The Flint water crisis was on top of mind for a group of Michigan local government leaders who had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy Monday afternoon (March 7, 2016) in Washington D.C.
A contingent of Michigan local government leaders met with the Administrator and Mark Rupp, EPA deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental relations, while in Washington D.C. this week for the National League of Cities Congressional Cities Conference 2016. The Michigan contingent was led by League President and Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly; and League Vice President and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. Also attending the meeting were Carolyn Berndt, the NLC’s program director for sustainability and federal advocacy; Flint City Council President Kerry Nelson; Flint City Councilmember Jacqueline Poplar; League CEO and Executive Director Dan Gilmartin; Summer Minnick, the League’s director of external relations and federal affairs; and Chris Hackbarth, the League’s director of state affairs.
As most are well aware, Flint is in the international spotlight after elevated blood lead levels were discovered in some Flint children after its water source was switched to the Flint River. It had been purchasing Lake Huron water from the Detroit Water and Sewer System (DWSD). The decision to switch to the Flint River was made while the city was being run by a state-appointed emergency manager. At the time of the switch state regulators never required that the river water be treated to make it less corrosive, causing lead from plumbing and pipes to leach into the water supply. Even though the city reconnected to the DWSD in October, local and state officials continue to warn the public about the ongoing problem, are continuing to distribute bottled water and filters, and are encouraging pregnant women and young children against using the water unless it has been tested because lead levels in some cases continue to exceed what can be handled by the filters.
The Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees is bringing together a group of technical experts, public works administrators, city managers and local elected officials to discuss response strategies in the wake of the Flint crisis. This task force will discuss the overall link between the current crisis in Flint and Michigan’s broken municipal finance system. They will also develop a response strategy for all of our members to utilize when a resident or the media has questions about the safety of drinking water in their community.
The League believes that the issues we have seen in Flint, Detroit and other cities is a symptom of a larger problem. This isn’t just about replacing the lead pipes in Flint and saying “all fixed.” Certainly there is an immediacy to that issue that needs to be addressed and solved. But even with new pipes there are much broader issues that needs to be addressed. We must fundamentally change the way government operates. We should allow local government to maximize their opportunities to invest in themselves, control costs, and provide services deserving of a 21 century community. Until we allow this flexibility Flint and many other cities in Michigan and across this country will be limited in their ability to provide the foundation for a strong, thriving, diverse community.
As part of the meeting with EPA and Michigan officials vowed to work together to assist Flint and ensure something like this never happens again.
Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at [email protected].