Water PR Crisis: Can Flint Officials Recover?
The federal government finally declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan. When more than 100,000 can’t drink their water, that qualifies as an emergency, but it should have never taken the Obama administration getting involved.
For months, local officials denied there was any problem. Countless children in Flint were being poisoned every time they took a drink. Finally, a local pediatrician released umpteen documented cases of high levels of lead in the blood of his patients. Yes, lead, a deadly neurotoxin, which can lead to growth problems and even brain damage in young children.
All of this because officials in Flint didn’t want to fix a problem they created. The city used to get its water from Detroit Water and Sewage Department. Three years ago, the Flint city council decided to try to save a few bucks by hooking up to another water source, which was pumping water from Lake Huron. Unfortunately, especially for the citizens of Flint, the city couldn’t connect to that source until this year. In the meantime, they just started pumping from the Flint River.
Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling had this to say about the decision: “It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.”
That turned out to be a premature celebration. Almost as soon as the switch was made, Flint residents began registering complaints about how their water looked and tasted. As a result, the city sent out a warning that the water has “high levels of disinfectant products” but they didn’t change the source or do any further study.
Worse, Flint failed to perform basic monitoring that would have checked the amount of lead in the water caused by hooking up to lead water lines. Flint skipped this step, and their entire population suffered. How bad was the water in Flint River? According to various media reports, GM quit using water from the river because it was corroding machinery in its engine plant.
You read that right. The city of Flint was giving its residents water that even automakers found too toxic for their machines.
As more investigations take place, this rabbit hole gets ever deeper. Finger pointing from elected officials, all the way up to the state level, has moved so fast you could use their arms as ceiling fans. But those days are coming to an end. Citizens, thanks to vigilant journalists, know the whole story, and the federal government is beginning to pay attention.
Things are bad in Flint right now. Fortunately, for the health of the folks there, the water should be getting better. From a PR perspective, it’s about to get a lot worse.