You know about Flint. You’ve heard about Sebring, OH.
In both places, basically the same thing happened: lax controls, oversight, and regulation allowed corrosive river water to leach lead from old pipes into the drinking water.
Flint is finally being treated like the catastrophe that it is, more than a year after it should have been. That is good, because nowhere else in the country have scientifically confirmed levels of lead in the drinking water been so high that tap water is more dangerous than toxic waste.
However, local and national press is finally picking up on another problem that is widespread and dangerous, and needs attention — namely, the shoddy condition of America’s water infrastructure.
Remember, the water system in Flint is antiquated and poorly maintained, to the point where many service lines are made of pure lead, and to the point that the City is unsure where all the valves and switches are and how they work — to the point where during 2015 at least one valve was broken while the city was mapping and testing the system’s switches and valves. In early summer 2015, the EPA water expert Miguel del Toral personally stopped in Flint near Leeanne Walters’ house and confirmed that the water service line connecting to her house was lead.
After Walters told Del Toral about the high lead results, he drove back to Flint, just in time to observe the City replacing the service line to Walters’ home. He personally collected a sample of the pipe and verified it to be pure lead.
In June 2015, first the city was testing the valves near Pierson Road, and warning residents of “potential” water discoloration:
The city is warning of the potential for discolored water and low pressure in parts of Flint where crews are testing water main valves.
[The city stated:] “…Service should return to normal once work is completed.”
But then, the next day, the city was informing residents that the valve they were testing had broken, stirring up even more sediment (which contextual evidence suggests was carrying at least some lead particulates):
A broken valve could knock out pressure and discolor water in the area of Pierson Road and I-475, the city says.
The valve break came as crews were testing the water distribution system in the area of Oceola Avenue and I-475, according to the city.
Sediment in the water line may also discolor water in the area, but it is still safe to use, according to the city.
At the very least, these two events clue us in to the fact that a much bigger problem is at the root of this crisis: the decay of Flint’s water infrastructure.
This is a bigger issue, not least because it will take tremendous amounts of money and time. An internal Snyder email puts the cost at $60 million and 15 years, but experts disagree:
Harold Harrington, business manager of Flint’s plumber’s union, the United Association [of Plumbers and Pipefitters] Local 370 […] says digging up and replacing a forty foot length of lead pipe costs around $3,000. This does not take into account externalities like repaving streets and sidewalks, fixing any damage done to the home, and resodding lawns. Multiply $3,000 by 20,000 pipes and you get $60 million dollars—which suggests that the figure quoted in Michigan governor Snyder’s email is probably a lowball.
But Harrington also disagrees that the process will take as long as Snyder is estimating:
Harrington estimates that he could reasonably call in about 20 such teams to work full time until the job is done. Assuming the rate is forty pipes a day, roughly 249 days a year (nights and weekends, y’all), the Flint plumber’s militia could bang the job out in just over two years.
Yes, you heard that correctly: what we have before this Governor is the choice to do something slowly and cheaply or quickly and more expensively. The cost of doing something slowly is the deteriorating health of the people of Flint. Will that cost finally outweigh financial penny-pinching in the mind of our governor? It has to, for the sake of the poisoned children in Flint. Thankfully, Michigan may be ordered by a federal court to replace Flint’s water infrastructure, so perhaps the threat of jail will lubricate the process for our esteemed Governor.
Decaying water infrastructure is a big deal for Flint. And it is a big deal for Sebring, OH, whose water system one can only assume will need similar attention.
But the roots of the problem go deeper and wider still.
Flint is not the only city in Michigan with aging, leaded water pipes. Flint and Sebring are not the only cities in the Midwest with decrepit water infrastructure. As the Huffington Post reports, many cities in the country have the same problems. In fact:
Roughly 10 million American homes and buildings receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Service lines are the pipes connecting water mains to people’s houses. Lead ones are mostly found in the Midwest and Northeast.
