The City of Flint is Still Without Clean Water, They Aren't the Only Ones

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A sign stating, "Water is a Human Right," held by a participant marching to highlight the need for clean water in Flint, Michigan in February, 2016.
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For over three years, the residents of Flint, Michigan have been without safe drinking water. Investigators have filed 43 criminal charges against 13 current and former state and local officials, including four officials charged yesterday by Michigan’s Attorney General. Ongoing struggles have left many residents and onlookers weary of any change.

In April of 2014, state-appointed emergency managers switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. Even though officials were told that the Flint water department wasn’t ready to make the switch, the emergency managers made the switch anyway in order to save money. Right after the switch, residents began complaining about the appearance and odor of the water. That is because lead began to seep into the water supply, due to mistakes in treating old, water damaged pipes, as well as state and federal regulators failing to take basic precautions.

The switch has now exposed tens of thousands of Flint residents to lead contaminated water. In September, the Hurley Medical Center in Flint confirmed that the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since the city switched its water source in 2014. In children, exposure to lead can affect growth and development, including damage to the brain and nervous system and hearing and speech problems, as well as behavioral problems such as shortened attention span and increased antisocial behavior. In pregnant women, lead is associated with reduced fetal growth. Regardless of age, lead exposure can also lead to complications in the heart, kidneys, and the nervous system.

Yesterday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Shuette charged four officials, two former emergency managers and two water plant officials. All four were charged with felonies of "false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses." Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, both emergency managers in charge of Flint, were charged with felonies of false pretenses for allowing the city’s water treatment plant to operate even though it could not properly treat the water from the Flint River. They are also charged with willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office. Ambrose and Earley allegedly lied to the Michigan Treasury Department about millions of dollars spent on the new pipeline, saying it was for a separate environmental project. Each faces maximum sentences of 46 years in prison. They are the highest level officials to be charged thus far.

Howard Croft and Daugherty Johnson, city water plant officials involved in making the switch from purchasing drinking water from Detroit to water from the Flint River, are also charged with felonies for ignoring warnings that the city’s water treatment plant could not properly produce clean water. Each faces 40 years in prison.

For the last three years, the city of Flint has been looking to the federal government for help. Last week, the government finally approved $170 million in aid but city officials say they'll need tens of millions more to replace all of the city's lead pipes. While they have already replaced about 600 pipes this year, it will take another 50 years to replace the rest if they continue at this pace.

Right after the government approved the money for Flint, the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee quietly ended their yearlong investigation into the water crisis this Friday, yielding essentially no new information than what had already been reported.

The committee blamed the federal Environmental Protection Agency, rather than Michigan's own government. In the letter closing the investigation, the chairman of the committee, Jason Chaffetz wrote, "The committee found significant problems at Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality and unacceptable delays in the Environmental Protection Agency's response to the crisis.” They called out the federal regulatory framework for being "outdated" and setting "up states to fail." To that end, Chaffetz called for EPA funding designated to study and combat climate change to be diverted to water pipe improvement projects across the nation.

But Michigan Governor Rick Snyder failed to produce key documents during the investigation, impeding the committee’s efforts to answer critical questions about what he knew and why he didn't act sooner to fix Flint's water problem. Rep. Elijah Cummings, senior Democrat on the committee, is asking Snyder to produce key Flint-related documents within 30 days. According to Cummings, "requiring Governor Snyder to finally comply with the committee's request will allow us to complete our investigation and offer concrete findings and recommendations to help prevent a catastrophe like this from happening again.”

But catastrophes like this are still happening. A new piece by USA Today, based on months of analysis of EPA and state records, found that about 4 million Americans find themselves drinking water that could be contaminated with lead but has not been properly tested. A new Reuters investigation also found that almost 3,000 locations in the United States have lead poisoning rates double or quadruple the rate of lead poisoning that Flint had.

This is because while the Environmental Protection Agency has required water utilities to test households for lead contamination every three years, unauthorized testing methods are often implemented in order to avoid detecting lead. Such methods include asking testers to run faucets before the test period, otherwise known as "re-flushing," or to remove faucet filters. Some authorities have even removed high-risk households from testing samples altogether before submission.

The EPA needs to make changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal rule which dictates how communities test and control lead in drinking water. The EPA says they are working on "long-term revisions" to be expected in 2017. But these revisions have been years in the making because of the complicated nature of the rules.

For those invested in ensuring clean water for all Americans, the upcoming administration is causing concern. President-elect Donald Trump has called to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which expands federal protections for lakes, wetlands and streams, sources of drinking water for 117 million Americans. He has also promised to dismantle the EPA. Even if he does not dismantle the agency, he could severely cut their budget. And his choice to head the EPA is no better. Scott Pruitt has repeatedly sued the EPA to stop the agency for doing it's job and is also opposed to the Clean Water Act.

Access to clean water is a basic human right. Or at least it should be. We must be serious about investing more money in drinking water infrastructure and doing better at enforcing existing regulations. If Donald Trump really wants to ensure "crystal clear, clean water" like he has promised, he will need to do better than Scott Pruitt.

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