By now our readers are at least generally familiar with the public health crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan, now in a state of emergency declared by President Obama and state officials as a result of residents’ months-long exposure to toxic lead levels leached from the city’s aging pipes. But we are devoting this week’s post to a more detailed look at the background and facts surrounding the Flint story, as an illustration of how inadequate funding for modernized water infrastructure can endanger the health and security of residents of our country’s financially stressed communities.
In April 2014, the city of Flint, which had for decades obtained its water from Lake Huron provided by Detroit’s water utility, changed its water source to the Flint River in an effort to save money. At the time the cash strapped city was operating under the control of emergency managers appointed by Governor Rick Snyder. Like many communities across the country that we have discussed here, Flint suffered a decline in population in recent years so has been forced to foot the large bill for services like water and sewers with a significantly smaller tax base to pay for them. The switch to a less expensive water source was forced by this financial distress, and is typical of the ways in which struggling cities try to save money at the risk of water quality, increasing the risk of associated health problems for their residents.
Significantly, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to require Flint officials to add needed anti-corrosive chemicals to the Flint River water. Water from the Flint River turned out to be so corrosive that in October 2014, General Motors stopped using it because it was eating away parts in its engine plant. Corrosiveness posed a particular problem to Flint’s pipes because they, like those in many American cities, are made from lead which can leach into the water as the pipes age, poisoning those who drink it. Lead can cause stunted growth and brain damage in children and kidney issues in adults. (Lead was used in the manufacture of pipes until roughly the early 20th century, when scientific evidence began to demonstrate its toxicity. Modern pipes are generally made from copper or durable plastics like PVC.)
Very soon following the switch, Flint residents began complaining about rashes and strange odors from the river water, but city and state officials for the most part insisted that it was safe to drink. But when tested, the water was found to contain lead contents of 13,000 parts per billion, when the EPA suggests keeping lead content under 15 parts per billion. Not a single sample tested by independent officials at Virginia Tech University was found to be safe. State officials have admitted their failure to follow the correct protocol for corrosion, and the MDEQ’s director and spokesman both resigned after a task force appointed by Governor Snyder blamed the state agency for failing to ensure the safety of Flint’s water. In October, Flint switched back to Detroit’s water system.
The situation in Flint is particularly egregious because of the ineptitude and apparent dishonesty of city and state officials involved, but sadly Flint is not alone. We at CWC have documented numerous other health crises suffered by communities with aging and deteriorating water infrastructure. Last summer, for example, we reported on the more than 400,000 residents of metropolitan Toledo, Ohio who were deprived of safe drinking water as a result of toxins contaminating the area’s water supply from Lake Erie. As we wrote, a ban on the use of drinking water was imposed when city officials identified toxins in the water supply stemming from, among other things, leaky septic tanks and faulty storm water drains. And we have reported on communities all over the U.S. being forced to issue “boil water” advisories upon finding contamination by lead and other toxins that have caused residents to suffer health problems like fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures. As Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University who has followed the Flint case said, “Flint is an extreme case, but nationally there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure…This is a common problem nationally — infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”
As we have said before, our nation’s cities are in no position to bear the financial burden of building and upgrading water delivery systems that guarantee safe, clean water to all residents. Too often they lack the funds and the financing flexibility to make necessary upgrades to often centuries-old infrastructure. If we don’t want to see the dire situation in Flint repeat itself in other communities, the federal government must become a better partner in promoting the welfare, safety and good health of citizens across the country. We at CWC will continue our fight for federal funding to help cities do what it takes to keep their drinking water safe.