Even replacing the lines can be trouble, however, as the law only requires replacing the lines on public property — replacing the portion of a lead service line on private property is up to the owner — and it turns out that replacing just the public portion of a lead service line can cause lead levels to spike in a homeowner’s water. That’s because the work involved in replacing just part of a lead service line can jostle free lead in the the remaining part of the pipe.
(The Safe Drinking Water Act originally called for utilities to replace the entirety of a lead service line, but lobbying and a lawsuit by the American Water Works Association watered down the rule.)
Milwaukee, in fact, has already embarked on a $511 million project to replace all its lead service lines, trying to forestall problems (with the city’s 70,000 lead lateral pipes) before they arise, as they did in Flint and Sebring.
In Flint, lead leached from decaying pipes caused lead poisoning in infants; a horrible tragedy. But lead poisoning — as barbaric and preventable as it sounds — is actually widespread in the United States. In the most affected areas, the percentage of children with lead poisoning was measured between 10.3% (Dubois County, IN) and 58.3% (!!! Houston County, AL). This doesn’t mean that Flint’s lead poisoning is insignificant, on the contrary, it just means that Flint’s poisoned water is one symptom of a much larger contamination.
Contamination of water from industrial sources and bad management is a quintessential 21st century problem caused by a 20th century mindset. Even without looking at the rest of the country, there is a misplacement of priorities within the state of Michigan. Too often 20th century priorities like petroleum, profit, and personal privilege overshadow 21st century needs such as clean water, fresh air, education and health. Telesur reports that the results are clear to the people of Flint:
“It’s profit before people,” said Mays, who moved to Flint in 2002. “They put more effort into hiding it, calling us liars and trying to shut us up and cover it up rather than fix it.”
The problem is long-standing, Mays insists, and many Flint residents agree.
…a web of “incestuous connections” between public officials and corporations seek to capitalize on public resources, water chief among them.
Ground zero for the privileged and powerful to capitalize on the public resource of water is the water distribution systems themselves:
The move [to Flint River from DWSD] was initially widely described as a cost-saving measure. However, recently-revealed emails between government officials call that motivation into question, as it appears the Detroit authority offered a deal that would have saved Flint money in the long run. Flint was also scheduled to be moved to clean Lake Huron water by this year thanks to a pipeline being built.
So residents and watchdogs are still trying to figure out the full story behind the maneuvers, and many think that privatizing Flint’s water system was the ultimate goal. The multi-national French water company Veolia was hired by the emergency manager and paid $900 an hour to analyze Flint’s water system last year, for a total of almost $40,000. Global Exchange describes Veolia as the “largest water privatization business in the world.” In Detroit, Veolia was also hired to evaluate the water system, at the same time a new regional water authority was created that many saw as priming the pump for privatization.
And Telesur is quick to make a connection between Flint and water privatization efforts in Latin America, because they are just so darn similar:
Many wonder whether water infrastructure in Flint, Detroit and other cities has been allowed to degrade intentionally or tacitly in order to open the way for a private operator to take over. Similar scenarios have played out in other parts of the world; for example in El Salvador a decade ago, and famously with the “water war” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000.
(N/B: the quoted links are very informative, check them out)
But if the connection to Latin America is cogent and clear, so are some connections closer to home.
For example, on the topic of heavy metal contamination, Navajo country in eastern Arizona is facing a water contamination crisis that has been described as “horrific” even when compared to the disaster in Flint.
In the western U.S., water contamination has been a way of life for many tribes. As Brenda Norrell, a news reporter in Indian country, describes, the situation in Navajo nation is “more horrific than in Flint, Michigan.”
The cause of the contamination in Sanders, Arizona, where almost three quarters of the population is of Native descent, is one that we currently find inconvenient to talk about: mining uranium for nuclear weapons and power.
Since the 1950s, their water has been poisoned by uranium mining to fuel the nuclear industry and the making of atomic bombs for the U.S. military. Coal mining and coal-fired power plants have added to the mix. The latest assault on Navajo water was carried out by the massive toxic spills into the Animas and San Juan rivers when the EPA recklessly attempted to address the abandoned Gold King mine.
