In Flint, Mich., "our city's children were poisoned by toxic water because their governor wanted to save a little money."
--- Hillary Clinton, remarks on Super Tuesday, March 2, 2016
Hillary Clinton has devoted a lot of attention to the water crisis in Flint, but readers have wondered about her statement that the crisis was the direct result of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder wanting "to save a little money."
The timeline is complex, but does Clinton's statement stand up to scrutiny?
Snyder, a Republican, is a former chairman of Gateway Computers who took office in 2011 promising to bring business perspective to running state government. One key step was to appoint emergency managers to run troubled cities such as Flint; these managers had powers that could even supersede an elected city council.
Meanwhile, Flint officials had long sought an alternative to getting water from Detroit's system, believing that they were often being overcharged. The city signed up for getting water from a new $600-million pipeline from Lake Huron - but a gap emerged between the completion of the pipeline and the end of the contract with Detroit. So city officials decided to tap the Flint River as an interim water source, since it had on occasion been used as a back-up supply if Detroit's system had problems. Officials thought the move would save the cash-strapped city $5 million.
Separately, the state neglected to add the chemicals that would have prevented corrosion in the aging pipes, which led to lead leaching into the water used by the city's residents.
So there are several things going on here: Snyder's decision to hire managers with extraordinary powers, a dispute over water costs and incompetence over handling the new water source. But what we have to examine is Clinton's specific claim that the crisis was the result of the governor wanting to save money.
This is where the story gets murky. There are signs pointing to decisions possibly being made in the governor's office, but a direct link to the governor himself is hard to find.
After Flint decided to sign up for the Lake Huron project, Detroit canceled a long-term contract in 2013, but attempted to keep selling Flint water at a reduced rate while a new pipeline was being built. The Flint city council voted to join the Lake Huron pipeline, but took no vote on whether to use the river in the interim while that was being built.
Documents show that on June 17, 2013, two Flint city employees proposed using the Flint River for water; nine days later, one of Snyder's appointed emergency managers added his signature to the plan. Then, in March 2014, another emergency manager appointed by the governor rejected Detroit's final offer to keep supplying water, thereby sealing the decision to switch to the river. That was revealed in a letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by ACLU of Michigan.
Oddly, in 2012, the Flint emergency manager had previously nixed a plan to switch to the river water after discussing the option with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, according to testimony under oath. It is not clear what changed a year later, but Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, who proposed the 2013 plan to use the river water, told ACLU reporter Curt Guyette that the decision to switch to the Flint River went "all the way to the governor's office."
But Croft's claim has not been confirmed by other sources. Note also that he said "the governor's office," not the governor.
It has been documented that complaints about the water reached Snyder's inner circle in 2014, with at least one aide urging the system be switched back to Detroit. But the recommendation did not reach the governor. "Treasury Department officials concluded the cost to reconnect Flint to Detroit water - an extra $1 million per month - was deemed more than the cash-strapped city of Flint could afford," the Detroit News reported.
In March 2015, when the Flint City Council voted to return to the Detroit system, the emergency manager overruled that vote, saying Flint couldn't afford to return to the Detroit system.
Snyder's office insisted he was not involved in the decision to use Flint river water.
"This was never about money, so Hillary Clinton's claim is bogus," said Ari Adler, communications director for Snyder. "This was a failure of government at all levels that could be described as a massive error of bureaucracy." He added: "The decision to move to the Flint River as the primary temporary water source was not made at the direction of the governor's office."
Adler described a cascade of errors, including a failure to use corrosion control chemicals, repeated assurances from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the water was safe, poor follow-up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a lack of questioning in the governor's office about the DEQ assurances as residents' complaints and news reports should have raised alarm. "This is why Gov. Snyder has apologized, taken responsibility for what happened and has begun a top to bottom culture change in Michigan state government," Adler said.
We should note that our colleague Dana Milbank, in an opinion column, has blamed Snyder for the crisis, saying it stemmed from his decision to appoint emergency managers in the first place. Milbank pointed out that all three critical decisions - using Flint river water, terminating the Detroit contract and overturning the council's vote to stop using the water - were made by Snyder's appointments. "The unelected viceroys had mandates to improve municipal finances but little incentive to weigh other considerations," Milbank said.
One difficulty in making a ruling is that not all of the facts have been gathered about the decision-making behind the fateful decision to shift to the river water. But that also means that Clinton cannot be so definitive in her statements assigning the blame to the Republican governor.
As far as we know, there was no direct involvement by Snyder in the decisions regarding Flint's water supply, especially concerning questions about costs. The key decision were made by people he appointed - and perhaps his office was kept in the loop about those decisions - but that is not the same thing as directly assigning blame to Snyder. If Clinton wants to make the argument that Milbank makes - that Snyder's system of emergency managers was to blame - then she needs to explicitly make that case.
Unless new information comes to light showing Snyder's direct involvement - there is some smoke - but no fire.