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Thirsty for More Government?

By: Brittany Yurkovitch on 4/12/2016

Like clockwork, election season brings out the calls of the people demanding that the government fix the myriad of society’s woes. Clearly, the people have a lot of faith in the government; they believe it can  provide workable solutions to problems like the rising cost of college tuition, healthcare accessibility and securing the nation’s food and energy needs; the list could go on and on.

However, is government the most qualified agent in solving these issues? I say, absolutely not. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan provides a great example demonstrating the government’s inability to truly look out for the best interest of the people.

Flint’s story begins when the local government decided to save money by switching water sources from the Detroit water supply to the incredibly polluted Flint River. However, they did not properly treat the water with phosphates to prevent the corrosion of lead pipes. Adding phosphates would have cost a mere $80 per day and their negligence created a massive lead and Legionnaire’s contamination problem for the unsuspecting Flint residents.

Photographs by Min Tang and Kelsey Pieper at FlintWaterStudy.org

 

United States Representative and former Michigan state Senator, Justin Amash questioned a congressional panel in February about the Flint crisis and discovered that the problem would have been averted if the government simply obeyed the law:

Keith Creagh, Interim Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, answered several basic questions from Amash to establish his department’s role in the crisis, noting “it’s highly unusual across this country [for a city] to go from one water source to another.”

Turning to Virginia Tech Environmental and Water Resources Professor and Water Interagency Coordinating Committee member Marc Edwards, the scope of governmental culpability in the Flint lead crisis quickly became clear.

“We know that not enough phosphates were added to the water to make it less corrosive,” Amash began. “What’s the cost of treating the water with the appropriate amount of phosphates?”

“When the switch was made, there was actually no phosphate added at all. No corrosion control. Federal law was not followed,” Edwards stated.

“No phosphates at all?” Amash interrupted.

“Nothing. Had they done the minimum allowable under the law, which would have been to continue the phosphate dosing — which in Detroit water, it would’ve cost $80 to $100 a day.”

Let that sink in. Remember the stated, ostensible purpose for switching the city’s water supply from Detroit’s to that of the Flint River was to save money.

Amash then asked whether Edwards had knowledge of or an opinion about why there were no phosphates added to control the corrosion.“[I]sn’t that a normal step?” he inquired.

Edwards replied:

“It’s the law. You have to have a corrosion control plan, and that’s why we have the law. This disaster would not have occurred if the phosphate would have been added — and that includes the legionella likely outbreak, the red water that you see, the leaks . . . In general, corrosion control, for every dollar you spend on it, you save ten dollars. But in Flint’s situation, for every dollar that they would’ve spent on it, they would’ve easily saved $1,000.

 

Not only did the Michigan government violate the law in this instance, but email evidence suggests that the state knew about the link between the increase in Legionnaire’s disease and the switch to the Flint River water supply ten months before the Governor informed the residents about the problem.

And it keeps getting better. While many residents stopped drinking the contaminated water, they began receiving outrageously expensive water bills:

Pat Palmiter is one of the residents struggling both with the contamination issue and the high bills she can’t afford to pay. In December, the estimated bill for her and her husband, both retirees on a fixed income, came to $267.38 — a shock, given that the highest bill they had received before that was about $150, in line with the city’s average. They don’t have the means to pay it since they rely on Social Security and her husband’s pension as their only sources of income. “You can’t afford to be paying money like that,” she said. “There’s no way.”

And it’s not like the couple has been using much water anyway. For over a year they’ve relied on filters and bottled water. They still have to shower in it, though, and she says the water dries out their skin, which is particularly tough for her husband, who has diabetes and already suffers from skin issues…

Flint’s high water bills — some of the highest in the country — were what first got Food & Water Watch, a group focused on access to water, involved in the issue last March, according to Senior Organizer Lynna Kaucheck. “It wasn’t so much about the safety of the water at that point, it was the cost,” she said.

And the problem isn’t Michigan’s alone; the federal government shares blame too. While Obama has called the disaster “inexplicable and inexcusable” it has become clear that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was aware of the crisis in Flint months before the citizens were told to stop drinking the water.

To add insult to injury, local health officials released this piece of propaganda assuring residents that it is safe to bathe their infants in the contaminated water:

Flint water poster

 

This propaganda is particularly disturbing considering lead is most dangerous to infants and children. Even the EPA website warns against the dangers of lead:

Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead paint.

From the local to the federal level, the government supremely failed the residents of Flint, Michigan. Who can a person trust in times like this? Unfortunately, some residents felt a nagging concern about the water but ignored it because the government assured the citizens that everything was fine:

The [lead contamination] result raised other questions for Harrington, a master plumber who is the business manager for Local 370 of the plumbers’ union.

He thought back to how his dog, Lucy, had gotten so gravely ill in the summer that he had her euthanized.

“She was 10 but she was healthy and then she got sick. I had to carry her up the stairs. She had bad, bad diarrhea. She wouldn’t drink or eat. I had to take her in and put her to sleep,” he said.

He wondered if the lead level could explain why his wife Suzan’s hair kept falling out or if it had anything to do with the persistent rash on the back of his head.

“I chalked it up to getting old,” he said. “I didn’t put two and two together.”

He’s made an appointment with his doctor, and is contemplating digging into the ground to confirm that the service line running between the main and his home is at least partially made of lead.

“I’m mostly upset at myself,” he added. “I should have known better. When I seen and smelled the nasty water, I should have known something was up. I never should have trusted them when they said it was safe.”

Like most of his neighbors, Harrington accepted government assurances that the water the city began taking from the Flint River in April 2014 — in a cost-cutting move — was perfectly safe to drink.

Mr. Harrington has learned a tough, but valuable lesson: trust yourself because the government cannot be trusted. Despite the fact that the government has failed the citizens of Flint, regular Americans have stepped in to fill the void. Plumbers from across the United States volunteered their skills to install filters and do what they could to assist the residents of Flint in their struggle to secure clean water.

Although it may seem that Flint is simply a one-time crisis, Flint may simply be the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing more reports of heavy metal contamination throughout the United States. While we live in a world awash with promises that the government can save the day, the Flint crisis proves that people need to find alternative solutions to meet their needs as the government tends to make the problems worse.

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