The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a microcosm of the difficulties faced by poor communities when entrepreneurial government strategies favor savings over the public’s well being. This problem has its own characteristics, but it has revealed an issue affecting many cities.
Governor Rick Snyder, a businessman elected by the Tea Party, established a system of “emergency managers” to deal with potential problems. In order to save money, two of these managers decided to change the source and plumbing from where Flint obtained its drinking water. For a number of years, the potable water of a mostly African-American population was contaminated with lead in a city that used to be the center of the auto industry of the United States. The water was reestablished to come from its original source, but the pipes are now so corroded by the lead that it continues to come out polluted.
In these matters, the federal government’s responsibility is handled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) which failed to be assertive in its complaint about the contaminated water. Today, Congress has the chance to send at least $300 million to help state authorities replace the city’s plumbing. Republicans oppose this measure unless there are also budget cuts. Surely their reaction – which comes from both governor and senators – would be different if the people harmed by this were white, wealthy and Republican instead of African-American, poor and Democratic.
Still, the problem that Flint – and its 8,000 children at risk of growing up with developmental difficulties due to excess lead in the water – faces is happening in several other cities throughout the country, from New Jersey to California, from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. Even Washington D.C. had to come up with millions of dollars to change its toxic water pipes in 2001.
It is estimated that there may be nearly 6 million miles of plumbing taking polluted water into homes. The National Resources Defense Council calculated in 2011 that 19 large cities – including Phoenix, San Diego and Denver – have corroded plumbing and high pollution levels.
The Flint case leaves us with many lessons to learn. One of them is the need to pass strict federal regulation and oversight for a resource as important as drinking water. For that, Congress will need a majority that does not see the EPA and its regulations as the enemy.