Let us step back for a day from the American Political Scene and talk about something that is really important, something that is literally a matter of life and death. What, you might ask, could possibly take precedence over the Iowa caucuses (which, as I am going to explain to you in a later post, have absolutely NO meaning in the grand scheme of things)? That thing that is all-important, my friends, is something you and I consume every day of our lives. Water. One of the most basic elements, one of the few things that, without which we would all be dead. Water. We take it for granted, don’t we? We turn on the tap (spigot to some) and out comes this crystal clear substance that we can drink, we can wash our dishes in it, we can bathe in it, we can make coffee with it, cook with it, wash our clothes with it, clean our homes … every day we turn on that tap probably hundreds of times a day, and we do not even consider where it comes from, what is in it, how it gets there … it is just … there. It is safe for all the above activities and we do not question that. Unless, of course, you live in Flint, Michigan (pop. 99,002 in 2014).
Many followers of this blog do not reside in the U.S. and therefore may not know about Flint Michigan and the Great Water Debacle, so I will briefly summarize:
• April 2014 – the city switched it’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River to save money ($5 million over a two-year period). Note that Detroit water included a chemical that protected the water from any potential corrosion from older lead pipes. Almost immediately residents noticed a difference in the colour and odour of the water and began to complain.
• Fall 2014 – a “boil water” advisory is issued after bacteria is found in the water, and the General Motors plant stops using the water, saying it is corroding car parts. (Hello … if it is corroding car parts made of metal, what the heck is it doing to people’s stomachs???)
• January-February 2015 – Detroit offers to re-connect, waiving the reconnection fee, but Flint declines the offer. Officials state that the water is not a threat to human health. High levels of lead are found at one home in Flint.
• March-September 2015 – increasingly high levels of lead are found in more locations; lead is found in the blood of children and though doctors urge the city to stop using the Flint River for its water supply, state officials continue to argue that the water is safe.
• September-December 2015 – residents are urged to “stop drinking the water”, filters and testing are ordered. Flint declares a state of emergency. The finger-pointing begins.
The cost of the debacle (that was to save $2.5 million per year), to date is:
• $12 million to transfer Flint back to Detroit water supply
• $17.2 million for bottled water and filters
• $3 million in lost revenue for city utilities
• $4 million for healthcare for children with elevated blood lead levels
The above tabulation is as of January 2016 and will obviously end up being much, much higher. The estimated cost to update and replace the infrastructure (new pipes) currently stands between $750 million and $1.5 billion. And this is only the cost that we can put a price tag on. What is the value of the life of a single child? According to the Mayo Clinic: “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.”
The finger pointing: Governor Rick Snyder, facing heavy criticism for his handling of the water crisis, has been asked by protestors to resign. There is some debate regarding when he first knew of the crisis and why it took him so long to respond. It is not Filosofa’s intent to make a judgement on that (at least not yet, as I think the facts are still fuzzy). The governor’s response to a call for his resignation was “The right action is, if you have a problem that happened from people that you were responsible for, you go solve it. You don’t walk away from it. You take it head-on”. Meanwhile …
• Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant resigned
• Brad Wurfel, the DEQ public information officer who apologized after criticizing a researcher’s reports of rising lead levels in the blood of Flint children as irresponsible, also resigned
And did I forget to mention the demographics of Flint? Well …
• Black – 56.6%
• Per capita average income – $14,360
• Persons below poverty level – 41.5%
At the risk of some saying I am “playing the race card”, these numbers speak to me. What if this had been an upscale, white, primarily professional community? Would the above timeline look any different? I think so …
So what does all of this mean? It means that an entire city comprised of human beings at or below the poverty level has been struggling for more than a year … almost two years, actually … without safe water coming out of their tap. It means that an indeterminate number of children may be suffering the effects of lead poisoning because a city tried to save a few bucks. I live in a city in the mid-west part of the United States, a city that supposedly has safe drinking water. I do not drink the water that comes out of the tap. I drink only bottled water; I make my coffee with only bottled water. I do, however, enjoy the luxury of expecting the tap water to be safe for bathing, for washing my clothes and dishes, and for feeding my pets. I cannot imagine turning on my tap in the morning and having a brown, brackish substance come out. Can you?