Flint: The Smashing of the Public Trust

When describing an event where there are adverse impacts to the public and, as a result, confidence is lost in government officials and their ability to fulfill their duties, it is often said that the public trust has been broken. For the Flint water crisis, trust has not been broken. It has been shattered, smashed, defiled and then spit on. At one moment or another every level of government lied to Flint’s citizens about the quality of the city’s water, saying that it was safe to drink. Lied about a contamination of water that will damage their children’s developmental capacity. Permanently. That does not break trust, but annihilates the covenant between government and citizen.

Even while General Motors had stopped using Flint’s water, because it was corroding their car parts, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the City of Flint and, after the fact, even the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, have all lied, misled, remained silent or covered up the Flint water crisis. It was a grand failure of government responsibility to protect its citizens.

It is baffling to me, but not surprising, that Snyder is still in office. Just the day before yesterday he still maintained his innocence due to the fact that his staff deceived him about the crisis. He appointed the city manager who was incompetent throughout the crisis and the DEQ staff who supposedly lied to him. He continues to be hammered on the issue and accused of lying under oath to Congress. He has not taken responsibility for the crisis at any point and attempts to hold onto power as he faces a recall petition. Fortune magazine recently rated him as one of the world’s 19 most disappointing leaders, right up there with Sepp Blatter (FIFA), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s president) and Martin Shkreli. Once thought of as a Vice-Presidential candidate, his political career is for the most part dead. It should not surprise me anymore about what people will do to stay in power.

As long as he is in power, it is hard to conceive of a point when the people of Flint will trust anything that is coming out of his office or the Department of Environmental Quality. And this is the crux of one of the main issues of the damage that has been done, because of the water crisis. There is no trust.

One of the Red Cross coordinators showed me a pamphlet that announced a town hall meeting to discuss the water crisis. There was a list of ten government officials from different levels and agencies who were set to be there and answer questions about the current state of affairs. As the coordinator pointed out, every single one of the agencies represented in that group lied to the people at one point about the quality of water they were drinking. Why should the people believe a single word coming out of their mouth at such a town hall or any other venue? Why should they believe they are telling the truth now when they lied before?

In just thinking this through, who or what agency could actually come in at this point (or even well down the road) and say that Flint’s water is safe to drink and that the people would believe them? Not the Michigan governor or government. Not the EPA. Maybe Obama? Maybe Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor whose study broke open the crisis? People in Flint seem to be very happy with the newly elected mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, who took over from the Snyder-appointed city manager, so maybe if she says the water is potable, people will believe her. What is clear is that the issue of lost trust is not going away anytime soon and probably long after the water is safe to drink.

There are many sub-plots related to trust as well that have been critical in addressing the Flint water crisis. For one, like I wrote before, almost all households now have a Brita or Pur filter on their faucets. In theory, this should no longer require the use of bottled water anymore, as the water from the faucet filters is 100% safe for all uses. But, there is a lack of confidence in the filters themselves, so people continue to collect and utilize the cases of bottled water. There are also added steps and things to think about with the filters in that the cartridges need to be replaced (there are blinking lights), the flow is limited (because the water is filtered), you can’t run hot water through the filter or it destroys the filtering action, all adding small obstacles to their use. Plus, the water they are treating is filled with lead and when that is done at the household level rather than a treatment plant, I would imagine it would take time to build people’s confidence, especially with these small filters you attach with just one click. This is actually a field in psychology that is attracting more attention, as society moves toward water re-use (drinking treated wastewater) and what people’s perceptions are around this.

Rumors have also been a problem. At several points, it was rumored that some of the bottled water itself was contaminated. Niagara Bottling had Star Wars themed bottles of water (what I had in my AirBnB) and it spread that these bottles of water were contaminated. It’s possible that someone found an old article saying that Niagara had E. coli in some of their water from a bottling plant in Pennsylvania and there was a recall back in June 2015.

Yet another issue is that some people used pH strips to measure the quality of the bottled water. Bottled water often has minerals added to the water, so the perceived results were that even that water had lead inside.

And, as of today, the trust issue has taken another turn. Because people don’t trust the water; therefore by default they are not using much. The problem with this is that it slows down the rate at which the mineral coating is built up in the lead pipes, preventing the lead’s seepage into the water. To build up the coating, you need the water with the phosphates to go through the pipes and this is based on volume. The less water people use, the longer the coating of the pipes takes and the longer the current situation lasts.

What all of this demonstrates is a lack of communication and education on the issue compounded by the huge issue of lack of trust. Who is anyone to believe when the people have been lied to repeatedly? There is such a high level of cynicism right now within the borders of Flint, and with good reason.

On the issue of communication, it’s a hard one to tackle. The media has not been helpful as it views the crisis from the lens of sensationalism. From what I gather there are not public service announcements via television on the dos and don’ts of water use. Not everyone is connected to the internet and, even if so, there is so much out there, what is to be believed and how do you actually reach people? Flyers only work to a certain extent and, again, who would be considered an official, believable voice and how do you legitimize that through a piece of paper? Town halls are limited in their attendance. Working through faith-based organizations reaches a certain amount of the population, but not all.

It’s hard to even go door-to-door. People are often not home during the day, because of work and many neighborhoods are too dangerous at night. Even when you can communicate face-to-face, not everyone understands and many are suspicious. There have already been many reports of scammers going to people’s houses taking advantage of the situation. All volunteers/staff are supposed to carry a badge with them and residents are supposed to ask, but how were they even to get the message to check ID?

In the end, it’s a piecemeal approach where they try to cover as many people as possible, but I’m sure there are more than a few that fall through the cracks. The layers of complexity to this issue are profound even within a relatively self-contained unit of a city. It will take many, many years to regain the public’s trust and by that time, who knows what will happen to Flint, already in a downward spiral.


Full Photo: Photo of Governor Rick Snyder in the door window of an elderly woman’s home.

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