Sunday, March 13, 2016

Water in an American City Dangerously Contaminated

January 17, 2016

Flint, Michigan: Last week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency because of elevated levels of lead in the city of Flint's drinking water - 900 times the EPA limit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead exposure can affect the entire bodily system especially the brain. There is no safe blood level.

Now, a new deadly threat has appeared. 87 cases of Legionella or "Legionnaires' Disease" have recently occurred in the county, 10 of which were fatal. Legionella is a bacteria found naturally in untreated water. It can cause fever, headaches, shortness of breath and aching of the muscles. It is contracted by inhaling airborne water droplets, which cause a pneumonia-like infection in the lungs.

This is not Flint's first state of emergency because of water contamination. In the 1980s, water was flown in by helicopter because of a leaking gas station. This week, the National Guard was called in to distribute bottled water and water filters to people's homes. However, their efforts are too little and too late. Michigan State Police have been trudging through the snow with volunteers to distribute lead testing kits.

The radical deterioration of environmental safety standards is directly related to Flint's bankruptcy. Public Act 436, passed in 2012, allowed the governor to appoint an emergency manager over the financially distressed city. The emergency manager has broad dictatorial powers. Elected city officials have no standing against him. This unelected, governor appointed overseer can unilaterally overturn union contracts, sell off city assets, whatever it takes to make sure Bondholders are paid. Debt service to the banks has already been a strain on the city budget for decades.

"In 2014, the city of Flint, under the control of an 'emergency manager' appointed by the governor, was looking for ways to save money. To that end, the Snyder administration approved a plan in which the city would switch its water source: instead of getting water from Detroit, Flint would cut costs by drawing water directly from the Flint River... But in order to make Flint River water safe for people, it has to receive a special anti-corrosion treatment. Failing to treat the water sends corrosive river water through local pipes, it starts to eat through plumbing, and the result is lead poisoning," explains Steve Benen on MSNBC.

"The Snyder administration did not take the necessary precautions. What's more, as the community grew concerned about its water, administration officials initially told local residents not to worry and to keep drinking the water. The result, of course, is a public health crisis in which countless city residents, including many children, have been poisoned, which leads to severe and long lasting consequences. Snyder last week declared an official emergency - he also issued an apology of sorts on New Year's Eve - but the people of Flint still don't have safe, clean water."

"The decision to unhook from Detroit and get Flint's water from the highly polluted Flint River was made by Ed Kurtz, the unelected Emergency Manager of this majority African-American city. Kurtz's unelected successor, Darnell Earley, carried out the switch. After Flint emerged from emergency management, Snyder had the nerve to appoint Earley EM over Detroit Public Schools," writes Martha Grevatt in Workers World. "The pollutants in the Flint River — a result of decades of unchecked chemical dumping by General Motors and other companies — have made the river water highly corrosive. This allowed lead to leach from the aging pipes in Flint's system... Now, the corrosion of the lead pipes has destroyed the entire infrastructure. Even though the city has reconnected to the Detroit system, the water is still not safe because of the corroded pipes."

The emergency manager paid the notorious Veolia Corporation $40,000 to conduct a study which recommended reducing other unsafe pollutants with chemicals and using filters. Veolia did not address the lead pipe corrosion issue. Now that it will cost well over $1 billion to replace the corroded pipes, will Veolia emerge with an offer to rebuild the infrastructure in exchange for being allowed to privatize the water department? Unlikely.

Ignoring people reporting stomach problems, skin rashes and hair loss after the switch to the Flint River, Governor Snyder and officials in the state Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly assured Flint residents the water was safe to drink and bathe with. It took two years for the government to acknowledge the lead in the water, so that people would start drinking bottled water. Now with the outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease, it is not even safe to take a shower.

It was only because of community activists like pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Michigan ACLU investigative journalist Curt Guyette that a federal investigation ensued. Community members got their tap water tested and exposed the lead poisoning in the local children. University of Virginia professor and water safety specialist Marc Edwards played a leading role by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, obtaining emails between the governor and his of staff, Dennis Muchmore that clearly demonstrate their knowledge of the people's health problems and their deliberate decision to sweep them under the rug.

People are calling for Governor Snyder to go to jail. But meanwhile, many community members who refused to pay their water bills in protest, are getting shut-off notices. The United Nations has already gotten involved investigating water shut-offs in Detroit, where 10,000 people are living without running water in the city's attempt to get rid of blighted neighborhoods by making them uninhabitable. On January 15, 2016, US Congress passed a bill that blocks the EPA's clean water protection plan.

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