The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a wakeup call. The combination of indifference and deceit in the response of public officials in Michigan is disgusting.
By order of an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the city switched from water from Detroit to water from the Flint River to save money. The mayor and city council of Flint were powerless to prevent it. The people of Flint no longer had democratic government.
The emergency managers, which operate in four other Michigan cities, are the idea of Gov. Rick Snyder. After he started doing this, there was a statewide referendum in which Michigan voters disapproved emergency managers appointed by the governor, but he has gone ahead appointing them.
It is estimated that Flint saved more than $2 million a year by switching to the Flint River as their water source. There is no way to determine how much damage has been done to the people, especially the children, of Flint, but it seems likely it will be many times what was saved.
The Flint situation has received so much media attention that you might assume it is the only place water is unsafe. The little town of Sebring in northeastern Ohio has the same problem and has handled it in about the same fashion. City officials reportedly knew there was lead in the water for five months before they told the public.
It doesn’t stop there. We know lead has been found in the water in Washington, D.C., Durham, N.C., Columbia, S.C. and Jackson, Miss.
Most cities, including Athens, Ohio, have pure water, but I can find no estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency on how many do not. Furthermore, the EPA does have regulatory authority over tributaries and wetlands, which are the source of drinking water for one-third of Americans.
The EPA put the issue before Congress last year to get such authority, but Congress instead passed a bill prohibiting extension of the Clean Water Act. The president vetoed that bill, but a number of states have put the issue into the courts.
It should be noted that there is no scientific basis for the EPA standard that the danger level for lead is 15 parts per billion. Instead it is based on the assumption that 90 percent of the homes susceptible to lead in the water will have less than that. Maybe 15 parts is safe. Or maybe 10 parts is too high. We don’t know.
Another part of the problem is that support for testing and regulating is declining. The EPA says its funding for water protection is down 15 percent and at least half the states have also cut such funding. This is one result of the wave of tax cuts politicians have been pushing the last 25 years.
You probably have heard or read discussion of problems in our infrastructure. That seems abstract and not threatening. If we talk about unsafe bridges on interstate highways that is more specific, but you are not going to be on an interstate highway bridge when you read this. Try thinking about your next glass of water. Decide whether you would rather have a tax cut like those the politicians are promising, or clean, safe drinking water.
Guido H. Stempel III is a distinguished professor emeritus of journalism at Ohio University. Professor Stempel has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Wisconsin and a master's in journalism from Indiana University. He has been on the Ohio University faculty since 1965 and served as director and graduate chairman of the journalism school, director of the Bush Research Endowment, and director of the Scripps Survey Research Center. He is a columnist for The Athens Messenger and The Highland County Press.