The catastrophic lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan is, obviously, an appalling condemnation of the vigilance exercised by the state appointed Emergency Financial Manager, the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the regional officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But it is also a shocking reminder of how shoddy American infrastructure has become in the last 20 years and how fragile the gap between shoddy and lethal has become.
Let’s begin with a simple number. Properly treating the raw water flowing through Flint’s pipes to prevent corrosion and lead pollution—a step required by federal law—would have cost about $100 day, to protect the health of a city of 100,000 people, a tenth of a penny a day per person.
Here’s a second fact. Almost immediately after the switch to a more corrosive water source, water in city taps began to run brown. Residents complained that there was a problem. But state and federal water officials kept refusing to take the water quality seriously, in spite of the well-known reality that old industrial cities like Flint are plagued with lead water pipes extremely susceptible to corrosion and poisoning. The Problem went unaddressed for two years.
And the third fact. When independent researchers and doctors took the initiative and discovered the poisonous lead levels in resident’s drinking water, the state government denounced the researchers as trying to create a panic and insisted that the water was safe—even after they knew it was not.
So is Flint simply the story of a callous, politically motivated and irresponsible group of state and federal officials looking the other way? Is this story a one-off?
Unfortunately, no. The factors that made it almost inevitable that some city in Michigan would have this kind of health crisis and that other cities in other states are going to have their residents poisoned at the taps, are systemic, not individual, pervasive not unique. They remain utterly unaddressed by the steps taken in Flint so far—and even those recommended by members of Congress calling for a massive aid for the stricken city.
Flint was created by the intersection of three crises in American society:
1. An investment crisis, in which we have steadily starved vital public services of needed maintenance and enhancement in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
2. An equity crisis, in which the quality of the air and water and the safety of the surroundings, to which poor, brown and black Americans have access is simply assumed to be substandard, because they do not have the resources to obtain the quality assumed by America’s upper-income residents.
3. A democracy crisis, most advanced in Michigan, but metastasizing elsewhere, in which the ability of local residents to hold locally public officials accountable for criminal mismanagement on the scale of Flint is being corroded almost as rapidly as Flint’s ancient lead pipes.
The Investment Crisis
The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely awards America’s infrastructure a D+ grade—meaning that our roads are dangerously pot-holed, our bridges so corroded that cars, trucks and trains can and do fall through them, our internet access only slightly better than Romania’s. Our water supply and sewer systems get only a D with 2 trillion of deferred maintenance in drinking water alone. Flint is not the only drinking water crisis of the past few years. When a chemical factory polluted the water supply of Charleston, West Virginia in January 2014, the city could not shut off the flow of toxic water to the taps because the water pipes were so fragile that only the pressure of the poison kept them from collapsing. The lead pipe threat is not new. Years ago drinking water fountains in the House and Senate office buildings were shut off because they were poisoning visiting constituents. (Senators and Congressmen used bottled water).
There are millions of miles of lead water pipes in hundreds of American cities. Lead poisoning from corroded water pipes has threatened residents of cities as diverse as Seattle, Pittsburgh, Sebring, Ohio and most spectacularly Washington, DC. Eighteen cities in Pennsylvania alone have higher lead levels in drinking water than Flint. In California, one of the nation’s wealthiest states, the drought left largely poor communities in the state’s Central Valley dependent on bottled water to avoid drinking from poisoned or dried up wells.
But in the latest Obama budget, funding for water infrastructure loans, the heart of what enables cities to meet these needs, was cut by 1/3; since Obama became President and Congress imposed the “sequesters” designed to cut federal spending, annual federal investment in clean water has dropped from $3.5 billion to $2 billion—only half of the projected need.
The Equity Crisis
As American society has become less equal and the incomes of the bulk of the population have failed to keep pace, so has the distribution of resources among cities and public entities. Places like Flint, Michigan, are where the bulk of the water funding shortfall is hitting. In Porterville, a California community without a public water system, it is poor Hispanics whose wells have run dry—they literally have no running water in 21st century America.
The families hit hardest by lead poisoning are, invariably, the poor and minorities, those with less access to amenities like filters and bottled water. There is no question that when lead pipes in an upper middle-class neighborhood are found to be faulty, public agencies act quickly to remedy the problem—because empowered communities demand it. One of the fundamental and undernoted, consequences of inequality is inequality in access to life and death essentials like clean water.
The Democracy Crisis
The decision to allow untreated, corrosive water to flow through the lead pipes of Flint was not made by the mayor or the city council. It was made by an appointed “Emergency Financial Manager,” in effect a state imposed dictator who took over governance of the city because (as a result of the collapse of the auto industry) Flint was declared to be in a “financial emergency” by the Governor. This usurpation of local governance by fiscal managers has become almost a Michigan specialty. Nine cities and a half dozen school districts have been removed from local control and placed under effective one person rule—and that one person is charged with a single primary goal—cut expenses. This happens in others states as well—New York had a fiscal controller in the 1980’s—but nowhere with the frequency or scale of Michigan. There is little accountability. The current financial manager of the Detroit public schools, Darnell Early, previously served as the Emergency Financial Manager for Flint and is directly culpable in the current lead poisoning crisis. (And in the case of the school districts, the financial crises cited by Gov. Snyder had actually been created by him, when he slashed education funding by a billion dollars!)
Michigan Emergency Financial Managers are rarely focused on the long term needs of the city—their job is to get the books balanced as fast as possible. In Pontiac the Emergency Financial Manager outsources the cities water supply to a company which faced a 26 count Justice Department indictment faced a 26 count Justice Department indictment for violating the Clean Water Act.
In Benton Harbor to help balance the budget, a public park along the waterfront was turned over to a private golf course.
And the cities that lose democracy are, again almost invariably, heavily minority and newly poor as a result of the collapse of manufacturing.
The struggle for local control, urban home rule, is an old one in American society. State legislatures dominated by rural interests have never been eager to empower city residents and in virtually every state, at least, some critical governance functions are kept out of the hands of mayors and councils. You might think that the strongest opponents of such centralized control would be the Tea Party and its Republican allies—those staunch opponents of top down control. But no, in Michigan and across the country, it is conservatives who favor state control of local government, because they fear that in a genuine bottom-up democracy, roads might get built, schools modernized, bridges repaired and, yes, clean water provided to every family, regardless of income or color.
If you thought the civil war was over, think again. It’s being waged right now in Flint and is soon to come to a community near you.