March 23 2016 12:41 AM

Experts balance anger and hope over Flint water crisis


If a March 16 panel of medical and policy experts is any indication, the next injury inflicted by the Flint water crisis will be whiplash from the conflicting urges to look backward and forward.

The downtown Lansing forum, hosted by MSU's Institute for Public Policy & Social Research, featured Flint pediatrician and MSU Professor Mona Hanna-Atisha, one of the researchers who blew the whistle on Flint's lead-poisoned water.

Hanna-Atisha focused on long-term solutions to Flint's health, poverty and education problems. But she didn't conceal her anger over the events of the past two years.

"Every agency that was supposed to protect [the people of Flint] failed," Hanna-Atisha said. "They raised concerns but their concerns fell on deaf ears."

"The water was brown. It tasted gross, it smelled gross, it looked gross," she said. "People were complaining. They went to town hall meetings with these jugs of water and they were arrested. Nobody listened be cause nobody was accountable for them."

Ari Adler, spokesman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, opened the forum by announcing that Flint had "turned a corner" from "emergency" to "crisis."

"We still have a serious problem in Flint where people cannot turn on the taps in their homes and get safe water," he said.

Adler called the crisis "a perfect storm of bureaucratic processes that weren't working properly."

"Everyone's responsible for it," Adler said. "The governor's trying to get everyone involved in fixing it."

Adler praised the panel as "tremendous," but he didn't linger to bask in its wisdom. "I want to get out of the way," he said, and left the room.

Adler's "perfect storm" image rubbed some panelists the wrong way.

Janice Beecher, an MSU professor and director of MSU's Institute of Public Utilities, said it was more of an "imperfect boat."

"I want to be careful about the perfect storm analogy, because it holds us blameless," Beecher said.

Beecher, an expert on utility infrastructure and pricing, said that people, not pipes, were the primary problem in Flint.

"It's astonishing to see the points of failure," Beecher said. "We saw denial of urgency in the face of very clear empirical information that was being presented. This was an operational and regulatory failure first, and only then a failure of infrastructure."

Federal and state regulators are often maligned, Beecher said, until something goes wrong.

"Flint is now the quintessential example of that," Beecher said. "Institutional failure has consequences — loss of security, trust and sometimes lives."

Beecher said she is especially alarmed at Flint's "very, very high" water rates.

All utility bills, she said, are regressive because they hit low-income people harder than middle- or high-income people.

"You simply don't use rates as a taxing mechanism to support city finances," she said.

Panelist Joshua Sapotichne, an assistant professor of political science at MSU, broke his scholarly cool to bristle at Adler's opening remarks.

"We can do a lot better than simply saying this was a failure at all levels or a perfect storm," he said.

Sapotichne and a team of grad students have been studying the fiscal impact of state policies on the "local financial distress" of cities for two years. The study, funded largely by the C.S. Mott Foundation, began before the Flint water crisis came to light.

Sapotichne said his team studied every city in the nation and found that "Michigan sets its cities up for fiscal failure." He faulted a wide range of state policies, from cuts in state aid to property tax assessment limitations to unfunded mandates for providing services.

"It's hard to be a city, from a financial standpoint, in the state of Michigan," he said.

After exhaustive research, Sapotichne said, his team found that "no other state so aggressively excludes local input" on decision-making.

Sapotichne found it "telling" that on April 29, 2015, the state made a $7 million loan to Flint's emergency manager, on the condition that the city not switch back to using Detroit water. He called the loan a "flashpoint" in the Flint water crisis timeline.

Hanna-Atisha talked about the damage done by lead poisoning, laying out medical research she and her MSU colleagues published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Lead poisoning, she said, costs the United States $50 billion to $100 billion a year in decreased lifetime earnings, special education costs, criminal justice costs and medical treatment costs. She said it costs Michigan $5 billion to $6 billion a year, "and this is all preventable,."

In Flint, she said, "the pipes are healing but the water is not safe yet."

"The 18 months of corrosive, untreated water severely damaged our infrastructure," she said. "It's like drinking through a lead painted straw. You never know when a piece of that scale is going to come off and go into the drinking water."

To offset the potential medical, cognitive and behavioral damage to Flint's children from lead poisoning, Hanna-Atisha said her pediatric team has submitted a wide-ranging set of "evidence-based" recommendations covering education, nutrition and health to state and federal governments and private funders.

She is pushing for several nutrition programs, including public education on nutrition, cooking classes "focused on lead" and longer term projects such as mobile grocery stores, breast feeding support and the expansion of WIC, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s federal assistance program for women, infants and children.

She said the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has already authorized funding for expanded Head Start in Flint and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D- Mich., has introduced a bill that would provide universal Head Start for Flint children.

"We have a unique opportunity to build a model public health program," Hanna- Atisha said. "We hope to serve as a model for the nation."

She pointed out that two independent researchers — herself and Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech — blew the whistle on high lead levels in Flint water.

"Two land grant universities, outside of government, were the checks and balances to government," she said.