Saturday, February 13, 2016

Measurement of the Day: PARTS PER BILLION [Part 3 of 3]

[This is the concluding part of my three-part series on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.] 


As noted yesterday in the An American Disaster: The Crisis in Flint town hall videos, the issuance of water filters throughout was not a bad step -- it certainly made sense to do so -- but likely an insufficient one. That has been part of the problem in Flint: responding too little, too late ... or not at all. Digging up the city's piping infrastructure should have already been under way; it hasn't.

Another part of this is governance.  Specifically, it has to do with cutting out those who are directly affected in these kinds of situations, leaving them with no voice.  This is not a case of a water main bursting or a problem with the machinery at a water treatment plant.  Those are emergency situations that are just dealt with.  It may be worded in contracts that such actions will be taken in those situations, but it is, nonetheless, seen a given that it will happen.  No weighing in by the residents is required.

However, when an appointment is made -- in this case, Governor Snyder's multiple Emergency Managers -- and those appointed can take steps that directly affect a city without the people saying yes or no to those steps, then that is no longer a democratic state.  When an emergency arises, as was the case in Flint financially, it is all well and good to appoint someone to fix the problem, with preferably using decisions made on his or her own very sparingly.  When that fix affects people adversely and they are cut out of the equation, it leaves open the possibility for far worse problems to arise ... problems, for example, like those in Flint.  The result is those affected have no say, no recourse.

In my home state of New Jersey, something with some broad similarities to the debacle in Flint had its first step put in to effect recently. Just over a week ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Republican presidential candidate, signed into law the Water Infrastructure Protection Act.  (In reality, it should have been called the Water Infrastructure Profiteering Act).  It allows fast-tracking of the selling of water systems all over the state to private companies, supposedly to get more revenue into the system to repair water systems.  Almost all of New Jersey's water systems are in an "emergency status", desperately needing repair.  Opponents to the bill say it will create increased water bills of customers as a result of these private companies passing along the costs of repairs.

This bill is not a recent thing.  Six years ago, Trenton, New Jersey's capital, voted against privatizing its water system by a whopping 4-1 vote.  In a referendum vote during the 2014 mid-term elections, residents in a tiny borough in Sussex County also voted overwhelmingly to reject a sale of its water system to private companies, while residents in the town of Haddonfield voted in favor of such a move.

The broad, and eerie, similarity?  Residents, under the Water Infrastructure Protection Act, get no say in these decisions.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's office just released 11,000 pages of E-mails that were sent among various parties regarding the situation in Flint, after a request under the Freedom of Information Act. (Nothing like some light reading for the weekend.)  If you wish to look at the related documents, you can find them here.

At his State of the State speech on January 19 of this year, Gov. Snyder said he would release more E-mails relative to the crisis in Flint; he did so the next day.  It was not the 11,000-page data dump that just happened, but it was over 270 pages then.  While it remains to be seen what the recent release reveals, the January release showed a clear intent of the Snyder administration to wash its hands of any culpability.  Gov. Snyder's former Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote that the people of Flint were responding "by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety" and trying to "shift responsibility to the state".  Gov. Snyder also wrote, on a separate date, that he was unaware of two children who were being monitored due to high blood-lead levels.

While no date has been set, Gov. Snyder will testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee on the crisis in Flint, after accepting an offer from committee chairman, Representative Jason Chaffetz.  (Snyder has claimed that he requested the opportunity.)  Another person testifying at the hearing will be Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  In addition, investigations are under way by both Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Another problem in this debacle is financial.  Not the financial crisis that brought about the appointment of an Emergency Manager, but an individual and city-wide financial crisis.  Just from a purely consumer level, you would not want to pay, or keep paying, for a defective product, would you?  Of course not.  As a commodity, the water provided is paid for, to whatever extent, in each and every town in the U.S., by that town's  residents ... namely, water bills.  Water that poisons people (especially children permanently), corrodes pipes, and is unsafe to use, is, in essence, a defective product. And yet, Flint residents have received, and continue to receive, bills for water that they were told they cannot use.

© Associated Press
(** NOTE: In the above video, the dollar amount of the proposed bill is stated as $3,000,000. Several other news sources state that the dollar amount is, in fact, $30,000,000.)

The bill, which would be used for reimbursement relief, did pass the state Senate earlier this month -- as of this posting, the state House has yet to act on it -- but Gov. Snyder, who put forth the bill, did so as part of the state's 2016-2017 fiscal year budget.  The 2016-2017 fiscal year doesn't begin until October 1st.

Representatives of the EPA who are on-site in Flint said, as of a week ago, that the water in Flint is beginning to get better, but their sampling has been far more limited at this point.  They relayed results of water samples taken from ten different homes, highlighting eight of those results -- eight out of over 51,000 residences city-wide -- with water-lead levels varying from very low or negligible to 400 ppb.  (Remember, the safe limit is 15 ppb.)  Such a small sampling is a good sign, but hardly a cause for relief.

