Flint Crisis Shows Misplaced Trust

Above all else, Flint’s water crisis is a true human tragedy.

new study revealed that an absence of a key water treatment chemical contributed to Flint, Michigan’s devastating drinking water crisis, further indicating that it could have been avoided. Indeed at least 15 current or former government officials have been charged with crimes stemming from the crisis, including Michigan’s Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon (the highest ranking of the bunch) and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells.

Important safeguards failed, possibly because they were entrusted to unscrupulous and allegedly criminal individuals. As we determine how and why, we should also reflect on another question: Did the situation in Flint arise solely because of a confluence of bad actors, or is there a more systemic issue at play? Given that the contaminated waters of the Flint River were under the watch of both federal and state regulators, this is not just a question for Michigan but the entire nation.

Above all else, Flint’s crisis is a true human tragedy: 87 people were infected with Legionnaires’ disease, and 12 people died. The possibility of long-term health consequences from lead exposure now hangs over the entire city.

Compounding the tragedy is that a system meant to protect people fell so far short. We’re not referring to any particular regulation or agency, but rather a system composed of numerous public officials (some who did nothing wrong) and numerous regulations—created by hard-working agency employees in both Michigan and DC—which have accumulated for decades.

Regardless of human error or any regulatory shortcomings, this system must protect the public.

Broadly speaking, one approach is to ensure that existing regulations—whether vital or outdated—don’t preclude more innovative, transparent solutions. Oftentimes well-intentioned regulations aimed at real problems end up locking us into a static way of thinking.

For example, half-century-old regulations keep high-tech adaptive headlight systems out of our cars and keep drivers and pedestrians in the dark. Literally. Our current headlight technology is limited to what was available to Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the U.S. government mandated the sealed-beam headlight in 1940, preventing implementation of arguably safer systems.

Advances in technology can enhance health, safety, and environmental protection—goals shared by regulators. To ensure that the latest advances in science and technology are not inhibited by obsolete regulations, agencies should regularly review old rules. Currently, this process is not built into the regulatory system, and any enduring change to the system typically requires legislation. Unfortunately, politicians typically only respond to crises. Regulatory accumulation, being a process spread over decades, is not the type of discrete event that grabs national attention. 

Take for example the juxtaposition between the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and conservation efforts. There is a growing belief that the ESA—relying primarily on uncompensated land-use restrictions—may be undermining conservation efforts by encouraging landowners to preemptively destroy habitats or, worse yet, “shoot, shovel, and shut up about it.”

Projects such as eBird and BirdReturns are combining user-friendly apps, crowd-sourced information, and hard science, to create “pop-up habitats.” Bird lovers document shorebird sightings, and farmers are notified through the Nature Conservancy that their fields could be temporary habitats. Farmers can then flood their fields, creating habitats for birds migrating across California’s Central Valley. The farmers not only do some good in the environmental sense, but they also receive compensation for their efforts.

Programs like these show how consumers can and will directly reward environmental stewardship, especially when technology is allowed to facilitate such transactions. And yet regulations that block the possibility of such technology-based solutions persist in many domains.

If similar apps existed for other traditional domains of regulators, they could provide a failsafe. If performance standards, like emissions tests, were everyone’s task, VW would have had little chance to fool consumers. Drivers, environmental activists, and consumer advocates would have tested the diesel engines themselves. In fact, devices like the SCiO already offer consumers a pocket-sized laboratory that can analyze the chemical makeup of water, food, and other objects, sending the results to your smartphone.

And it doesn’t end there. User-created databases could track environmental contaminants back to their sources. Combine this with Americans’ rising environmental consciousness, social media and proactive, real-time monitoring, and companies like VW would face not only the wrath of EPA regulators, but of the customers that keep them in business.

This brings us back to Flint. Were regulations to blame? No. But regulators had an effective monopoly on water quality information, didn’t perform adequate testing and didn't publicize that information. So enabling greater public scrutiny might have made a difference.

Without that scrutiny, the EPA could write an internal memo raising concerns, but do nothing. And at the same time, the spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality could claim that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”

Rather than telling the public to look away, we should empower consumers. In Flint, the long, slow process of regaining public trust is now underway. If only there were an app for that.