The Framework for Coping With an Environmental Disaster

Lessons Flint has learned as it works to get lead out of its drinking water can show the way for other cities coping with their own crises.
August 20, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
(AP/Carlos Osorio)
By Hughey Newsome  |  Contributor
Former chief financial officer of Flint, Mich.

Flint, Mich., suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory, as its water crisis produced lead contamination of the drinking water delivered to thousands of residents and business owners. Of course, the problem is not unique to Flint: Just recently, Newark, N.J., had to begin distributing bottled water due to lead in its water-delivery system. In fact, there are estimates that more 6 million lead-compromised water-service lines are in use throughout the country.

Leaded pipes are just one example of the consequences of neglected public infrastructure. Bridges, rail lines, sewer systems and water-treatment plants are among other ticking time bombs. Unfortunately, the federal government has given inconsistent priority to aged infrastructure, and there is wide variance in the attention span at the state level. Meanwhile, local governments rarely have the capability to address these problems on their own.

The reality is that the deferred maintenance of our infrastructure will be addressed. That will happen either reactively in a haphazard way, as it was when Flint's water crisis exploded into national headlines after the city switched its water source to the polluted Flint River, which resulted in the leaching of lead from service lines. Or it will happen proactively in a systematic way, as is happening now as the city works to replace all of its lead lines.

The city, Michigan state agencies, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health and Human Services partnered on the program. It began in 2016 and has been mostly funded with federal grants from that year's Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act and with money from the state. Recent estimates for the final cost of the project total $95 million. Given that the city of Flint has a general-fund operating budget of roughly $58 million, establishing a framework to manage this influx of federal and state money and the operational processes it is funding was critical.

There are some key lessons in approach and execution. In Flint, the public's trust for governmental entities had been shredded. Hopefully, other communities that leverage outside funding for infrastructure overhauls will not experience that, but some scrutiny - not only from the general public but also from media and funding organizations -- is sure to come. In Flint, we learned that the hard way early in the process, as delays in accountability reports, poor public transparency and miscommunication among local, state and federal players limited effectiveness at a time of intense scrutiny.

The first lesson is that it is critical to develop a true multi-level partnership. It can be difficult to avoid politics, particularly in a multi-stakeholder environment, but building a cross-sectional cohort that is above the fray is vitally important to the success of such engagements. Once developed, this cohort should develop a framework to plan, execute and review on a regular basis.

Second, this cohort should develop visual business process maps for each aspect of the project. In Flint, local officials have been working directly with contractors, residents and business owners. State officials oversee the daily execution at the local level, and federal officials work to ensure that all federal guidelines are met. Federal and state funding agencies brought their own reporting requirements. After struggles in earlier phases, representatives from the different organizations (state and local) conducted business process mapping exercises to identify all steps for procurement, accounting and reporting.

There have been plenty of operational challenges as well. We first had to perform exploration to identify which service lines were lead, since the city had no reliable records. Line replacement required excavation from the street (the location of the water main) to the house or business structure, followed by street and yard restoration. All of these processes required contractors, so spending on contractors and their progress needed to be tracked. Process mapping has helped to develop a clear understanding of not only who is responsible for what but also a method for sharing what is required for each step. This has exposed dependencies, touchpoints, risks and data needs associated with each step.

Process mapping is also pivotal to identifying personnel and technology gaps. In Flint, once we realized the volume of accounting and reporting needed, the city's Finance Department worked with state agencies on an RFP to find a partner to coordinate accounting and reporting activities. This resulted in procuring services from a national accounting and advisory firm.

Flint wasn't the first city to find itself in a crisis resulting from neglected infrastructure, and it won't be the last. Every city that faces a crisis on the scale of Flint's will encounter similar accounting, reporting and operational challenges. It will be paramount to develop a framework, drawing on the fundamentals guiding the process in Flint, to make that process as efficient and cost-effective as possible. It's the only way to begin knitting the public's shredded trust back together.