There has been a case made that this crisis was the result of institutional racism, as Flint's population is mostly black.  I believe there is a valid argument there, but I would also say, without attempting to discount such claims, that what has happened to Flint is also the result of institutional classism.  If you look at other cities in Michigan where the Governor has appointed Emergency Managers (i.e. Detroit, Saginaw, Pontiac), you will find that their populations are also mostly black.  (Detroit, over 80%; Saginaw, around 45%; Pontiac, over 50%.)  You will also find that those same cities are economically struggling, often termed as "economically depressed".

In other words, if you are not white or are not financially well-off, whether an individual or a whole city, too bad.  Whether you call it racism or classism, both are correct and either one, let alone both, is utterly unacceptable.

I think there are several individuals and entities at fault here.  One would be the EPA.  While they are now part of the solution, their jumping into action when they initially should have (by simply going on the word of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) was unnecessarily delayed.  The MDEQ is highly to blame for its absence of attention and outright lying about the crisis, as are all of the Emergency Managers appointed to Flint.  An interesting side note: Flint's fourth and final EM, Darnell Earley, said that the Flint City Council was to blame for switching to Flint River water, not him. (Now, remember, Flint City Council votes on this matter held no authority under the Emergency Manager, and, in fact, no such vote ever took place.)

And then, there is Governor Rick Snyder, who executed and presided over the systematic dismantling of democracy by saying with his actions that, in effect, those who should have had a say, did not.  The investigations by state Attorney General Bill Schuette and the U.S. Department of Justice may result in multiple charges being brought against Snyder and others.

Yes, there is more than enough blame to go around.  What remains, however, is the population of Flint.  Children, how many is not yet known, are/will be permanently harmed.  Other residents have been, and continue to be, harmed, inconvenienced, and disenfranchised.  That should never, under any circumstances, be acceptable.  What happened in Flint is immoral and unethical.  What happened in Flint is a man-made disaster and a crisis for Flint, as well as a dark hour for Michigan, for politics in general, and for the United States as a whole.

Here are some steps that need to happen: Mayor Karen Weaver and the Flint City Council must get all of its authority restored.  That has happened, somewhat.  The Receivership Transition Advisory Board, first put into place in April of last year, granted limited powers to be returned to Mayor Weaver only three weeks ago, but it is limited and has the mayor still answering to the Board.  There exists a proposed Board resolution to grant the mayor authority to appoint a City Administrator and the heads of all of Flint's executive departments, with all of those individuals reporting to the mayor.  That resolution has not yet been brought up for a vote by the Board.

A shake-up at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality must take place in order to get more responsible individuals doing their jobs properly in place.  By saying "more responsible", I mean more responsible to the residents, not politicians.

Another step that is far overdue is replacing piping and service lines throughout the city of Flint.  As you saw in yesterday's town hall videos, there are ample people in place to do it, but the state must give the green light first.  That, still, has not happened.

Ongoing distribution of water filters, and replacement filters for inside them, needs to be maintained. Residents must continue to use them until the water is safe to drink and use.  (Of course, the residents there do not need me to tell them that.)

All the residents of Flint, at least all of the children, must be monitored on an ongoing basis, seeing as they were poisoned.  To what extent -- how many and how severely -- is unknown, but what is already in place must be expanded.  If a monetary fund, as is being requested, is required to do that, then establish that fund.

The stepping down of Governor Rick Snyder also needs to happen.  He is attempting to strike a noble pose by saying the problem happened under his watch and he wants to be part of its resolution.  If he created the problem by silencing the voice of the victims, then his voice should be silenced while the problem is being fixed.

Finally, the state's Emergency Manager Law, which has been on the books since 1988, and was expanded two years later, must be repealed.  (To that extent, at the very least, the Michigan state legislature in 1990, when the law was expanded, and its then-Governor, James Blanchard, also carry some of the blame here.)  This atrocity must never be allowed to happen again.

The crisis in Flint is not the only one of its kind in America, water supply-related or otherwise. Other cities that may have not received the same type of recognition nationally to the extent Flint has are no less important; it is likely simply the scale of those situations is the biggest (if not the only) difference.  It has shed light on the institutional malfeasance in this country -- yes, it goes on far beyond one city in Michigan -- as well as the ongoing issues of racism and classism.  Additionally, the chipping away at democracy in this country is undeniably part and parcel of what has happened.

There will be more to say on this crisis, but I will end here with this:  Call it what you will, whether ignorance or intent or both, or something else entirely, it is no great stretch of one's understanding to see that the residents of Flint, Michigan, deserved better ... far, far better ... but did not receive it.  To see this as acceptable, however, would be a great stretch.

Governor Rick Snyder and his administration, including the MDEQ, made that stretch quite easily.