Originally published in The Progressive

By John Peacock


Members of the congressional progressive caucus have recently written to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, urging him to support a $765 million dollar package to help restore safe drinking water to Flint, Michigan, and assist those affected by the city's water crisis.

Congress is in the midst of a standoff over funding for Flint, which Democrats are demanding Republicans add to a package of stopgap federal funding that must be passed to avoid a federal government shutdown.

The disaster in Flint has grabbed headlines and prompted demands for much needed financial support; however, it is just one part of the even larger water crisis facing the entire nation.

In Flint, almost two and a half years have passed since the city administration’s disastrous austerity-driven decision to switch its water supply from the Great Lakes to the Flint River. It’s been a year since the city declared its water unsafe to drink from the tap. For eighteen months, corrosive water flowed through the city's pipes causing an unknown amount of damage to Flint’s water infrastructure, and leading to mass poisoning of the city’s residents.

Water quality has improved significantly during the past year. Both the state and the federal government, as well as independent experts, now say that filtered tap water is safe to drink for everyone. But filters will likely be needed for some time yet and many residents, understandably distrustful of government officials, will want to rely on bottled water for longer. Some won't be satisfied till the city's roughly 10,200 lead or galvanized steel pipes are replaced with safer copper or plastic ones. The full scale of the damage to the city’s water infrastructure is unclear, which makes the end of the crisis a little blurry.

But the immediate infrastructure problems are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also the long-term effects of lead poisoning. How many children were affected, and what exactly the effects will be are unknown. Small amounts of lead can potentially lead to neurological damage, hearing loss, and cardiovascular problems in adults. There is no safe lead blood level. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible.

The water crisis in Flint has potentially diminished the future economic opportunities of thousands, and this is in a city already suffering from post industrial decline—nearly 42 percent of Flint residents are already living in poverty. Although the effects of lead poisoning cannot be reversed, support for health and education programs, as well as investment to encourage economic development, can help lessen its impact.

But Flint is the canary in the coal mine. Crises like that in Flint are in part a result of the general state of disrepair the nation's water infrastructure finds itself in.

The American Water Works Association's annual State of the Water Industry Reports make the urgency of the problems abundantly clear. Poor water infrastructure means that as much as six billion gallons of treated water is lost every single day to breakages (as much as 18 percent of the nation’s daily usage), and the general blasé attitude to drinking water means that hundreds of unregulated and unwanted chemicals find their way into the nation’s drinking water.

Problems with lead extend well beyond Flint. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that forty-one states had incidences of higher than acceptable levels of lead in drinking water over the past three years. Flint is one in a long line of water crises, and will surely not be the last. There are between seven and ten million lead service pipes in the United States, and it doesn’t take much to cause them to leach lead into the supply. The use of road salts in New Jersey, for example, led to corrosion of pipes and a spike in unsafe lead levels in drinking water.

Let us also not forget that, although poor water infrastructure affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. In the case of Flint, studies have shown how it is the older, lower value housing that is at the highest risk of lead poisoning, and it’s in these houses that poorer communities find themselves. It’s the economically disadvantaged groups as well as minorities who are usually relegated to those places with poorer infrastructure, where they are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards.

The Flint Water Advisory Task Force found that crisis was a clear result of environmental injustice. It concluded that Flint did not enjoy the same protection as other communities due to its economically disadvantaged position and its majority African American population. This injustice can also be seen in the way the concerns of Flint’s residents were ignored. Affluence brings more influence, and it is difficult to imagine the pleas of a more affluent community being dismissed as callously those of the people of Flint.

The American Society of Civil Engineering currently gives America’s drinking water infrastructure a D grade (meaning poor), and the EPA estimates that $384 billion will be needed just to keep the nation's drinking water safe by 2030. The cost to upgrade every system and replace every pipe would be enormous (perhaps $1 trillion or more over the next twenty-five years), and that’s before we add the costs of improved water testing and reporting.

These costs may seem large, but the costs of not properly maintaining the nation’s infrastructure will surely only increase over time. We can only hope that Flint will prove to be the spark that shocks government into action.

John Peacock is a physicist and biomedical researcher who writes about environmental science.