The Gold King mine disaster occurred at a shuttered gold mine in Silverton, Colorado. EPA personnel and contractors hired by EPA (Environmental Restoration, LLC out of Fenton, Missouri) were trying to drain water from an underground tailing pond containing water polluted with cadmium, lead, arsenic, and other contaminants. According to the Wikipedia article:
Workers accidentally destroyed the dam holding back the pond, spilling three million US gallons (11 ML) of mine waste water and tailings, including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and other toxic elements, such as arsenic, into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado. The EPA was criticized for not warning Colorado and New Mexico until the day after the waste water spilled.
The repeated contamination of Native drinking water sources and surrounding ancestral lands has many Native activists speaking out — although, Native voices have been speaking out for centuries and white America has insisted on pretending we don’t hear:
“In 2015 the Gold King Mine spill was a wake-up call to address dangers of abandoned mines, but there are currently more than 15,000 toxic uranium mines that remain abandoned throughout the US,” said Charmaine White Face from the South Dakota based organization Defenders of the Black Hills. “For more than 50 years, many of these hazardous sites have been contaminating the land, air, water, and national monuments such as Mt. Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Each one of these thousands of abandoned uranium mines is a potential Gold King mine disaster with the greater added threat of radioactive pollution. For the sake of our health, air, land, and water, we can’t let that happen.”
Brenda Norrell, a local journalist from the area, reports that “there is no comprehensive law requiring cleanup of abandoned uranium mines”, meaning that what happens is the mining corporations, with government acquiescence, “walk away from them after exploiting their resources.” Native communities continue to get the short end of the stick because “75 percent of uranium mines are on federal and Tribal lands”.
Water tests done in the community of Sanders in July 2015 revealed that the levels of uranium in drinking water exceeded the federally established maximum contaminant level. Water in Sanders contains 37 ppb; the maximum allowed is 30 ppb. In compensation, the Arizona Windsong Company is providing clean water to the community, but not to the local primary school, the Sanders Unified School District. As of October 14th, the only assistance the school district has received was two pallets of donated bottled water. Interim Superintendent of the Sanders Unified School District, Dan Hute weighed in:
“I have a lot of people calling with what the district has to do, but my question is what are the state agency going to do for us?” Hute said. “We received the water pallets and that was a godsend, but bottom line is that’s the only assistance the school has received. Where’s FEMA, where’s any emergency response team, where’s state aid coming from to bring water trucks up here?”
To be fair, Flint was waiting for some of those water trucks as well, Mr. Superintendent. And in both that case, and with regard to the crisis in the Navajo nation, it is an atrocity that more help has not been offered to those who are suffering.
The difference, however, is that Flint is now getting much more assistance, mostly because people are paying attention to the problem. They need to pay attention to the problems in Sanders, Arizona, as well — and more importantly, to the wider problem of water contamination from uranium mines and water contamination in general:
Note: People who believe that nuclear energy is clean often fail to look at the entire uranium chain from excavation to waste storage. In the United States, there are more than 10,000 abandoned uranium mines which continue to contaminate the land, water and air. […] There is no safe dose of radiation, so this contamination is likely contributing to cancer and other diseases. This is a hidden health emergency that is not being addressed.
Thankfully, Native communities at greatest risk of uranium poisoning are speaking up, gathering together, and taking a stand. Just a few days ago, activists from Clean Up The Mines, Defenders of the Black Hills, Diné No Nukes, Laguna and Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment & Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, and Indigenous World Alliance assembled in Washington DC to protest and meet with federal officials.
