Flint today, the rest of us tomorrow


The ghastly story of what happened in Flint, MI should strike fear into the entire nation because it is not just a local story affecting one impoverished town. For those unfamiliar with the case, the people of that city have been found to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood due to the contamination of their drinking water. This has been going on for two years. As a result, the residents of that city have been forced to purchase bottled water until the mess is cleared up and president Obama has issued an emergency declaration, enabling federal government resources to be used to address the emergency.

This article describes the scale of the problem. Note that there is really no safe level of lead in water but that the EPA recommends that if levels rise above 15 ppb (parts per billion) then action should be taken to reduce it. But even levels as low as 5 ppb have been cause for concern.

In the spring of 2015, city officials tested water in the home of LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four and a Navy wife. They got a reading of 397 ppb, an alarmingly high number.

But it was even worse than that. Virginia Tech’s team went to Walters’ house to verify those numbers later in the year. They were concerned that the city tested water in a way that was almost guaranteed to minimize lead readings: They flushed the water for several minutes before taking a sample, which often washes away a percentage of lead contaminants. They also made residents collect water at a very low flow rate, which they knew also tended to be associated with lower readings.

So the Virginia Tech researchers took 30 different readings at various flow levels. What they found shocked them: The lowest reading they obtained was around 200 ppb, already ridiculously high. But more than half of the readings came in at more than 1,000 ppb. Some came in above 5,000 — the level at which EPA considers the water to be “toxic waste.”

The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb.

As we all know, lead is highly harmful to the brain, and children especially can suffer long term damage when they have high levels of it that lead to violent behavior as adults. There have been studies that suggest that high levels of lead correlate with high levels of violent crime.

While the crisis is devastating for Flint, the way that it came about should alarm everyone. It was because in order to save a little money, the city switched the source of its water from Lake Huron to the Flint river but adequate tests were not done to ensure that the water quality was satisfactory. But the river water is highly corrosive due to extensive pollution and this led to the leaching of lead into the water from the pipes. And now it will cost an estimated $1.5 billion to clean up the pipes so that water from a clean source can be sent through it, a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

This is what will happen all over the nation with increasing frequency. Thanks to the relentless Republican drumbeat that taxes and government are the enemy, we have seen the federal government and states cut all manner of taxes especially for the rich, including estate taxes that only the wealthy pay. This has resulted in the reduction of money that is sent to local communities that pays for schools, police, fire, infrastructure, and other general needs. Those cities are now squeezed for funds to run the most basic services and are cutting corners wherever they can. The resultant decay is everywhere visible except in the most affluent areas. Since Flint is a poor community, naturally Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder ignored the warning signs and is now the target of numerous lawsuits. I would like to see the people responsible for this disaster charged with criminal negligence.

And as in Flint, the bill for this cutting will come due in the future and it will be huge because fixing a broken system costs more than maintaining it.

Michael Moore, whose documentary Roger and Me highlighted how Flint, once one of the most prosperous in the nation, was devastated by the decision of General Motors to shut down its plant there and move it overseas, makes the point that the people of Flint were treated shamefully because they are poor and hence powerless.

Bernie Sanders has called for Snyder to resign.

“The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water,” the Vermont senator said in a statement issued by his campaign. “He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Gov[ernor] Snyder should resign.”

In April 2014, as a cost-saving measure, the city of Flint switched its main water source from Lake Huron to the Flint river. Despite reports of problems with the water from sources including General Motors, which stopped using it, residents were advised by state officials to “relax” and continue to drink it.

Sanders’ main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has called such advice “unconscionable”.

In his statement on Saturday, Sanders said: “Because of the conduct by Gov[ernor] Snyder’s administration and his refusal to take responsibility, families will suffer from lead poisoning for the rest of their lives.

“Children in Flint will be plagued with brain damage and other health problems. The people of Flint deserve more than an apology.”

Tom Tomorrow provides the chronology of what happened and the shameful attitude of Flint and other officials.

TMW-Flint

When local governments are faced with declines in revenues due to tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, they will cut funding to schools, police and fire departments, and other health and safety measures. What we see in Flint is what we will see all over the country until these tax cuts are rolled back. It is already happening. In the end, only those who live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, and can afford expensive home filtering systems will be able to do the things that we consider normal, like drinking tap water.

The Daily Show reports on the crisis

(This clip aired on January 12, 2016. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve long argued that conservatives want to turn our countries into Third World nations.

    They want to:
    Smash unions.
    Abolish the minimum wage.
    Abolish or severely undercut workplace and environmental regulations.
    Abolish the social safety net, or privatize it if it means money they can scavenge.

    Why pay someone $0.50/hr to manufacture your goods in Bangladesh when you can do it in Michigan and save on transportation costs?

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    But the river water is highly corrosive due to extensive pollution and this led to the leaching of lead into the pipes.

