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Crisis highlights inadequate process

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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, would have been “completely avoidable” if those in charge of making the decision to switch the supply source had listened to their experts rather than making the call based on money, experts say.

In Flint’s case, state-appointed emergency managers ordered and oversaw a switch in the city’s drinking water supply and allegedly ignored a warning from a plant engineer that the city was unprepared for the change, according to government emails being used in criminal prosecutions against some of the officials.

“I think the main thing is to have qualified people in place to make decisions about how you match the water source with the system that you have to deliver a safe and reliable supply,” said Richard Glick, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine L.L.P. in Portland, Oregon.

“I think that’s where the failure was in Flint. You had people that were not qualified making decisions on switching water supplies without making adjustments, and you ended up with that disaster — a completely avoidable disaster in my view.”

“Risk managers have to figure out how to believe the folks whose job it is to do the work to protect public health,” said Jeffrey Haynes, Troy, Michigan-based shareholder with Beier Howlett P.C.

The Flint situation demonstrates a perfect storm when it comes to a risk management crisis because it features several “outrage factors” such as the catastrophic effect the switch had on the drinking water supply, the impact on children’s health from drinking lead-contaminated water and the lack of control residents had because they could do nothing more than switch to drinking bottled water, said Judy Selby, managing director at consultant BDO USA L.L.P. in Stamford, Connecticut.

Ideally, organizations would have an enterprisewide or holistic approach to dealing with risks that includes proactively identifying and planning for risks when possible, but it’s unclear whether an exposure such as the one in Flint could have been proactively identified by a risk manager specifically, she said.

“That makes it really, really hard on the risk manager when these types of things just emerge, something that people have never seen before,” Ms. Selby said. “For risks that you can kind of anticipate and risks that you can’t anticipate, having good processes in place to deal with risks after the fact is so important, especially a communications plan.”