I’ve been following the water case in Flint, Michigan. For those not up to speed, Flint’s tap water has been shown to have levels of lead so high the water qualifies as toxic waste ever since the city switched the water supply from the Great Lakes to the Flint River. The decision to switch to the Flint River was NOT made by the elected officials of Flint. It was made by the city’s Emergency Manager, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (a Libertarian/crazy Republican). Ed Kurtz is the Governor’s appointed emergency manager. He can override any and all decisions by the elected officials of Flint and answers only to Snyder. Even so, Kurtz originally rejected the proposal to use the Flint River as the city’s primary water source in 2014. The river water was known to be particularly corrosive. It been rejected for use in GM’s auto plants because it rotted away the metal it was used on. GM Opted out of use of Flint water when the switchover was made in 2014.
Ed Kurtz was first presented with the proposal to switch to the Flint River for water in 2012 and rejected it. The reason the deal was ultimately accepted isn’t clear (which is why emails have been demanded by investigators), but ultimately the deal was approved and the switch-over from safe to unsafe water went through in 2014. From there, it fell to an Iraqi immigrant doctor named Mona Hanna-Attisha to blow the whistle on the rising levels of lead she was seeing in the blood samples from her patients. The good doctor fought the good fight and pushed against a Michigan political establishment that didn’t want to know. And now it’s universally known.
What’s not known is why it was done. Initially, the excuse was that Flint was saving money by not buying from Detroit’s system. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah took off on the idea that the whole disaster could’ve been avoided had Flint spent a mere $100 a DAY to treat its river water. but that answer has fallen apart over the past few hours. Per a report from independent reporters on the ground in Michigan, the Flint river water was MORE EXPENSIVE than the safe water from Detroit’s system. An e-mail obtained by Motor City Muckraker shows the deal would have saved the city $800 million over 30 years, which was 20% more inexpensive than switching to the Karegnondi Water Authority. In short, there was no financial justification for the switch. Quoting the Motor City Muckraker again:
So what was it about? Some have suggested that (Gov) Snyder was motivated by a desire to break up DWSD(the agency that previously managed Flint’s water system) and ultimately privatize it. In the summer of 2015, DWSD was split into two entities: the DWSD and the Great Lakes Water Authority.
Others have suggested that Snyder wanted to start fracking operations along a new pipeline.
Shock Doctrine at work?
Meanwhile–Michigan’s taxpayers are screwed. Flint had some 99,002 people as per the 2010 census. About 29,000 of those people are under the age of 18. Assuming there hasn’t been a wild swing in population over the past five years, there are perhaps 29,000 non-adults who’ve spent the last two years sucking down toxic levels of lead (plus other corrosives) in their drinking water. Let’s say that half are considered to be at an especially vulnerable age (ages 0-12) when this is happening and can demonstrate learning deficits that are measurable. By my count, that’s 15,000 plaintiffs in lead poisoning litigation at minimum. Thanks to the Findlaw site, we find that in New York State (which doesn’t really address the Flint problem, but does give some idea of the numbers of lead paint cases), The average settlement and verdict remains in the $150,000 to $500,000 range, primarily restricted by average policy limits rather than favorable verdicts. I’m guessing that a judge will rule that Michigan has deep enough pockets to go over that $500K limit, but even at the lowest level of compensation of $100K a person, that comes to… $
15 1.5 Billion. I’m guessing that’s the minimum amount the payout to victims will cost (not including court costs, usually borne by the defendant). I’m not sure what the cost figures will be for the adults who’ve been poisoned, but that won’t be a small amount.
Then there’s the damage to infrastructure. The Flint River’s water wouldn’t be corroding the pipes if the above-mentioned $100 a day treatments had been implemented. But the corrosive water has gone through all the pipes (both municipal and for local housing), and the lead soldering in the pipes is now exposed to the water going through them REGARDLESS of whether the water originated in the river or in the Great Lakes. A city that has lost most of its industry and nearly all its prosperity may well have to replace tens of thousands of feet of water pipe. And homeowners are probably going to be disappointed to find out that their insurers may pass on covering the damage. Even if homeowners’ policies cover this (weigh in if you work for the industry), the deductibles will be big and the expenses may be in the seven or eight-figure range.
The Litigation will be amazing.
The governor of Michigan has devastated a single city in his state as surely as if he were a terrorist tossing pipe bombs. Since he undertook those actions as governor of Michigan (a state that’s been on the skids since the 1970’s and the rise of the Black Plate People), the responsible party (i.e., the entity that can be sued) is the state. The State of Michigan has an annual budget of around $51 B. A worst-case on the children poisoned with lead would be in the several billion range, and that doesn’t count the adult victims and the massive reconstruction that will have to take place to get rid of the now-toxic pipe.
Watch this space.