More Flints in our future

2/19/2016, 9:09 p.m.
For the residents of Flint, Mich., the water crisis continues. Their governor and President Obama have declared states of emergency. ...
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

Jesse L. Jackson Sr.

For the residents of Flint, Mich., the water crisis continues. Their governor and President Obama have declared states of emergency. Congress is holding hearings. Presidential candidates are doing tours and debates. Free filters are being handed out. Residents can pick up bottled water. The city has gone back to water coming out of Lake Huron rather than the Flint River. But for parents, the fears remain — and almost nothing has been done. They will join in a March on Flint on Friday, Feb. 19, to demand action at the national and state level.

Flint residents don’t know if the filters work. They don’t know if they should bathe in the water or use it to wash clothes. Almost all the children in Flint under age 6 have been exposed to elevated levels of lead in the water. And the water still isn’t safe.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver estimates it will cost $45 million to replace the lead service lines to 15,000 homes in Flint, according to the Washington Post. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose the lead poisoning in children, estimates it will cost $100 million to combat the potential effects. Overhauling the Flint water distribution system will cost an estimated $1 billion.

No one knows where the money will come from. The president’s state of emergency freed up a few million federal dollars in short-term assistance. State and private donations have added up to $28 million, but a good portion of that has to repay Flint residents for the water bills they are paying when they can’t use the water.

For the residents of Flint, this is a disaster. The damage suffered is like getting hit by a hurricane like Katrina. The federal government should declare it a national disaster and mandate action. Congress should step up and appropriate emergency funds. Flint residents may be disproportionately older, poorer and black — but they are part of this country.

The national disaster has hit Flint but it is already coming to other communities. Lead pipes were banned 30 years ago, but there are an estimated 3.3 million to 10 million still in service, according to the New York Times. The EPA’s trigger level for action — 15 parts of lead in a billion — is arbitrary, set not on the basis of a health standard, but so 90 percent of homes fall below it. One-third of Americans get drinking water from wetlands and tributaries not yet superintended by the EPA. When the agency sought to issue a rule, reports the Times, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation to overturn it and two dozen states sued to stop it, worried that it would hurt business.

The Guardian reports that its inside sources suggest that in “every major U.S. city east of the Mississippi,” water authorities “systematically distort water tests” to downplay the levels of lead in the water.

At $5,000 a pipe, according to the Times, it is estimated that it would cost up to $50 billion to get rid of lead pipes servicing homes with water. That’s on top of the $384 billion EPA estimates it will need in deferred maintenance to keep drinking water safe. Yet conservatives keep slashing core budgets in order to keep cutting top-end taxes. The problem with making government so small that you can “drown it in a bathtub” — conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist’s famous quip — is that you’ll end up like Flint, with your children drinking and bathing in poisoned water.

Clean and safe drinking water isn’t a luxury. It shouldn’t require purchasing bottled water. It should be provided and policed by our government. It should be a basic necessity that we share in providing securely.

Flint shows the horror of violating that basic trust. Only Flint is not alone. If we continue to starve basic functions of government, we will see more and more Flints in our future.

The writer is president of the national Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.