Pride and Prejudice and Administrative Zombies: How Economic Woes, Outdated Environmental Regulations, and State Exceptionalism Failed Flint, Michigan
47 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2016
Date Written: March 1 , 2016
It was just over forty years ago, shortly before the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, that a group of mothers in the small, sleepy town of Woburn, Massachusetts realized there just may have been a connection between their childrens’ leukemia and the town’s water supply. They withstood the terrible smell and masked the water’s rancid flavor with orange juice. For months, they inquired, complained, and assembled in hopes that someone in a position of authority would notice what was so obvious to them. And for months, they were dismissed and even ridiculed. Turns out, they were right. It took a lawsuit and years of work by the Environmental Protection Agency, epidemiologists, and lawyers to shine a light on the seriousness of the contamination, the consequences, and the need for regulatory oversight.
Fast forward to 2014: A group of concerned mothers begin complaining about the taste and smell of the water in Flint, Michigan. Bringing bottles of brown water with them to assemblies in front of town hall did little to prompt city and state officials to do anything. It took a caring pediatrician and a brave professor to wrangle city, state, and even federal officials into acknowledging the highly toxic levels of lead in the water supply. But this time, more than forty years later, it should have been different. With decades of perspective and what some say are “overreaching” regulations in place, the environmental disaster in Flint should not have happened.
This article explores how and why the crisis occurred, despite the safeguards created by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Lead and Copper Rule of 1991, which were meant to prevent this kind of disaster. I then argue why the current “action level” for lead concentrations in tap water, which requires public water systems to act to protect the public, is unsafe according to current toxicological and epidemiological data. Finally, I discuss how the current climate of “state exceptionalism” and lack of federal oversight contributed to the crisis, and suggest regulatory changes to provide a much needed public safety net.
Keywords: Flint, Michigan, Lead, Water, Safe Drinking Water Act, Lead and Copper Rule, Environmental Justice
JEL Classification: K32, K23, L95
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation