Academic Study Seeks Policy Changes After Flint Water Crisis

When the city of Flint, Michigan, USA switched to the local Flint River in 2014 as the source of its drinking water, lead from aging pipes leached into water supplies. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A new report1 from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA) and funded by the de Beaumont Foundation (Bethesda, Maryland, USA) public health group issued recommendations aimed at better involving local health departments in decisions such as those made in Flint, Michigan, where a lack of corrosion controls recently led to lead-tainted drinking water for residents.

According to report organizers, the findings were issued to better diagnose what legal changes could be needed to prevent a similar crisis from occurring elsewhere.

“The Flint water crisis exposed jurisdictional gaps, overlaps, and inconsistencies in the state and federal legal frameworks that elicited confused and ultimately deleterious policy responses,” writes Peter D. Jacobson, a Michigan professor and leader of a five-person project team. “Consequently, this produced missed opportunities to mitigate the crisis.”

High levels of lead were detected in drinking water in Flint homes in early 2015, and corrosion of the water distribution system’s service pipes and solder was the cause of lead leaching into the water, according to researchers who studied the situation.2 

Prior investigations had found failures at all levels of government3 in responding to the crisis, including both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) (Lansing, Michigan, USA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Washington, DC, USA).

Investigators cited the MDEQ’s failure to order the required corrosion controls on lead service lines when Flint changed its water source in 2014 from a treated system in Detroit, Michigan, to the local Flint River as part of a plan to cut costs. Flint switched back to its original water supply in late 2015, but it was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes.

Emergency Manager Laws

One significant problem in Flint was that a state-appointed emergency manager’s jurisdiction over the crisis “undermined the local government’s ability to respond,” according to the report.

“Once the emergency manager took over, city agencies could no longer act, although state, federal, and county agencies retained legal authority to intervene,” Jacobson says. For example, the report says the Flint Department of Public Works asked MDEQ about adding phosphate as a corrosion control agent to the water, but MDEQ advised that such a decision would be made after completing two six-month monitoring periods. That practice was in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, the authors say.

To address the problem, the report recommends changes to emergency manager laws, which include explicit requirements that: emergency managers consider the public’s health in decision-making, local public opinion is considered, states develop a rigorous process for public participation and engagement in decisions once an emergency manager is appointed, and cost is prohibited from being the primary factor in decisions directly affecting public health and safety.

“Because the governor appoints an emergency manager, the state must develop a monitoring and oversight process to ensure democratic accountability,” Jacobson says. “Merely deferring to the emergency manager’s decisions without proper oversight was a major factor in the Flint water crisis. There must be a mechanism for local residents’ concerns to be heard.”

Other suggestions include a mandate that emergency managers consult with appropriate experts when proposing changes, and replacing a single-person emergency manager with a three-person team comprised of a financial expert, a local government operations expert, and a local ombudsman.

State, Federal Oversight

The report also called on the EPA to more closely examine “the culture of a state environmental agency” before granting primary supervision and enforcement responsibility for public water systems.

“Perhaps a more rigorous review of state programs is appropriate,” Jacobson writes. “Without a doubt, deficient agency cultures undermined effective implementation of the laws. For instance, the unwillingness to share bad news impeded opportunities to take more aggressive measures.”

In general, the report says public health agencies and local officials should be more involved in regulating major public water supplies. To accomplish this, the report calls on state environmental laws to require additional local health department participation in permitting processes. The authors add that local health departments would need adequate funding to perform this function.

The report singles out making new treatment determinations as an example where a local health department should be directly involved and carefully monitoring all associated health indicators, such as whether to install corrosion controls.

Separately, the report also calls on state environmental agencies to develop regulations requiring coordination with state and local health departments regarding actions to be taken and when to notify the public of an environmental disease outbreak.

Public Health Code

In the Flint crisis, the report authors say the primary problem was with implementation, rather than the structure of the state’s public health code. As such, addressing the implementation failures should be a priority for avoiding future similar crises, the authors explain.

“Public health should have a greater role in preventing exposure to environmental health threats,” Jacobson writes. “This function should not be managed solely by environmental agencies.”

On the science side, the authors say public health officials should focus lead prevention efforts “further upstream,” as opposed to waiting to respond to elevated lead levels in residents. As an example, the authors say the law should be structured so that tap-water sampling is conducted in potentially affected homes, rather than waiting for individual results to show elevated lead levels in a person’s bloodstream.

In addition, the report calls on public health agencies to recognize and weigh the risks of delaying action when making decisions. “For example, the [local health department] failed to declare an emergency in Flint immediately upon learning of the extent of the crisis, thus delaying availability of needed resources and response efforts,” Jacobson says.

Looking forward, the authors say they cannot suggest that adequate legal preparedness would have avoided the crisis. “But we suggest that the lack of legal preparedness compounded the other failures detailed in this and other reports,” Jacobson writes. 

Source: University of Michigan School of Public Health,


1 “Learning from the Flint Water Crisis: Protecting the Public’s Health During a Financial Emergency,” University of Michigan School of Public Health, January 2018. (March 19, 2018).

2 K. Riggs Larsen, “The Science Behind It: Corrosion Caused Lead-Tainted Water in Flint, Michigan.” MP, June 7, 2016. (March 19, 2018).

3 B. DuBose, “U.S. House Panel Concludes State, Federal Failures behind Flint.” MP, Feb. 1, 2017. (March 19, 2018).

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