Case #2237.0

The Making of a Public Health Catastrophe: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Flint Water Crisis

Publication Date: January 12, 2022
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The Flint water crisis, which began in 2014, is widely regarded as a textbook example of structural racism and injustice. This teaching case provides a close examination of the building blocks of the catastrophe, some all-too-familiar in American history and others, more particular to the time, place, and circumstance of Flint in the 2010s. The case begins by tracing the economic and racial history that made Flint especially vulnerable to the crisis, then describes the string of decisions that resulted in the dangerous contamination of city tap water, followed by the battle by residents of Flint (and later, by outside allies and scientific experts) to force official government recognition of the disaster followed by changes to the city water system. The voices of the Flint residents are featured, alongside the decision-makers.

The first section of the case summarizes the intertwined events, familiar to students of American racial, urban, and industrial history, that led once-booming Flint to become financially strapped and majority-Black. It describes the nature (and criticisms) of Michigan’s evolving Emergency Management system. It explains the Flint water system and the reasons behind the fateful choices both to change the source of Flint’s drinking water and to bypass standard safety precautions in making that change. The case then details the battle by local residents to force government officials to recognize and address the contamination of the drinking supply amid a cascade of devastating revelations about bacteria, carcinogens, and high lead levels in the water. The case ends in October 2015, with the announcement by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder that Flint would be re-connected to its previous safer and pricier water source, Detroit’s Lake Huron system.

Learning Objective:
This rich case story offers multiple avenues for in-class analysis. At the Harvard Kennedy School, instructors use it to think about types of power, shifts in power over time, bureaucratic incentives, and the ethics of personal responsibility. These discussions deepen students’ understanding of structural racism. The case could also be used to discuss environmental justice, environmental regulation, bureaucracy, cost-cutting, and advocacy.

Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Author:
Pamela Varley
Faculty Lead:
Christopher Robichaud
United States