Monday, January 11, 2016

Last Call For Water Water Everywhere

In the comments, our good friend Prup has called me out on not covering the potable water situation in Flint, Michigan.

I was surprised to find no coverage of the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis, as far as the index goes, at least. I have somewhat questioned what I see as an overestimate on racism in some of your posts. Where I see it as one on many factors, or as a major, but not the only, contributing factor, you sometimes see it as the only factor. But there's no question in this one that racism and poverty are the main factors, and it shows HOW they create a situation.

As usual, Jim's right.  I haven't given the situation in Flint more than cursory coverage.  Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder has largely gotten a pass compared to his neighbor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and especially since it involves Michigan. Much of America has given up on the state because there's only so much Republican outrage one can keep track of, given the clown car in 2016 and the growing disaster of Bevinstan here locally.

But the Flint story is hands down one of the worst abuses of Republican government power in a long time, and is definitely a story where, as Jim says, racism and poverty are the main factors. Rick Snyder is guilty of criminal negligence, and it's time for more people to make noise who, can, starting with myself, so here goes with David Graham's primer in The Atlantic:

In Flint, Michigan, a scandal over lead-tainted water keeps getting darker.

On Tuesday, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency due to lead in the water supply. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it is investigating what went wrong in the city. Several top officials have resigned, and Snyder apologized. But that’s only so comforting for residents. They’re drinking donated water supplies—though those donations are reportedly running dry—or using filters. Public schools have been ordered to shut off taps. Residents, and particularly children, are being poisoned by lead, which can cause irreversible brain damage and affect physical health. It could cost $1.5 billion to fix the problem, a staggering sum for any city, much less one already struggling as badly as Flint is.

The story is horrifying, on a visceral, “this isn’t supposed to happen here” level. While attention has been slow to focus on Flint, the more that emerges, the worse the story seems. The latest question is when Snyder knew about the problem. This week, an email from Snyder’s then-chief of staff to a health-department official was turned over as part of a freedom-of-information request. In July 2015, Dennis Muchmore wrote:

I'm frustrated by the water issue in Flint I really don't think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving. These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we're just not sympathizing with their plight).

On Thursday, while declaring the state of emergency, Snyder wouldn’t say when he became aware of the lead problem in Flint. The governor—who likes to portray himself as a can-do manager—reportedly grew testy when asked repeatedly about his own awareness.*

How did Flint's water supply get poisoned?  Effectively, Snyder's orders.

The problem dates back to April 2014, when Flint was under the direction of an emergency manager appointed by the state to try to fix the broken city. (Michigan law provides for the governor to select managers, and the provision has been used in several places in recent years, most prominently Detroit.) To save money, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River, rather than from Detroit’s system, which was deemed too costly. But the river’s water was high in salt, which helped corrode Flint’s aging pipes, leaching lead into the water supply.

The move saved millions, but the problems started becoming apparent almost immediately. The water starting smelling like rotten eggs. Engineers responded to that problem by jacking up the chlorine level, leading to dangerous toxicity.
GM discovered that city water was corroding engines at a Flint factory and switched sources. Then children and others started getting rashes and falling sick. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental-engineering professor, found that the water had nearly 900 times the recommend EPA limit for lead particles. As my colleague Alana Semuels noted in a deeply reported feature in July 2015, residents believe the city knew about problems as soon as May 2014. Yet as late as February 2015, even after tests showed dangerous lead levels, officials weretelling residents there was no threat.

The July 2015 date on Semuels’ story emphasizes the incredible slowness of authorities to respond. That was more than a year after the switch to water from the Flint River. This week’s state declaration of Emergency comes some 20 months after the switch. How did it take so long to get anything done?

Jim's already answered this question for us:

Not even his worst enemies would accuse Rick Snyder of deliberately trying to poison a community of poor, mostly black, working class people, any more than the pharm executive that sends out of date medicine wants to kill Africans. What it is is trying to handle a situation, usually a minor one ("We have to get rid of these pills but the bottom line would be better if we actually got something for them rather than throwing them into the dumpster" or "we can save money by switching the water supply in Flint, but buying and figuring out how to add this chemical is cheap, but it's such a hassle. And it's just for that bunch of n's in Flint, they're mostly criminals anyway, so why go through it. Probably the scientists are over-reacting, the water can't be that bad, can it. It smells funny -- but then so do they *snigger* -- and so, if some of them get upset tummies, it won't be that bad." Only, as we've found, lead in water gives a lot worse than upset tummies, like life-time brain damage.)

The intersection of Republican indifference to those people, institutionalized racism and classism, slashing even basic government services into non-functionality and a crumbling infrastructure that nobody wants to spend money to fix has directly resulted in the situation in Flint.  More of this will follow, and probably already is happening, in places around the country where the people that don't matter aren't able to make their voices heard over fracking lobbyists, mining companies, chemical giants and conservative think-tanks.

The fact is if this had been a white community, the water problem would have been fixed in 20 days or 20 weeks, not 20 months.

The best part?  The failure in Flint will be used by conservatives to say "See?  You can't even trust government to provide you with clean water anymore.  We need to privatize this now!"

Meanwhile the most vulnerable will continue to suffer, because hey, we don't even believe in fixing the pipes around here anymore, and we keep electing people who assure that will never happen.

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