They have specific and concrete grievances. Petuuche Gilbert of the Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment & President of the Indigenous World Association, points out:
“The U.S is discriminating against Indigenous peoples when it permits mining on these lands. Specifically, the U.S. is violating: Executive Order 13007, Executive 13175, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Tommy Rock, a grad student and co-author of a study uncovering the dangerously high levels of uranium in the Sanders water system, spoke up in DC as well:
“The regulatory agencies are responding by sending the Army National Guard to provide bottle water for the community of Flint. However, the small community of Sanders which is also predominantly an Indigenous community that is off the reservation are not receiving the same response from the state regulatory agency or the state legislatures and the media,”
“The same can be said about two Lakota reservations. They are Pine Ridge and Rock Creek, Standing Rock Reservation that have not received any assistance from regulatory agencies. This exemplifies the inconsistency among the US EPA regions about responding to Indigenous communities compared to non-Indigenous populations which are facing the same issue regarding access to safe drinking water.”
“Another issue around water is the mining industry contaminating the rivers. They are disregarding the Clean Water Act because the act does not address radionuclides. This needs to be amended so the policy can enforce that companies be accountable for their degradation to the watershed areas. This can also be beneficial to US EPA because they do not have the funds to clean every contaminated river by the mining industry and other commercial industry,”
Charmaine White Face from Defenders of the Black Hills also spoke convincingly about the need for regulatory action to alleviate the ongoing crisis:
“This is an invisible national crisis. Millions of people in the United States are being exposed as Nuclear Radiation Victims on a daily basis.” said Mrs. White Face. “Exposure to radioactive pollution has been linked to cancer, genetic defects, Navajo Neuropathy, and increases in mortality. We are protesting the EPA today because we believe that as more Americans become aware of this homegrown radioactive pollution, then something can be done to protect all peoples and the environment. In the meetings we had in DC, not only were AUMs [abandoned uranium mines] discussed, but we also talked about radioactive pollution from coal dust, coal smoke, and in water.
These show a need for amendments to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.”
Clarification in blue is from me
To sum up: Flint and Sebring, OH, have had trouble with their water because their water infrastructure is decaying and poorly managed. And they are not the only city in the Midwest with lead-in-water problems or drinking water problems in general. All of these problems lead back to infrastructure, regulation, and enforcement — specifically, the lack thereof. Many Flint residents, watchdog organizations, and onlookers see the actions of Flint and State of Michigan employees as purposely letting public systems fall into disrepair so that they can be privatized, a pattern that has been widely observed in Latin America in recent decades.
However, the problem of water cycle contamination goes deeper and wider than decaying pipelines and infrastructure standards in major cities. The majority-Navajo community of Sanders, AZ, has been the victim of a unilateral attack on the safety of their natural water resources by the profit-and-extraction-driven enterprise of uranium mining in the upstream areas of the Animas and San Juan rivers. Abandoned uranium mines contaminate water sources with not just heavy metals like cadmium and lead, but with radioactive material. Just like with lead, no exposure to radiation is safe.
The difference between Flint and Sanders, AZ is twofold: Firstly, Native populations are still subject to racism and disinterest from white America. Says activist Leona Morgan from Dine No Nukes:
With adherence to out-dated, racist policies promoting colonialism, such as the 1872 mining law, Indigenous peoples across the country will continue to be oppressed, and we will continue to demand that our land be returned and restored to its original condition, to that of before the colonization by the United States.
A clear difference between Flint and Sanders is that white America has long ago decided that the problems of Native America are not theirs to care about. This racist and inhuman position is part of the reason why children in Sanders, AZ, are being poisoned with radioactive heavy metals.
Secondly, the truth of Sanders, Pine Ridge, Rock Creek Standing Rock, and other communities is that they challenge a prominent myth in American environmental circles: the “promised land” of cheap, clean, nuclear power. The fact of the matter is that when you consider the entire supply chain of nuclear energy, including how we mine the fuel and how we dispose of the ashes, it becomes very clearly the dirtiest form of energy, one producing byproducts that, out of all other energy sources, are the most dangerous to human life on the planet.
The truth that the case of Sanders inconveniently reveals to us is that a 21st century environmental movement has to take as its central mission clean water, clean air, and clean soil. The pursuit of “new forms” of clean energy is a farce. We know how to produce clean energy (and some European countries are already doing it): wind and solar power. No energy source that involves combustion is clean.