Lead in the water: the Flint water crisis.

AuthorShelson, Jim
PositionFlint, Michigal

Jim Shelson is a partner in the Jackson, Mississippi office of Phelps Dunbar, LLP He is the Chair of the IADC Toxic and Hazardous Substances Litigation Committee.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 Toxic and Hazardous Substances Litigation Committee newsletter.

A Short History of Flint. Flint is located along the Flint River, approximately 60 miles northwest of Detroit. It was founded as a village in 1819 by a fur trader, and incorporated as a city in 1855. (1) "The Flint River provided the natural resources to create successful commerce in the 1800's for fur trading, lumber, the manufacture of carriages, and eventually the production of horseless carriages that led to the birth of the automotive industry." (2) Buick Motor Company was founded in Flint in 1903. (3) William Durant formed General Motors in Flint in 1908. "After World War II, Flint became an automobile manufacturing powerhouse for GM's Buick and Chevrolet divisions." (4) The good times did not last.

Deindustrialization and other factors led to a dramatic population decline in Flint. "From a peak of more than 200,000 in 1960, Flint's population had fallen below 100,000 residents by 2014. Since 2000, Flint has lost over 20 percent of its population. Of the remaining residents, approximately 57 percent are Black or African American. Poverty is endemic in Flint, with 41.6 percent of the population living below federal poverty thresholds--2.8 times the national poverty rate." (5)

"The City was the focus of 'Roger & Me,' a 1989 documentary directed by Michael Moore that examined the disappearance of auto industry jobs. Yet after the documentary, the jobs went right on vanishing. The city has hollowed out." (6) In 1978, over 80,000 Flint-area residents were employed by GM, but the number of employees decreased to 23,000 by 1990, and to 8,000 in 2006. (7)

The Water Crisis. Flint's Water Treatment Plant was constructed in 1917. It used the Flint River as the primary water supply for Flint for approximately 50 years. "To ensure adequacy and reliability of water supplies, in 1967 Flint signed a long-term contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).... DWSD's water supply has been treated for corrosion control for over 20 years and is deemed optimized for corrosion control treatment." (8) The Detroit water system was supplied by Lake Huron.

Michigan law allows the state to appoint an Emergency Manager to run municipalities that are in financial distress. Emergency Managers have complete control and authority over municipal decisions. "Since 2011, the City has been under some form of state-ordered and controlled emergency financial management." (9)

While under emergency management, Flint's contract with DWSD was terminated, and its water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. (10) In April 2014, Flint began distributing water from the Flint River to its residents.

In a disastrous (and incorrect) decision, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) determined that the water did not have to immediately be treated with corrosion control. Instead, MDEQ determined that Flint "could complete two 6-month monitoring periods and MDEQ would then determine whether corrosion control was necessary." (11) This decision "led directly to the contamination of the Flint water system." (12)

Water from the Flint River is highly corrosive to iron and lead, and these pipe materials are widely used throughout Flint. Water from the Flint River water has about 8 times more chloride in it than Detroit water. (13) Moreover, "iron corrosion consumes chlorine. Chlorine is added to the water to prevent growth of...

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