In Flint, Michigan, “our city’s children were poisoned by toxic water because their governor wanted to save a little money.”
– Hillary Clinton, in remarks on Super Tuesday, March 2, 2016
Hillary Clinton has devoted a lot of attention to the water crisis in Flint, but readers have wondered about her statement that the problem was the direct result of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s wanting “to save a little money.”
The timeline is complex, but does Clinton’s statement stand up to scrutiny?
– The Facts
Snyder, a Republican, is a former chairman of the Gateway computer company who took office in 2011 promising to bring a business perspective to running state government. One key step was to appoint emergency managers to run troubled cities such as Flint. These managers’ powers could supersede even those of elected city councils.
Meanwhile, Flint officials had long sought an alternative to getting water from Detroit’s system, thinking that they were often overcharged. The city signed up to get water from a new $600 million pipeline from Lake Huron — but there was a gap between the end of the contract with Detroit and the completion of the pipeline.
So city officials decided to tap the Flint River as an interim water source, since it had on occasion been used as a backup supply when Detroit’s system had problems. Officials thought the move would save the cash-strapped city $5 million.
Separately, the state neglected to add the chemicals that would have prevented corrosion in the aging pipes, which caused lead to leach from the pipes into the water used by the city’s residents.
So there are several things going on here: Snyder’s decision to hire managers with extraordinary powers; a dispute over water costs; and incompetence in the handling of the new water source. But what we have to examine is Clinton’s specific claim that the crisis was the result of the governor’s desire to save money.
This is where the story gets murky. Some signs point to decisions possibly being made in the governor’s office, but a direct link to the governor is hard to find.
After Flint decided to sign up for the Lake Huron project, Detroit canceled a long-term contract in 2013 but tried to keep selling water to Flint at a reduced rate while the new pipeline was being built. The Flint City Council voted to join the Lake Huron pipeline but took no vote on whether to use the river while that was being built.
Documents show that on June 17, 2013, two Flint city employees proposed using the Flint River for water; nine days later, one of Snyder’s appointed emergency managers added his signature to the plan. Then, in March 2014, another emergency manager appointed by the governor rejected Detroit’s final offer to keep supplying water, thereby sealing the decision to switch to the river. That was revealed in a letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
Oddly, in 2012, the Flint emergency manager had nixed a plan to switch to the river water after discussing the option with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, according to testimony given under oath.
It is not clear what changed a year later, but Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, who proposed the 2013 plan to use the river water, told ACLU reporter Curt Guyette that the decision to switch to the Flint River went “all the way to the governor’s office.”