The Framework for Coping with an Environmental Disaster: Lessons that the City of Flint, Michigan, has learned as it works to get lead out of its drinking water can show the way for other cities that are coping with their own crises.

Author:Newsome, Hughey

Flint, Michigan, suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory when the drinking water delivered to thousands of residents and business owners was contaminated by lead. Of course, the problem is not unique to Flint: Newark, New Jersey, recently had to begin distributing bottled water because of lead in its water-delivery system. In fact, more than 6 million lead-compromised water-service lines are estimated to be in use throughout the United States.

Lead pipes are just one example of the consequences we face when public infrastructure is neglected. We also have to be concerned about bridges, rail lines, sewer systems, and water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, the federal government has prioritized aged infrastructure inconsistently, and attention at the state level varies widely. Meanwhile, local governments rarely have the capability to address these problems on their own.

The reality is that deferred infrastructure maintenance will be addressed. It will make itself known in a reactively haphazard way--such as the day when Flint's water crisis exploded into national headlines after the city switched its water source to the polluted Flint River, which resulted in the leaching of lead from service lines--or it will be handled in a systematic, proactive way, with the city working to replace all of its lead lines.


Flint, Michigan state agencies, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services partnered on the program to replace the city's lead lines. The effort began in 2016 and has mostly been funded by federal grants from the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act and money from the state. Recent estimates for the final cost of the project total $95 million. Given that the City of Flint has a general fund operating budget of approximately $58 million, establishing a framework to manage this influx of federal and state money and the operational processes it is funding was critical.

The project presented some key lessons in approach and execution. Flint residents no longer trusted governmental entities, but other communities that make use of outside funding for infrastructure overhauls won't have to experience that. Some scrutiny is still to be expected, however--not only from the general public but also from media and funding organizations. Flint learned this the hard way; early in the process, delays in accountability reports, poor public...

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