Water is an essential element of life. We require it for drinking, cooking, and bathing—as well as other household functions common to civilized life in the U.S. Biologically, humans are 60 percent water, including a higher composition in vital organs like the brain, heart, and lungs. So when a major municipality’s water supply is compromised, it becomes a serious issue and even a domestic threat.
In Flint, Michigan, a depressed Midwestern city in the heart of America’s Rust Belt, city officials—in an effort to save money due to a shrinking tax base—switched the source of the city’s water supply in April 2014, from city of Detroit’s, whose source was Lake Huron—to the Flint River. Incidentally, residents of Flint recognized the river as a filthy tributary where a host of industrial chemicals and solvents had been dumped for decades. As soon as the switch was made, residents started complaining that the water looked, smelled and tasted funny. They said it often “looked dirty.”
But it gets worse, for those living in economically-ravaged Flint. The local water treatment plant (with the approval of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) failed to mix chemicals to the river water that would have lowered its corrosive nature. This resulted in lead from the ageing service lines leeching into the water. Lead levels spiked, exposing thousands of children to lead poisoning.
The situation in Flint points out a plethora of problems that could easily end up afflicting other American cities. While it’s all-too-common to think that the underlying causes that led to the city’s tainted drinking water is specific to a post-manufacturing city in free fall, like Flint—in reality, many other municipal water supplies across the country are compromised, and potentially hazardous.
First and foremost, no government agency “owned” this crisis—local, state, or federal. The top EPA administrator in the Midwest, the governor’s office, and local officials are all accused of ignoring, denying, or covering up the problems associated with lead-tainted water, for 18 months.
Lead poisoning is serious. But lead was only one of the issues affecting Flint’s water supply.
In an excellent article by Matt Pearce in the Lost Angeles Times, here is a list of “red flags” that should have warranted attention and action from someone connected with Flint, the governor’s office, or the EPA. A few highlights:
- In October, 2014, General Motors’ engine plant in Flint decided to stop taking Flint’s water; high levels of chloride from the river water would corrode metal auto parts.
- The city insisted its water was safe—they pointed out that GM employees were still drinking water at the plant.
- On Dec. 16, 2014, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality notified Flint officials that it had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by adding chlorine to the water, resulting in a spike of chemical compounds known as total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, created when chlorine fuses with organic matter. State officials provided a letter for Flint to send out to its residents by Jan. 10, 2015. The notice reassured, “This is not an emergency. If it had been an emergency, you would have been notified within 24 hours.” The next paragraph was less reassuring, switching to italics.
- “People who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant levels) over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
- Meanwhile, Flint residents were attending City Council meetings, bringing in bottles of brown water. Groups were now dispensing bottle water to residents. At the same time, Governor Snyder was alerted that Flint residents were “on the verge of civil unrest.”
- Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality downplayed the danger.
- In February, 2015, officals tested one Flint home. The water had lead levels of 104 parts per billion—well above the recommended safe level of 15 parts per billion. Lead, which is tasteless, can cause permanent damage to young children’s development and lead to lover IQ levels.
And on and on it went. In April of 2015, the EPA discovered Flint had no anti-corrosion program in place. In August, the state told Flint to start measures that would lower the corrosive nature of the river water. Meanwhile, the state remained resistant to the idea that lead was poisoning Flint’s water and residents.
It was also in August that a group of researchers from Virginia Tech came conducted their own independent in-home testing of drinking water. They found elevated levels of lead in the water and made these findings public. Of course, state officials claimed their own research was more accurate.
The drinking water debacle in Flint follows on the heels of another crisis two years prior—this one in West Virginia. And like in Flint, attempts were undertaken to cover it up.
Our national infrastructure is crumbling. In Los Angeles, one-in-five water lines were installed prior to 1931. The cost of upgrading the city’s water system would be upwards of $1 billion.
There are more than one million miles of water pipes at-risk across the country. Restoring and expanding them could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The current investment in upgrades is insufficient, so says the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Then there are our bridges, highways, and the national power grid—all in dire need of significant investments related to maintenance, let alone upgrading and bringing them to a place where they’ll meet the needs and requirements of the 21st century. Infrastructure isn’t talked about by presidential candidates, as it doesn’t make intriguing soundbites for voters.
If you ever had trouble understanding what collapse looks like, poisoned water in Flint stands as a vivid snapshot to consider.