in Flint’s drinking water and maintain a program to assist Michigan schools with lead testing and remediation, in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. If City of Flint and Michigan state officials—including Governor Rick Snyder and Dan Wyant, Director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality—do not remedy violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act within sixty days, the groups intend to file a lawsuit in federal court.

Flint resident and documentarian Michael Moore was even clearer in an open letter to the governor.

Your staff and others knew that the water in the Flint River was poison—but you decided that taking over the city and “cutting costs” to “balance the budget” was more important than the people’s health.…So you cut off the clean, fresh glacial lake water of Lake Huron that the citizens of Flint (including myself) had been drinking for decades and, instead, made them drink water from the industrial cesspool we call the Flint River…which only ended up stripping the lead off of Flint’s aging water pipes, placing that lead in the water and sending it straight into people’s taps. Your callous—and reckless—decision to do this has now, as revealed by the city’s top medical facility, caused “irreversible brain damage” in Flint’s children, not to mention other bodily damage to all of Flint’s adults.

Like so many issues of public accountability, where the buck stops for the poisoning of Flint residents will not be known any time soon. We do know that unless he chooses to run for a different office, Governor Snyder will not face any repercussions at the ballot box: Michigan’s term limit laws prevent him for running for reelection in 2018. Any criminal or civil penalties await the state panel’s final report, but it has no deadline for completion. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has begun an investigation of its own.

So, is this another case where elected officials make bad decisions with serious lifelong consequences to local residents, “apologize,” and walk away unscathed? Months or years from now, we may finally know.—Martin Levine