Where does the responsibility for the Flint, Michigan, water crisis belong?

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In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The decision was made as a cost-saving measure because of Flint’s dire economic situation. But, not too long after the switch was made, residents began complaining about the taste, color, and odor of the water. Some began to have concerns about the water quality. By October 2014, coliform bacteria had been detected in some of the tap water, but the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed it on cold weather, aging pipes, and a population decline. Over the next few months, there were rising concerns about the water quality, including statements from the local General Motors factory about the water’s corrosive effects on auto parts and statements from local residents and private testing companies about higher levels of lead in the water. The City of Detroit offered to reconnect to Flint to its system in January 2015, waiving the reconnection fee, but the Flint emergency manager declined the offer. In September 2015, a professor at Virginia Tech reported that the corrosiveness of the river water was causing lead to leach into the supply, and shortly thereafter, a group of doctors in Flint urged the city to stop using the river water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of local children, which could cause learning disabilities, behavior problems, and additional illness. The results of tests showed lead levels running from 11 parts per billion to as high as 397 parts per billion. At this point, the “blame game” began. An official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said her department knew as early as April 2015 about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply, but she said she could not bring the information to the public and override state control. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy blamed Flint’s lead problems on state regulators who prescribed the wrong chemical treatments to keep corrosive river water from leaching the lead pipes. She said she did not have enough evidence of state delays that EPA needed to move in and take control. Some observers point out that the EPA did everything it was required to do under the law because there is no policy or regulation that required the EPA to tell the public what it knew about the lead in Flint’s drinking water system. In October 2015, Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water supply after the Governor got involved; however, residents still could not drink the water unfiltered. While the blame game continued, residents of Flint were waiting to see what the long-term health effects would be for those who ingested the lead-tainted water.
1. Who are the stakeholders in this case and what are their stakes?
2. Where does the responsibility for the Flint, Michigan, water crisis belong?
3. When would it have been the appropriate time for the EPA to notify Flint residents? Would it have mattered?
4. What would you have done if you were the “official” at the EPA who knew about the problem back in April 2015?
5. How is this an example of the tensions between law and ethics? Explain.
6. How can sustainability be a state and federal objective if cases such as the Flint River are permitted to occur?

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