Lessons Learned from Flint – Failed Checks and Balances

Informed public policy and decisions are often made in the context of checks and balances.  When considering drinking water decisions, checks and balances assure that the public’s health is protected. This blog will not discuss technical reasons for the corrosion of lead as many science and engineering articles have provided an excellent explanation (see references 1 and 2).  The leaching of lead was completely preventable even in the decision to move from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Karegondi Water Authority (KWS) source of water.  This blog will focus on failed checks and balances related to the Flint water crisis. 

Like other catastrophes, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  In particular, there were major checks that could have offered a chance to change, reverse or delay the decision to use Flint River water as a source of drinking water.  These checks serve to balance the decision process. 

The first check in Flint’s decision to switch from the DWSD source of drinking water to another source was the voice of its citizens through its elected officials.  Flint, like many other cities, had undergone a gradual but steady decline in economic growth and status over 50 years.  Under the State of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Flint became in effect a “ward” of the State.  The Governor appointed an emergency manager to oversee the city’s finances and report to the Governor’s office.  The first check of city residents controlling decisions was dismantled.  True, the city council represented the citizen’s voices, but their voice could be ignored.  The Emergency Manager decided to leave the DWSD for financial reasons.  What if the decision to switch sources (actually 2 sources, first to the Flint River and then to the KWS), had been delayed so there was only a switch from DWSD to the KWS – in effect very similar water sources of Lake Huron?  The water sources were from Lake Huron and this so similar that there might not have been any major corrosion or minor control would have been needed. 

The second check in the decision to switch drinking water source was the City’s water treatment plant operators.  Their first priority is to provide safe drinking water for their citizens.  They voiced complaints but felt pressured to comply with the decision made by the EM.  Also absent from the public record, was the recommendation of the City water engineering company, Lockwood, Andrews & Newman (LAN.  What was LAN’s recommendations and were they ignored?  What if the plant operator, strongly supported by LAN, had said to the decision makers, “we will not switch to the Flint River as a source unless we have more time and expertise to do it right!”

The third check on the decision was the review by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  Almost all of the water professionals I have spoken or corresponded with agree that the change in water source in Flint could have been completed without a release of harmful levels of lead.  So what happened?  An independent commission found that the MDEQ Office of Municipal Services failed to provide the check on the proposed water treatment at the plant.  We also know from testimony provided by the Flint water operator that he voiced concerns with the MDEQ but was told it was alright to proceed without corrosion controls in place.  His misgivings about proceeding was so great he wrote emails indicating his better judgement was overruled by the Flint EM. Some MDEQ professionals also had concerns about the lack of corrosion control planned for the switch to Flint River water.  Again, what if the MDEQ had emphatically stated perhaps at risk of their jobs, the water plant was not ready and more tests and studies were needed?  Or what if they stated they needed more advice from the EPA and AWWA before proceeding so quickly?

The fourth check on this decision is the Region V of the EPA.  The Safe Drinking Water Act is very clear about who has authority in providing safe drinking water.  It resides with the states.  The EPA grants that right by examining the administrative capability of the state to execute its responsibility under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Region V EPA had concerns about the MDEQ’s capabilities during a major reduction of staffing and budget when a new Governor of Michigan took office.  What if Region V EPA had made a case against the State of Michigan and requested control of some of its programs until funding and staff expertise were restored?  

At this point you may have surmised that this article could be titled “Flint, a lack of courage leads to disaster” just as easily as its present title.  The lack of courage by professionals involved in the checks and balances of the decision led to the checks not working to prevent the lead in drinking water crisis in Flint.  Voicing strong concerns in the face of a decision based on money and not public health might have risked job loss or reassignment.  Standing up for public health takes courage. 

It is human nature to stay away from a situation or problem not directly affecting one personally or professionally.  Hopefully the Flint crisis has taught us that as water professionals we need to support our colleagues to give them the courage to do the right thing professionally.  It is our responsibility to our fellow water professional and to the public’s health to alert and support our colleagues of potential hazards, problems, and issues. 


  1. The Flint Water Crisis: What Happened and Why? Masten, Davies and McElmurry, 2016. Michigan Water Works News, Michigan Section of American Water Works Association. 
  2. A corrosive Issue: Lessons learned from Flint, Mi’s water crisis.  Carol Brzozowski.  2016. Water Efficiency.