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How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen?

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan – in which the city’s drinking water became contaminated with lead, bacteria and other pollutants – has come to national attention in recent weeks. President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up $5 million in federal aid, but Flint’s water problems have been unfolding for almost two years.

Ron Fonger, reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive, has been writing about the water contamination since 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as its water source. From covering city council meetings and town hall forums, where almost immediately residents complained about discolored, tainted water, he has had a front-row seat to the crisis. On this week’s podcast, Fonger speaks with ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg about what caused the problem, who dropped the ball, and what happens next.

(Jake May/The Flint via AP)

Highlights from their conversation:

  • For months, the government downplayed residents’ complaints.
    Fonger: If I wrote it once, I wrote it 100 times. The city and the state’s response was the water is fine; it’s tested and it meets all of the health and safety requirements of the law. They didn’t exactly say, “You people are crazy,” but they said there's nothing wrong with the water. (4:09)

  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that the city’s testing had cherry-picked neighborhoods that didn’t have a lead problem.
    Fonger: We reported late last year, based on documents that we had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the city filed false reports with the state. They certified to the state, as a part of complying with the lead and copper rule, that they were testing in homes that were at high risk of elevated lead. In other words, homes that had lead service lines. … Through FOIA, we requested the service line information that the city had for each of the homes that they tested. We found out that for only a very small number – much less than half – did they have any type of data to support that they were testing in areas that had lead service lines. That cast a large doubt on their sampling results, which they kept saying showed there wasn’t a problem. (9:28)

  • Flint’s socio-economic status – predominately poor, predominately of color – may have factored into how the problems were handled.
    Fonger: When people say that, I can't help but recognize that there's something to that. We are an old, great industrial town. Flint is where a sit-down strike produced what is the modern-day union movement; the United Auto Workers Union was born here. The city has taken a lot of hard knocks in the past 40 years. We’ve lost a lot of employment. Our crime is high. A lot of people who had the means to leave Flint did so. Our population has fallen from 200,000 to about 100,000. With all of those things happening, a lot of poor people live here. If you think about this happening in a more affluent area…I think the population generally would've been already more mobilized, and more politically connected, to be able to demand that this get addressed. (13:24)

  • While Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has released emails related to the water crisis, suggesting that officials derided concerns as “political football,” local reporters are calling for more documents to be made public.
    Fonger: I went through all of those emails, and I was underwhelmed by what we saw. There wasn’t much that had not already been reported. There’s a story talking about the fact that maybe not all of these emails were released. The emails go back to the governor’s contention that things got bogged down by the civil servants, that there were warnings from professionals who know about drinking water that there was something wrong. The bottom line problem didn’t get addressed. The agencies were more worried about technically complying with the law and what they had to do, versus identifying the problem and getting it fixed. (14:54)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, follow Ron Fonger’s reporting at the Flint Journal and read ProPublica’s Muckreads collection of reporting on the Flint water crisis.

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