The Flint Water Crisis: Evidence of a flawed Safe Water Drinking Act

The Flint Water Crisis:

Evidence of a flawed Safe Water Drinking Act
by Lukas Gschwandtner


What was once a thriving industrial city that housed the nation’s largest General Motors plant, the town of Flint, Michigan is now home to one of the most recent environmental disasters in the United States. In a case of economic gain over public health, the city has been left with countless reports of increased lead levels in its drinking water.[1] The issue began in April 16, 2013 when the city decided to end its use of water from the city of Detroit and begin contracting with the Karegnondi Water Authority. Before the switch can be made, public officials decided to use water from the Flint River, a river with a history of being an industrial dumping ground since the time of Rust Belt prominence.[2]


After E coli and total coliform bacteria were found in the river, chlorine was added to disinfect the water. The history of industrial waste in the river and the addition of chlorine made the water highly corrosive. When the Flint River water entered the pipes of Flint’s public water network, it caused the lead in the pipes to corrode and enter into the tap water of households across the city.[3] How did this happen? The answer lies within complicated stream of government misconduct across all levels, which may stem from the flawed nature of the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA). The piece of the SWDA that allows for states to apply for primacy, which says that they will adopt equal or higher standards than those set by the SWDA, allows for state neglect to occur. The room for negligence created by the flaws in the act are to blame for instances of environmental justice such as the Flint Water Crisis.


Originally passed by Congress in 1974, the purpose of the act and its amendments were to regulate the nation’s drinking water supply and its sources to protect public health. It also authorized the United States Environmental Protection Agency to set the standards for national health.[4] The provision of the act, however, that allows for the state and tribal national to apply for primacy, giving them control over the regulation of the drinking water, leaves room for error within the states. Primacy allows for a picking and choosing style of what a federal regulations a state wants to adhere to and leaves room for economics to outweigh public health.[5]


The case of the Flint water crisis is a perfect example of the issues of primacy. Susan Hedman, who was the head of EPA’s region 5 (which included Flint), issued a statement saying that the United States EPA “responded in the only way [they] could.” She reaffirmed that SDWA only allows the federal EPA to set the rules and regulations, but it is up to the states to implement them.[6] Michigan was given primacy under the SDWA and in doing so it was supposed to hold itself to equal, if not higher standards than does the SDWA. The sampling errors conducted produced data that showed lead levels well below the SDWA lead limit. The data was flawed because, according to federal EPA rules, residences in the areas with the highest threat of poisoning should have been exclusively tested.[7] Lastly, the state and local government failed to conduct any type of corrosion control to prevent the lead from being released from the pipes after reporting that they had done so.[8] Because of the primacy amendment to the rule, the EPA was unable to act in a safe and appropriate way; therefore, bolstering the fact the primacy amendment weakens the Safe Drinking Water Act.


I recommend that Congress push for a new amendment to the SDWA that gives power back to the federal government to act in situations such as the one in Flint. By doing so, the federal government would ensure higher standards of protection for public health. It would also reduce the negligence of the state and local governments and ensure that they act accordingly with the standards set in place by the Safe Water Drinking Act.


Aedan comment:
I really enjoyed reading this piece because you really delve into the root causes of the Flint Water Crisis. I have read a lot of the media coverage and all they can seem to talk about is how many people are effected and who the blame should be placed on. I appreciated that you pointed out the neglect that occurred at the state level because that’s really where a lot of the issues went wrong. I also wonder how much of a factor economics and finances were in the creation of the issue. I do agree with your solution of giving more power to the federal government, but I wonder how much of an impact this will have on Western states that are water limited. If too much power is given to the federal government then local knowledge that is integral to the management of seasonal waters in arid states could be neglected. In addition, too much power in the hands of the federal government might cause the plight of arid states and their water deficits to go unheard.


Kameron comment:

Great blog post on the quintessential environmental justice issue of our generation. However, I have problems with your conclusion. Though I think the federal government should have more power in regulating the water quality, the federal government would be hard pressed to regulate every local municipality. Increasing enforcement of federal standards is important, but meeting these minimum standards should still be enforced by the state. I believe the more important and troubling issue is the privatization of water municipalities. Clean water should be guaranteed and enforced by the government, not by a private business.


Wei comment:
Great blog post that points out the underlying reason of the Flint Water Crisis. However, I did not quite understand why allowing states to apply for primacy leaves room for negligence? Besides applying for primacy, you point out that consideration of economics over public health is another contributing factor to the Flint Water Crisis. However, your blog did not explain how economics consideration has played a role in the Flint Water Crisis. I do agree with your recommendation that federal government should play the major role in regulations on issues pertaining to public health. While state government may have better local knowledge of the issues, sometimes they lack the incentive to put a higher priority on public health. An even more troubling issue in the Flint Water Crisis is that the state government’s decision to switch to a private company for water supply. In the Flint Water Crisis, the irresponsible treatment of water sources is the major reason of the corrosion and leak of lead of the pipes. I believe that important issues such as water, should be handled exclusively by public sectors, as water is a basic human right that should not be something to make a profit out of.


Taylor comment:
I really enjoyed reading your blog. Since we presented on this topic, I feel like we both have a good handle on what occurred in Flint and how the government entities failed to serve the public. As you perfectly summarized, it was a “case of economic gain over public health.” You did a great job of explaining the shortcomings of the Safe Drinking Water Act. I agree that the provision that allows for state primacy should be re-examined so as to prevent any future flint-esque crises. I have one question for you that I struggled with when I was looking at the Flint crisis myself. To what degree do you think Susan Hedman should share the blame (as she represents the EPA) and should she have been more or less forced to resign as was the case? All in all, this was a great piece and did a great job of explaing the Flint Water Crisis.


Kim-Lin comment:
Lukas, this was a very well written blog post on the Flint Water Crisis. I think you did a great job of summarizing the problem while still emphasizing the misconduct that occurred along all levels, and tracing it back to the problems arising from primacy. I definitely agree that there should be some amendment in place allowing the federal government to act in cases such as that of the Flint Water Crisis. I do wonder however, if an amendment like that would deter states from applying for primacy (which could have implications for local knowledge being used to determine what ways to successfully regulate specific situations). Despite this, I still think your recommendation is a necessary one, and probably would have benefited the citizens of Flint, Michigan more than the current ways that the problem is being “handled.”


[1] Dalmia, Shikha. “Poisonous stimulus: Flint water crisis.” Reason (May 2016): 6.
[2]Wisely, John & Robin Erb. “Chemical testing could have predicted Flint’s water crisis.” Detroit Free Press. (5 April 2017).
[3] Kennedy, Merrit. “Lead-Laced Water In Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis.” National Public Radio. (5 April 2017).

[4] “Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act” U.S. EPA. (27 March 2017).

[5] Puder, Markus G. “Tremors in the Cooperative Environmental Federalism Arena” Temple Journal of Science, Technology, & Environmental Law 24 (April 2005): 71-551.

[6] Clark, Charles S. “ ‘EPA responded in the Only Way We Could,” Says Official at Center of Flint Crisis.” (15 March 2016).

[7] Butler, Lindsey J, et al. “The Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis: A Case Study in Regulatory Failure and Environmental Injustice.” Environmental Justice 9 (2014): 93-7.

[8] Ibid.