The Flint River Crisis needs attention

By now, many of you have heard about the Flint water crisis that is happening right now, which began in Flint, Michigan beginning in April of 2014. The water that was being pulled from the Flint River and the local tap water had such high levels of lead in it, that people (especially kids) have been getting lead poisoning. There’s also the horribly tangled web of how the Michigan state government, under Governor Rick Snyder, has dramatically restructured the state and local governments. Not to mention how many people (including some at the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA) had known about Flint’s water long before the crisis recently exploded. However, I say this under no uncertain terms to everyone (but especially our presidential candidates) concerned about the Flint water crisis: If I hear any more talk about Flint without talking about cleaning the Flint River, I might burst a blood vessel.

Let me be extraordinarily clear about something: I’m part of an Honors group here at Loras College. My group has been focused on water conservation for the last few years, and our group has successfully made dual-flush toilets a reality on our campus, albeit currently a limited one. However, it’s not just how much water we’re using that’s an urgently important issue. It’s the quality of our water that requires immediate action, and it’s resoundingly clear that everyone talking about Flint is shirking their responsibilities (social or otherwise) by failing unequivocally say that we need to clean the Flint River.

For those who aren’t in the know, here’s some quick background information. In the 1970s, Congress passed what’s known as the Clean Water Act, which gives the EPA power to regulate the quality of water in the United States. Since then, other laws targeting the quality of water such as the Safe Drinking Water Act (which was passed in 1974) have been enacted. The EPA also has a subdivision called the Office of Water which, according to the Office of Water page on the EPA website, “ensures drinking water is safe, and restores and maintains oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants and wildlife.”

As for Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has implemented so-called emergency managers due to a law that, according to a page on the Michigan Department of Treasury website, “was designed to safeguard and assure the financial accountability of local units of government and school districts.” It’s one measure that the state government is using to be more fiscally conservative and gives the state power over cities when it comes to matters of money.

How this connects to the water crisis is that the Flint River is heavily loaded with chloride, which causes corrosion in metals like lead. According to an article last month by the Times Herald, “Another experiment showed the city’s failure to add phosphates for corrosion control had left the water nineteen times more corrosive to copper pipe with lead solder.” In other words, this solution would involve mitigating the bad stuff in the water by putting in “good” stuff that would prevent the bad stuff from corroding pipes and releasing worse stuff into the water. Why not just get rid of the bad stuff in the first place?

So to summarize so far: A federal law passed in 1972 and other laws proceeding it provide the EPA with regulatory powers specifically for water quality. Michigan now has the power to oversee local decisions through emergency managers, and the one for Flint strongly disagreed with the Flint City Council in its decision to return to the Detroit water supply it had before. The water from the Flint River is so bad it has been giving children lead poisoning. Add the fact that a wide range of people (including Governor Snyder, other officials in Michigan, and EPA officials) all knew about the situation with Flint, and you have a complete catastrophe.

None of what is occurring in Flint would even be happening if the river was cleaned in the first place, and if the pipes were replaced in an efficient and responsible manner. To state the obvious, even small amounts of lead can have devastating effects on children, as described by a May 2007 fact sheet issued by the European Environment and Health Information System connected with the Europe branch of the World Health Organization.

I’m not discounting the enormous amount of time, money and resources that would be necessary to accomplish both goals, but those are the only two solutions that will have more permanent benefits. Fixing the water that will go to your tap courtesy of services like water treatment plants in this case doesn’t treat the direct source of the water.

This is why you should care about Flint and what’s necessary to fix its problems. As we can see with the Mississippi, water quality is excruciatingly important. Both the quality of the water at the beginning, and the pipes that provide it to us, must be good enough to be safe for everyone to use. It’s not just Flint; this is an issue for everyone in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio, were left without safe drinking water after a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie tainted the city’s drinking water supply, though the water was pronounced safe to drink after a few days. Why did it happen in the first place, and why wasn’t it prevented? Clean water is an issue that deserves our unwavering attention everywhere in the U.S., although one thing remains sure: What has happened in Flint is particularly appalling, without question.

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