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A sign from a 2011 protest in Lansing against emergency managers.  (Photo: swskeptic/flickr/cc)

Congressman: 'Obsession With Austerity' Triggered Flint Water Crisis

'An obsession around governmental really dangerous and that's really the lesson we had all better learn really fast'

Andrea Germanos

The congressman who represents Flint, Michigan has lambasted what he says is at the heart of his city's water crisis: austerity.

Speaking at the White House Water Summit, which took place Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D) said, "I think the story of Flint, in part, is a story about water infrastructure. Because when we have aging infrastructure, particularly in Flint with so many lead service lines, we are at risk."

"But, the other part of the story, which is really the trigger to the crisis in Flint, is a story about the effect or the consequence of a brand of governmental austerity that is really dangerous," the Flint native continued.

"That backdrop [of aging infrastructure], with the overlay of governmental austerity that minimizes the need for robust enforcement of environmental protection, by essentially making it a second almost afterthought at the state level, and essentially defunding direct support for the city itself, created a series of almost unbelievable decisions to go from using the Great Lakes—the greatest surface fresh water source on the planet, which is only a few miles away from Flint, to the Flint river as a temporary water source, untreated," he said.

"It is almost unbelievable that that could happen, but it's this obsession with austerity," Kildee declared. "And the result... is astronomically higher than the cost associated with preventing it in the first place."

Kildee said a bill he introduced to fix the problem over the next ten years places the figure at "a billion and a half dollars," but qualified by saying, "Simply replacing all the private lead service lines is about a $55 million equation." That's a far higher amount than it would have taken to prevent the probe, he noted. "Simply providing phosphate treatment to the river water was about a $100 a day."

There's a cautionary tale to take from Flint, he warned, saying that "an obsession around governmental really dangerous and that's really the lesson we had all better learn really fast."

Kildee is not the first to make the connection between the lead contamination in Flint's water and austerity. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, for example, previously wrote, "Flint has become a nightmarish example of how misguided austerity policies can literally poison the public."

And Lonnie Scott, executive director of advocacy group Progress Michigan, similarly said, "The source of the Flint Water Crisis leads directly to Gov. Rick Snyder and the fiscal austerity policies that he and his Republican colleagues have been pushing for years on Michigan residents."

Calls for Snyder to resign have continued as the crisis unfolds, as many place blame not only on his administration's ignoring and delaying action on the public health crisis, but also on his appointment of Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, who enforced the April 2014 decision to switch the water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River.

Earley, as vanden Heuvel pointed out, "was unelected and unaccountable to the public."

As Alec MacGillis reported for ProPublica earlier this month, upon taking office in 2011, "One of [Snyder's] first actions was to sign legislation greatly enhancing the powers of emergency managers." And though, in 2012, Michigan voters said they wanted to kill the emergency manager law, "the legislature took up a bill to simply replace the repealed emergency manager law with a new, very similar one."

While facing a Congressional hearing last week, Snyder himself admitted that his emergency manager law failed.

And on Wednesday, the Snyder-appointed Flint Water Task Force released its final report, finding, as Associated Press reports, that "[t]he state of Michigan is 'fundamentally accountable' for Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis because of decisions made by its environmental regulators and state-appointed emergency managers who controlled the city."

Progress Michigan's Scott responded, saying, "This report rightly lays most of the blame at the feet of people who answered directly to Governor Rick Snyder, including his appointed emergency managers."

"At the same time," he added, "the report confirms that the only reason the world knows about the crisis in Flint is because of the heroism of the people of Flint, who refused to stay silent or take the Snyder administration’s 'sit down and shut up' attitude for an answer."

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