GM and the Flint water situation

General Motors could and should be doing more to assist their own. Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors as well as two of its major divisions, is in crisis. Celebrities are stepping in to help. Where is the corporation to which Flint gave birth – the employer of much of its historic population?

During my tenure at General Motors from 1957 to the early 1990s, environmental issues, in particular the protection of air and water quality, became my area of passion and expertise. Now as a retiree I can only shake my head as I read news article after article about the Flint water scandal. I am dismayed at the failures of the once effective state and federal environmental agencies. But what is shameful is the lack of action on the part of GM.

Despite the tremendous resistance to regulation that came from upper management, the GM Environmental Activities Staff of which I was a member had made tremendous strides in reducing polluting emissions from our plants and in cleaning up water discharges. During that same time period, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources acted as the junkyard watchdog over Michigan water supplies and the Great Lakes, resulting in tremendous improvement in water quality from pre-regulatory days. How the use of Flint River water could be approved by these agencies for community use is beyond comprehension. Recent political leadership has shortsightedly gutted these regulatory agencies to the point that they are no longer able to be effective.

But what of GM? It is public knowledge that within six months of the municipal switch to Flint River water in 2014, GM had switched back to water from Lake Huron. They were concerned about their rusting engine blocks. They were concerned about their profits. Where was their concern for the people of Flint, many of them either current or former employees? GM, no longer in bankruptcy, has the financial resources, the political clout, and the environmental connections to offer significant help to Flint.

In my recently published book, GM – Paint It Red (Mariner Publishing, 2016), I chronicle the help that GM received in the past from water quality experts at Virginia Tech. It was not until nearly a year after GM made the Flint water switch that engineering professor Marc Edwards, of that same university, published the alarming results of his study. If GM no longer has the internal experts to research the safety of the water for residential use, could it not have used its connections to reach out to the water experts of Virginia Tech at the first hint of a problem?

As a corporate giant, GM can be a player that makes a difference, but sadly, the environmental initiatives that they boast about today are largely smoke and mirrors. They look glitzy in a press release, but I can tell you that in terms of hard numbers they are making a miniscule impact on the environment. It has long been my contention that protection of water quality and water resources is the key world-wide issue moving forward. News sources like The Economist and The New York Times have carried numerous articles with this same message. Coca-Cola, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Toyota are all effectively directing resources toward the protection and supply of clean water to their communities and to communities in need.

Meanwhile GM is boasting about wind turbines for a plant that has plenty of electricity, making their plants “landfill free” which goes beyond responsible recycle into absurdity, and spending $40 million to buy carbon credits in a mutually beneficial deal with ranchers in North Dakota.

The health of the children of GM’s own families and Michigan neighbors is exponentially more important. Wake up GM and use all the resources at your disposal to do something that really matters!


Nicholas Kachman was the Assistant Director of Plant Environment for General Motors from 1957 to 1993

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