After Four Years Of The Flint Water Crisis, Thousands Of American Communities Still Don’t Have Clean Water
Recently, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pledged to help the residents of Flint with their water crisis. Musk suggested “a weekend in Flint to add filters” to houses that lacked them. However, as pointed out by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, the solution to their problems requires “re-establishing trust, and rebuilding trust,” something that Musk does not take into account. The act of showing citizens that their government will keep them safe is crucial to resolving the issues that have plagued Flint because, as indicated by the lack of aid provided by the government when findings of water contamination surfaced, the dangers that they face every day are not the government’s first priority.
How The Flint Water Crisis Played Out
Here’s a little bit of background. The problem first arose in 2014 when the water source for the city switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River in order to save money. Soon after, there were findings of bacteria in the water. To solve the problem, city officials told residents that they would flush the pipes and add more chlorine to the water. Six days later, residents were told that the water was safe for them to drink. However, a month later, the bacteria, which indicated that E. coli or another disease-causing organism could be in the water, reappeared. Officials executed the same solution as before and, just four days later, told residents that they could safely drink from the tap again. Unfortunately, their solution led to another problem.
In early 2015, citizens were warned that byproducts of the disinfectants that were used the previous year could actually increase their risk of cancer, but no efforts were taken to fix this situation. Although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) offered to switch the water source back to Lake Huron, city officials declined, saying that water rates could go up even with a reconnection fee waiver. That was a mistake.
Just days later, residents brought jugs of discolored water to a community forum, and reports emerged, saying that children were suffering from unknown illnesses and were starting to develop rashes. Fortunately, action was taken to resolve this issue: Governor Rick Snyder announced a 2 million dollar grant to fix the problems in the pipes and sewers. This solution didn’t seem to do the trick because about a month later, Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters reported that she had detected dangerous levels of lead in her home’s water. She contacted the EPA with her concerns, and tests indicated that her water had 104 parts per billion of lead (ppb) although the EPA’s limit is 15 ppb. The next month, she followed up with another test which revealed that the lead levels in her water had nearly quadrupled to 397 ppb.
Finally, a few days later, the Flint City Council members put the water source up to vote, and on a 7–1 vote, decided to stop using water from the Flint River. However, Jerry Ambrose, who had been appointed by the state to manage the emergency, overruled the vote, saying that it “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”
Nevertheless, Walters persisted. Three months after that, in June 2015, another test found that the lead level of the water in her home was as high as 13,200 ppb. To put this in perspective, water with 5,000 ppb of lead is classified by the EPA as hazardous waste, and the levels in her home were more than double that. These findings were put in a memo by an EPA manager that month which included three other homes with these extremely high lead levels. However, yet again, no action was taken as even after the EPA memo was leaked a month later, a spokesman for the MDEQ told Michigan Public Radio, “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” citing initial testing on 170 homes which indicated that the problem was not widespread.
Two months later in September 2015 after Virginia Tech concluded that Flint’s water was 19 times more corrosive than Detroit’s water, the state was recommended to declare the water unsafe as the river water was corroding old pipes and the lead from them was ending up in the water. So, after putting out a statement, the state started taking some action. About a month later, it began testing the residents’ drinking water in schools and distributing free water filters.
However, these two years of unsafe drinking water had already resulted in 12 deaths, more than 87 sick people, and thousands of kids who would permanently be affected. The lead in the water could cause cognitive impairment, ADHD, aggressive behavior, memory loss, kidney dysfunction, and more in children. The effects of this poisoning are irreversible, and in some cases, fatal.
Fortunately, in January 2016, President Barack Obama was alerted of what was happening in Flint by Governor Snyder who requested that the president declare an expedited major disaster. Snyder estimated that it would cost $55 million to install lead-free pipes throughout the city. Unfortunately, the president declined to declare what was happening as a major disaster, but he did authorize 5 million dollars in aid and declare a state of emergency in the city which allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in.
Eventually, after two years of using bottled water and filters, Governor Snyder announced that the water quality in Flint had been restored. His proclamation ended the free bottled water and filters in Flint although the city would continue to distribute them until the current supply ran out. However, the pipes will not be fully replaced until 2020, so activist groups are petitioning for the government to continue providing water to Flint’s citizens.
What is unfortunate is all of this could have been resolved within the first few months if government officials listened to Flint’s citizens. However, instead of recognizing that there was truly an issue, officials used short-term solutions that later caused more problems or just disregarded the findings. Ironically, in November 2017, despite city officials’ concerns over rising water costs if the water source was switched from the Flint River, the council ended up voting to enter into a 30-year contract with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) which would do exactly that. While the problem will eventually be fully resolved when the pipes are replaced, the solution could have come much sooner if the government just listened to its civilians.
However, Flint is not the only city where lack of government action in the face of a drinking water crisis proved to be detrimental to the health of citizens. In 2014, Carmen Garza, a current resident of East Chicago, Indiana who loved to grow tomatoes and chilis, was alerted by her neighbor that the dirt she was growing her vegetables in was contaminated. By what? Lead. To make matters worse, it wasn’t just the dirt that was infected. It was the drinking water too. It turns out that the contamination occurred because East Chicago is currently located on what used to be the USS Lead Superfund Site which ran until December of 1985. A 1985 inspection report reveals that the EPA was aware of the contamination since the facility’s closure, but the site wasn’t placed on the National Priorities List of the worst contaminated sites in the country until 2009. That is a whole 24 years later.
Although soil testing and clean up efforts started that year (2014), a Chicago Tribune investigation from December 2016 confirmed that government officials had known about the dangers in East Chicago for decades. It also wasn’t until May 2016 when soil data reached city officials. At that time, officials finally started to realize the magnitude of the issue; they found that some backyards had lead levels higher than 45,000 parts per million which was much higher than the federal limit of 400 parts per million.
In 2017, all 1,100 residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex, where Carmen Garza lives, were being forced to move out so that the city could demolish the building and study the lead in the soil on which the complex sits. As of now, a solution still hasn’t been found, and residents are urging the EPA to help them. The lack of government action after officials were alerted to the high lead levels in 1985 and the little help citizens have received now has left them wondering “Why?” As David Dabertin, a Hammond attorney who led the state environmental agency’s northwest Indiana office during the early 1990s, put it “It leaves you thinking they really don’t care about us.”
Like Flint, the alarming lead levels in the drinking water were dismissed by the government even when the contamination started affecting civilians. What happened in East Chicago demonstrates how much a lack of government action can harm civilians. It’s not okay for the government to just disregard the lives of its own civilians and not address the harms that are present in their lives.
Unfortunately, these two instances aren’t the only examples of drinking water crises. A 2016 Reuters investigation also found that there were thousands of localities with worse lead levels than Flint, and USA Today found that in the past decade, 63 million Americans were exposed to potentially contaminated drinking water — that’s nearly one-fifth of the U.S.’s entire population. Places such as St. Joseph, LA and Sebring, Ohio have suffered because the government failed to show up and do its job.
The government’s apathy will only take a toll on the public and destroy any faith that they might have in it. Here’s to hoping that they learn their lesson and start treating us with the respect we deserve.