Local Problems, Global Problems, and Government Competence

Timothy D.  Terrell
Posted: Feb 04, 2016 2:16 PM
Local Problems, Global Problems, and Government Competence

Last August, an accident at a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup project at the long-abandoned Gold King mine in Silverton, Colorado, resulted in a gusher of heavy metal-laden water into the Animas River. Not only did EPA project mismanagement cause the spill, but also its response after the accident was wholly inadequate. Apparently, it didn’t notify nearby residents for 24 hours, and it failed to alert officials downstream quickly that the toxic water was coming. Any private firm that had done this would doubtless have been fined or otherwise penalized—by EPA.

A recent water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan has once more underscored the problems with the government regulatory apparatus Americans trust.

For many years, Flint obtained its water from nearby Detroit. But when Detroit’s price continued to rise, cash-starved Flint sought alternatives. In the spring of 2013, Flint announced that it would get water from Lake Huron instead, after three years of construction on a new system. Shortly thereafter, Detroit announced that Flint’s water contract would end in a year, after which rates would rise. This left Flint looking at two years of expensive water.

Efforts to negotiate with Detroit went nowhere, so Flint decided to get its water from the Flint River until the system delivering from Huron was complete. This was a reasonable choice, provided Flint’s water department could adequately remove pollutants.

Flint’s aging water system, like many old ones, is made up of cast iron mains and lead pipes. Such systems require that the water be treated with anti-corrosive agents, and federal regulations mandate that. This prevents protective deposits from being eaten away from the inside of the lead pipes and keeps the iron mains from leaching rust into the water. But Flint failed to do this, allowing excessive amounts of lead to leach into the water.

Last October, after testing found elevated levels of lead in the blood of some children in Flint, officials declared a public health emergency. In November, four families in Flint sued state and city officials, citing serious health problems that can be traceable to lead.

In spite of the city’s betrayal of public trust, Flint hasn’t become a toxic waste site. David Mastio, former environmental reporter for the Detroit News, wrote recently in USA Today that lead levels have generally been falling. In the worst areas of Flint, he says, under 11% of children have lead levels over the 5 mcg/dl level that is the CDC’s threshold for concern since 2012. As recently as 2005, 26% of children statewide had levels that high. And in the late 1970s, 88% of American children had over twice that level. Furthermore, Mastio says, the blood testing method used is prone to overestimation of lead levels. Still, he says, “what happened in Flint… needlessly risked the health of thousands of people who deserve better, exposing anyone who drank tap water to poisonous lead that never should have been there.”

So far, this is a story of a financial dispute between city governments coupled with inexcusable incompetence. But then a cover-up emerged that implicated not only the city government but also the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

First, the city used water sample collecting methods that biased lead estimates downward. When municipalities sample water for testing, EPA requires them to take the samples from higher-risk locations. Flint didn’t, but it marked its samples as if it had. Flint also told residents to flush their water lines before collecting samples. This, too, led to a significant underestimate of the lead content of their drinking water.

Second, MDEQ is responsible for making sure water quality is tested, and it was complicit. MDEQ acknowledged that it allowed the city to use river water for 17 months without anti-corrosion treatment. Some have alleged that when some of Flint’s water samples revealed elevated lead levels, MDEQ had the city throw out two samples with the highest levels. To citizens concerned about lead, MDEQ just said “relax.” Michigan’s top environmental regulator, Dan Wyant, has since resigned.

EPA, aware of the problem for months and with authority over municipal water quality standards, argued with MDEQ about anti-corrosion treatment, but this only became public after EPA turned over internal e-mails following a Freedom of Information Act request.

This all points to some serious problems with regulation. Lead is a pollutant with well-understood effects on human health. The water quality problem so badly mishandled by Flint’s city government and environmental regulators is clear, concrete, and local. The causes and solutions are clear. Yet the regulatory bureaucracy still dropped the ball.

Flint is a microcosm of a much more serious problem with regulation. What happens when it comes to a foggy, abstract, and global issue like climate change? Sampling water from a few dozen homes is simple compared with measuring global, or even regional, temperature, and global or regional CO2 emissions. Yet this straightforward problem proved too much for government to handle without malfeasance. How can we expect the same kind of regulators and government officials to be competent, or honest, in larger matters?

And, as I often remind my students, backing away from one risk often means backing into another. So, for example, when regulators propose tremendously expensive regulations that force a shift to less reliable and sometimes untested renewable energy sources, this means fewer resources to attend to more mundane problems, like city water quality.

This should prompt some soul-searching among those who assume politicians and environmental regulators are basically competent, selfless experts. Can Americans look at a glaring failure like the one in Flint, or the Gold King mine spill, and not entertain a few doubts?