The Role of the Legal System in the Flint Water Crisis

Public health Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • A major factor explaining government actors’ failure to mitigate or avert the Flint, Michigan, water crisis is the sheer complexity of the laws regulating how governmental agencies maintain and monitor safe drinking water. Coordination across agencies is essential in dealing with multiple legal arrangements.
  • Public health legal authority and intervention mechanisms are not self‐executing. Legal preparedness is essential to efficiently navigating complex legal frameworks to address public health threats.
  • The Flint water crisis demonstrates the importance of democracy for protecting the public’s health. Laws responding to municipal fiscal distress must be consistent with expected norms of democracy and require consideration of public health in decision making.

Context: The Flint, Michigan, water crisis resulted from a state‐appointed emergency financial manager’s cost‐driven decision to switch Flint’s water source to the Flint River. Ostensibly designed to address Flint’s long‐standing financial crisis, the switch instead created a public health emergency. A major factor explaining why the crisis unfolded as it did is the complex array of laws regulating how governmental agencies maintain and monitor safe drinking water.

Methods: We analyzed these legal arrangements to identify what legal authority state, local, and federal public health and environmental agencies could have used to avert or mitigate the crisis and recommend changes to relevant laws and their implementation. First, we mapped the legal authority and roles of federal, state, and local agencies responsible for safe drinking water and the public’s health—that is, the existing legal environment. Then we examined how Michigan’s emergency manager law altered the existing legal arrangements, leading to decisions that ignored the community’s long‐term health. Juxtaposed on those factors, we considered how federalism and the relationship between state and local governments influenced public officials during the crisis.

Findings: The complex legal arrangements governing public health and safe drinking water, combined with a lack of legal preparedness (the capacity to use law effectively) among governmental officials, impeded timely and effective actions to mitigate or avert the crisis. The emergency manager’s virtually unfettered legal authority in Flint exacerbated the existing complexity and deprived residents of a democratically accountable local government.

Conclusions: Our analysis reveals flaws in both the legal structure and how the laws were implemented that simultaneously failed to stop and substantially exacerbated the crisis. Policymakers need to examine the legal framework in their jurisdictions and take appropriate steps to avoid similar disasters. Addressing the implementation failures, including legal preparedness, should likewise be a priority for preventing future similar crises.

Keywords: public health practice, environmental and public health, law, environmental exposure.

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Published April 2020
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12457