Michigan advisory panel members: Halt water shutoffs amid COVID-19 spread

A majority of the members sent her a letter this morning with a plea: Order a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs to protect the public from the fast-spreading COVID-19.

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SOURCEThe Center for Public Integrity
Image Credit: Flickr

After the Flint water crisis, Michigan’s governor formed an advisory council to help the state avoid future environmental injustices. A majority of the members sent her a letter this morning with a plea: Order a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs to protect the public from the fast-spreading COVID-19.

The 21-member group is so new they don’t have procedures in place yet for speaking as a council. But 14 of the members signed the letter, recommending “urgent action.”

“In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is recommended that people frequently wash their hands and practice social distancing,” the members wrote. “However, people without running water will be forced to leave their homes in an attempt to find water at understocked and overcrowded grocery stores putting them in close contact with hundreds of others. What limited amounts of water people are able to obtain will primarily be used for drinking and cooking. For such people, frequent hand washing is simply not an option.”

Under pressure, Detroit issued its own moratorium. But in Michigan, “few other water systems have followed suit,” the letter said. A number of other states have issued no-shutoff orders, the members pointed out.

“There’s been reporting that Detroit has had faster growth in coronavirus outbreaks than anywhere else in the country,” said Justin Onwenu, a member of the council and Detroit-based community organizer for the Sierra Club’s environmental justice program in Michigan. “It’s a very frustrating and stressful situation. … We want our government to do more.”

Repeated calls for comments to the communications office for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rolled to a mailbox that could not accept messages because it was full. Whitmer, a Democrat, appointed the advisory council’s members in January. Onwenu said the dangerous lead contamination in Flint’s water, unknowingly consumed by thousands of adults and children, was the impetus for its creation. 

Peter D. Jacobson, director of the Center for Law, Ethics and Health at the University of Michigan, agrees with the letter’s recommendation.

“We know from Flint what the consequences of bad water — or no water — are,” he said. “At a time like this, you can’t even substitute bottled water because there’s no way of distributing it without endangering other people.” 

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Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins is the environment editor and a senior reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. Her work includes investigations about America’s fossil fuel export boom, the federal government’s failure to stop a decades-long string of deaths from a widely available consumer product, and “super polluter” industrial sites pumping out large amounts of toxic air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases. Hopkins joined Public Integrity in 2014. Previously, she spent 15 years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Honors for her stories include awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Education Writers Association and the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.

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