Flint’s Horrifying Water Crisis Is Bigger Than Just Flint

The Rust Belt city's disaster is a sign of things to come.
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The Rust Belt city's disaster is a sign of things to come.
National Guard members and civilians carry cases of water to vehicles on January 23, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

National Guard members and civilians carry cases of water to vehicles on January 23, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

The situation in Flint, Michigan, has become a national embarrassment.

Over the last two years, the city of 100,000 has endured a horrifying water crisis of catastrophic proportions. In 2011, a state-appointed emergency manager helped the financially strapped city draft plans to switch from purchasing water through Detroit to a regional water system that would tap directly into the Flint River. After the city made the switch in 2014, Flint residents (including thousands of children) were immediately entangled in a toxic nightmare. "The water smelled, tasted and looked funny," Yahoo! reports. "Soon, some Flint residents developed rashes, hair loss and other health ailments." State officials consistently swatted down complaints from citizens and assured them that the water was completely safe to drink. This was all before President Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan last week.

While an extreme case, Flint, where a spiraling crime rate and ramshackle finances are the very model of a Rust Belt city in decline, is actually no exception to the norm. An explosive new report from the Guardian suggests that "every major U.S. city east of the Mississippi" may be underreporting the presence of heavy metals and other toxic elements in their drinking water.

Flint's story isn't just about incompetence and bureaucratic failure; it's a tragedy of austerity as well.

The report, which was based on documents provided by scientists who'd worked on an Environmental Protection Agency task force to examine lead and copper poisoning, alleges that water authorities are using methods deemed "misleading" by the EPA to "systematically distort" tests to downplay the presence of lead in drinking water. "By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people's drinking water is potentially unsafe," an anonymous source told the Guardian.

Here's the nitty gritty:

The documents show a pattern of behaviour in addressing public health concerns about water across the U.S. where "gamed" tests help ensure that water utilities don't breach federal lead and copper rules.... They show that several cities have advised residents to use questionable methods when conducting official tests for lead content. These include encouraging testers to run taps for several minutes to flush out lead from the pipes or even removing the filter from taps. Such methods have been criticized by the EPA for not providing accurate results, with the agency telling authorities not to use them.

The Guardian report goes on to document how state and city officials in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Michigan used unsound testing methods to ensure the results stay within what's legally tolerable. So it turns out more Americans are vulnerable to a Flint-like disaster than we previously thought. A 2015 report from the American Water Works Association found that "up to 96 million Americans could be found to be drinking water with unsafe levels of lead." With distorted testing, that number could be much higher.

The most depressing thing about this Guardian report is how little of a surprise it should come as. While Flint's particular case has to do with a polluted water source (rather than aging pipes), America's water infrastructure has been headed for a reckoning for years. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" gave our national water infrastructure a "D+" grade, citing aging pipes that resulted in an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year. Yet despite the warnings of experts and academics on the inherent dangers of the country's aging buried infrastructure, the ASCE claims—likely due to the fraudulent testing—America's drinking water is the safest it's been in 100 years.

To be sure, a New York Times analysis of federal data showed that some 20 percent of water treatment systems violated "key provisions" of the Safe Drinking Water Act between 2004 and 2009, and more than 49 million people consumed water which contained "illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage." That doesn't sound too safe, even if water pipes are no longer the primary vehicle for disease, as the ASCE claims.

It's unlikely state and federal lawmakers will get their act together to do what's necessary to prevent future crises like Flint's. The ASCE report notes that, while a complete overhaul of the country's water infrastructure would cost about $1 trillion over the span of 25 years (the EPA's more conservative estimate is $330 billion over 20 years), appropriations under the SDWA for infrastructure projects came out to a measly $6.94 billion between 2008 and 2012.

Despite the ubiquity of water, the natural resource's infrastructure is a politically unsexy topic unlikely to gain any ground in a continually polarized Congress. Flint's water crisis was precipitated not by outright malevolence—although it is about corruption, too, since the distorted testing completely undermines the rigorous standards mandated by the 1996 SDWA amendments signed into law by President Clinton—but by a bid to save some cash during a financial crisis. Flint's story isn't just about incompetence and bureaucratic failure; it's a tragedy of austerity as well.

Unfortunately, buried infrastructure lends itself to an "out of sight, out of mind" mode of economic thinking. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, our water crises are only expanding, from lead poisoning in Flint to coal ash contamination in North Carolina, to algal blooms in Toledo, Ohio, to perpetual water main breaks in Los Angeles. And even when something as drastic as Flint's current crisis emerges, it can take years for national media and political figures to pay attention. So remember this: What's happening in Flint can, and likely will, happen in lots of other cities—it's just a matter of when.