From the Editors

When government fails

The people of Flint, Michigan, have been poisoned by their tap water. A 2014 decision to use the Flint River as a water source led to people ingesting unsafe levels of E. coli, chlorination byproducts, and lead. The General Motors plant quickly arranged for an alternate water source; later, the state office building brought in drinking water for employees. Meanwhile, the city’s 99,000 residents—most of them black, two-fifths of them poor—had little information and few options. Many will suffer serious, long-term health effects from toxins consumed even after officials knew about the problem.

The blame goes to a catastrophic failure of government by officials from both parties. The decision to switch to river water was made by a city manager appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, but it was supported and promoted by the Democratic mayor. A state agency under Snyder failed to enforce federal guidelines for corrosion control or to follow water-testing protocol; the governor also oversees the state health department, which misdiagnosed the problem and then disputed the correct diagnosis made by others. When an Environmental Protection Agency staffer uncovered the problem, the EPA—which answers to President Obama—kept quiet for months.

As for the heroes in this story, they have been mostly private citizens. Flint resident Leeanne Walters saw the effects on her family and contacted Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards. Edwards got water samples from Walters, tested them, and worked tirelessly to attract attention to his startling results. Local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha uncovered the sharp increase in children’s lead levels and then took her findings public.