    I think you should be clearer about the nature of the problem. It is not lead contamination in the water source. It is corrosiveness of the water combined with old infrastructure. Lead pipes are not used any more. This is what is meant when people talk about old infrastructure. Many of the water supply pipes in Flint date back to an age when lead pipes were used. It was never before a serious issue demanding immediate attention because the water was not acidic and was not dissovling large amounts of lead from the pipes. The ideal solution would be to tear out the entire water supply system and replace it with modern materials, but you can imagine the cost of that is prohibitive.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Why pay someone $0.50/hr to manufacture your goods in Bangladesh when you can do it in Michigan and save on transportation costs?

    Obviously, manufacturing costs vs. transportation costs are going to vary a lot from product to product.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Reginald,

    I have changed the wording from “leaching of lead into the pipes” to “leaching of lead into the water from the pipes” to clarify the point.

  5. says

    I don’t think we should attribute maliciousness to the rich and powerful. Clearly they are often concerned with right and wrong – they want to feel they are appreciated and are justified in their actions. They just fall into “I’ve got mine, so, uh….” and eventually “I’ve got mine, so fuck you.”

    In the past i have worked with some of the very wealthy (one multi hundred millionaire, and a billionaire) and I observe that most of them surround themselves with staff that get actual stuff done. It’s the mid-tier staff that are the worst; they’re mostly quite well off themselves but see their job as aggressively defending their employer’s interests. It’s not the billionaires that cook up the clever ways of offshoring their money – that sort of thing is the professional creativity of people specifically hired to manage the money, who therefore interpret “save the boss as much money as possible” as part of their baliwick. Just to give you some perspective, Oprah Winfrey has an entire accounting business working for her – probably a dozen people. And that’s not the people who are responsible for farming her investments. I think Citizens United made some sense to a lot of the rich because they personally look like a company. So maybe a company looks like a person to them?

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    I wonder about the brown water. Did it leave the water plant looking like that, or are there iron pipes in the system as well as lead?

  7. northstar says

    To clarify the situation ever further: Gov. Snyder appointed an Emergency Manager to oversee Flint’s finances; it was this emergency manager that chose the Flint River water to save money. Everybody in Flint knew the water was an industrial wasteland and never would have accepted it as a water source.

  8. Robert,+not+Bob says

    Marcus, on Citizens United, I’m sure it’s a lot simpler than that. The point is extremely obvious-to give the wealthiest more political influence. Who would argue about getting more influence?

  9. deepak shetty says

    @tabby lavalamp
    Having stayed in a third world country and a first world one and now in the USA – I have to say that the USA is closer to third world in many aspects already.

  10. lanir says

    $100 per day versus $1.5 billion? So let’s see, a little math and… Hey, if they can only wait to repair it for over 41,000 years it’ll still be a savings!

    Seriously though, wasn’t this one of the amazing conspiracy freak-outs on the right in ages past? The commies will come to poison the water supply? Maybe a John Birch Society thing, I forget. Just seems especially ridiculous to have them essentially enacting one of their own nightmare scenarios.

    Also a minor correction, I think you mean “the attitude of Snyder” in the line above the cartoon.

  11. Mano Singham says

    lanir,

    Ah yes, the good old days when the commies were polluting our precious bodily fluids by putting fluoride in the water.

  12. says

    Well, you were right. And it’s not just Flint, it’s everywhere. No doubt the kneejerk reaction of some will be to blame the EPA, but the blame lies with the lying politicians who cripple the EPA and corporate interests who tell them to do it.

    http://gizmodo.com/report-every-major-us-city-east-of-the-mississippi-i-1754573026#_ga=1.66584494.1636055737.1453353191

    Report: ‘Every Major US City East of the Mississippi’ Is Underreporting Heavy Metals In Its Water
    […]
    A scientist who was part of an Environmental Protection Agency taskforce disclosed documents to The Guardian which shows how water boards are distorting tests to make their water appear safer, a practice confirmed by an anonymous source:

    The controversial approach to water testing is so widespread that it occurs in “every major US city east of the Mississippi” according to an anonymous source with extensive knowledge of the lead and copper regulations. “By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people’s drinking water is potentially unsafe,” he said.

    Specific cities named included Detroit and Philadelphia, and the entire state of Rhode Island.

    And that’s just the people, with allegedly “treated” water. What about the flora, fauna and soil?

  13. StevoR says

    Thanks to the relentless Republican drumbeat that taxes and government are the enemy, we have seen the federal government and states cut all manner of taxes especially for the rich, including estate taxes that only the wealthy pay. This has resulted in the reduction of money that is sent to local communities that pays for schools, police, fire, infrastructure, and other general needs. Those cities are now squeezed for funds to run the most basic services and are cutting corners wherever they can. The resultant decay is everywhere visible except in the most affluent areas. Since Flint is a poor community, naturally Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder ignored the warning signs and is now the target of numerous lawsuits. I would like to see the people responsible for this disaster charged with criminal negligence.

    Quoted for truth and seconded by me.

  14. StevoR says

    @ left0ver1under : “And that’s just the people, with allegedly “treated” water. What about the flora, fauna and soil?””

    Agreed. What indeed? Which, of course, will also have flow on consequences for everyone seeing we’re all part of the ecology whether some folks realise that or not.

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