Flint Water Crisis

A Report, Co-authored by Network Attorneys, Concludes Failures in Legal Structure and Inadequate Legal Preparedness Contributed to Flint Water Crisis, Provides Recommendations

Ann Arbor, MI, February 14, 2018 — A report released by a team of attorneys from the Network for Public Health Law and the University of Michigan School of Public Health details why shortcomings in the structure and implementation of laws related to public health, safe drinking water, and emergency financial management failed to stop or mitigate the Flint water crisis. Along with key findings, the report provides recommendations to help prevent similar crises from happening in other communities.

The report, Learning from the Flint Water Crisis: Protecting the Public’s Health During a Financial Emergency, is the result of a project funded by the de Beaumont Foundation that examined legal implications of the crisis. 

“The Flint water crisis is a terrible tragedy and an unfortunate reminder that our communities are endangered when health is not considered in policymaking,” said Brian C. Castrucci, Chief Program and Strategy Officer, de Beaumont Foundation. “This project was undertaken to ensure that future policy decisions incorporate the lessons learned from this preventable disaster.”

In 2014, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city of Flint, Mich., switched from receiving finished water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to treating its own water drawn from the Flint River. The switch was intended to decrease costs for the fiscally distressed city. Despite the corrosiveness of Flint River water, the city water department failed to treat the water with anticorrosion control measures. As a result, lead from the aging service lines to homes leached into the drinking water and poisoned thousands of Flint residents.

The report outlines the complex legal arrangements at the heart of the crisis and describes how intersecting legal frameworks and implementation failures affected decisions addressing a municipality’s immediate financial crisis at the expense of the community’s long-term health.

Key findings in the report note how public officials failed to coordinate across units or use their legal authority effectively to prevent or mitigate the crisis. The report concludes that Flint residents continued to be exposed to unsafe drinking water for over a year due primarily to the lack of adequate legal preparedness and the consequent misunderstanding about what legal authority state, local, and federal public health and environmental agencies could have used to avert or mitigate the crisis.

In addition to its analysis of the crisis, the report includes recommendations for elected officials, public health practitioners, and other stakeholders to prevent similar crises in their communities. The report’s authors have also produced a Public Health Handbook for Communities Under Emergency Management with practical information to improve legal preparedness that is accessible and useful for both lawyers and non-lawyers. To accompany the Handbook, the authors have developed An Emergency Manager Law Primer illustrating the variety of state emergency manager laws and describing their intersection with public health laws.

“It is our hope that policymakers, practitioners, community members, and advocates will use the final project report, primer, and handbook to better understand the relevant legal frameworks, anticipate potential obstacles to protecting the public’s health, and prevent what happened in Flint from happening again,” said the study’s lead author, Peter D. Jacobson, Professor Emeritus of Health Law and Policy, University of Michigan School of Public Health.

View all available Network resources on the Flint Water Crisis.


About the Network for Public Health Law
The Network for Public Health Law (Network) protects and promotes the health of communities, and advances health equity through the effective use of law and policy. The Network empowers local, tribal, state and federal public health officials and practitioners, as well as attorneys, policymakers, and advocates by providing legal and policy guidance, resources and training.

About the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Ranked among the top public health schools in the country, the University of Michigan School of Public Health educates and trains more than 1,000 graduate and undergraduate students each year, with more than 170 faculty and researchers. Compassion, innovation, and inclusion drive our faculty, staff, students, and alumni to pursue positive change and lasting impact on the health of the world. Learn more at www.sph.umich.edu.

About the de Beaumont Foundation

The de Beaumont Foundation is dedicated to improving the capacity and performance of the U.S. public health system, and equipping public health agencies to thrive in a transforming health landscape. In so doing, we aspire to improve the health of the populations of the communities they serve across the U.S. For more information, visit www.debeaumont.org.


Ann Phi-Wendt
Network for Public Health Law