When government forgets what to protect

The Observer editorial board

A bottle of Flint water at a protest this month near Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.
A bottle of Flint water at a protest this month near Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office. AP

If you managed to make it through even some of the 278 pages of emails Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made public Wednesday, you probably recognized something in how state officials responded to a water quality crisis in the city of Flint.

That crisis began in 2014 after state officials, who had taken control of the financially troubled city, decided to save millions of dollars by drawing the city’s water from the Flint River.

Quickly, complaints surfaced about the brown, foul-tasting water. Just as quickly, state officials took a defensive posture.

First they denied the problem, insisting that early reports of water issues were just “initial hiccups.”

Then they deflected, saying that complaining residents and groups were using the issue as a “political football.”

They also blamed others, claiming wrongly that the responsibility for the lead-tainted water and bad pipes rested on Flint officials.

All of it – the denying, deflecting and blaming – is a common reaction to things going wrong. It happens when businesses don’t want to answer for bad behavior. It happens when public officials don’t want to suffer the political consequences of bad decisions.

In Flint, it was the people who suffered, with tap water that contained enough lead to cause long-lasting health and developmental problems. The trust that’s been shattered might never be fully repaired.

It’s a cautionary tale for public officials and the citizens they serve. It should resonate especially in states like North Carolina, where the regulatory focus has too often shifted away from protecting residents to accommodating business and industry.

Already, N.C. lawmakers have cut agency budgets and weakened protections with laws that include last year’s HB 765, a grab bag of deregulatory measures. N.C. regulators have eliminated close to half of state-run air quality monitors (after objecting to lawmakers who asked them to do just that). The administration also has emphasized a more “consumer-friendly” approach at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, with the “consumer” being the businesses that DENR monitors.

(It’s not just environmental regulation: N.C. labor commissioner Cherie Berry’s business-friendly approach includes ignoring a state law that requires two meetings a year with a State Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health that includes labor advocates and others with an understanding of worker safety issues.)

Now, as the state rushes headlong into the uncertainty of fracking, we hope N.C. officials find some lessons to learn from Flint. There, public officials neglected a fundamental duty to protect their state’s citizens. Instead they chose to protect something else.