We’ve seen this movie before…
Last month, disinfectant dispensing equipment that chlorinates the drinking water supply of Flint, Michigan ran dry, allowing untreated water to be distributed to city residents. According to documents obtained by MLive reporter Ron Fonger, a plant worker attributed the mistake to water plant staff members who are severely over-worked and under-paid:
A Flint water plant employee last month warned his supervisors that a lack of knowledge and potential burnout among employees are contributing to mistakes at the city’s water treatment plant.
A report filed after a disinfectant dispenser was allowed to run dry at the plant July 26 attributes that incident to operator error — a worker having been unable to refill or replace the chlorine tote, according to the document obtained by MLive-The Flint Journal through the Freedom of Information Act.
“I am not trying to make excuses for what happened, but I have put in my daily (summaries) in the past that due to lack of knowledgeable staff and employees (who) are working way to (sic) many hours, fatigue will set in and stuff like this happens,” the report says.
The employee also reported working seven days a week for two months with no days off, including many double shifts.
This situation is the sort of thing that led the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to issue a violation to the water plant for “significant deficiencies” earlier this month:
Flint’s water system has multiple “significant deficiencies,” according to a new violation notice from the state Department of Environmental Quality, the most recent in a string of harsh critiques about the troubled operation.
The weaknesses are detailed in an Aug. 11 letter and notice of violations from a DEQ engineer to City Administer Sylvester Jones, and the most serious problem areas include source water, financial, distribution system, and management and operations.
“The city has failed to select a long-term water supply source … The city’s failure to do so resulted in legal action by the DEQ,” a summary of the problems and recommendations says. “The lack of a long-term source agreement has prevented the city from moving forward with several important initiatives, including infrastructure improvements, establishing water rates, securing outside funding for critical projects, ensuring reliable delivery of drinking water, and recruiting/hiring water department staff.”
The city also failed to provide details about maintenance and replacement programs and standard operating procedures for hydrants, valves, meters and galvanized service lines, the report says.
The failure of the Flint City Council to sign off on a long-term contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) – the Authority that came out of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department when Detroit was going through its bankruptcy – certainly has created uncertainty in the water plant, uncertainty that may be contributing to high turnover of plant staff and difficulties in hiring new staff. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is ready to sign the contract but members of the City Council are dragging their feet, in part as a snub to Gov. Rick Snyder:
However, Flint City Council members are balking at the deal. Council President Kerry Nelson doesn’t think it’s in the best interests of Flint residents. He also doesn’t like that the governor supports the deal.
“We’re in this situation because of our governor,” Nelson told reporters Monday night. “Now he’s taken a stand and saying this is best for Flint. Well you said that before and we got poison water.”
It is estimated that the deal will save Flint over $7 million a year.
However, this is a minor political point which overlooks the true problem with Flint: it doesn’t have the funds to fully staff its drinking water plant with qualified people who are paid a decent wage. Why? Because Emergency Management has failed Flint.
I have been saying for years (since 2011, precisely) that Emergency Management is a model that will not work to solve the intractable problems that have led to financial crises in our state’s former urban manufacturing hubs. Emergency Managers are armed only with tools of DEstruction, not with tools of CONstruction. They can only cut. Cut spending. Cut budgets. Cut union contracts. And on and on. And when they are finished and the reins to the city are returned to the local elected officials, few of the systemic problems that led to the financial crisis have been solved. The municipalities still face the issues of serving a large geographic area with a diffuse population and a cratered tax base which hamstrings the local government with not enough funds to run the city the way it should be run.
So that’s where Flint finds itself today. When the State of Michigan declared the financial emergency was over in Flint, they gave control back to the elected officials and had saddled them with a poisoned drinking water system and a crisis that has now been all but proven to have actually killed people. And Flint is still struggling to pay its bills as well as its employees.
It’s time to get the failed law off the books in Michigan. It’s a failure and its failures have been proven time and time again. It seems that only Republicans in our state legislature are unable see that.