The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released their last infrastructure report card in 2013 and gave the United States an overall D+. This country’s infrastructure is in dismal shape, which means many people have been, are being, and will be harmed in some way, be it via a bridge collapse, poisoned water, crumbling schools, sewage or oil leaking into the ground or homes (yes, sewage leaking into the home has happened to me (in New Jersey) and to my parents (in Indiana)), and sadly, the list goes on.
Investment in infrastructure is imperative to prevent it from collapsing all around us. Failure to do this not only poses great safety risks to the public but is also a drain on our economy. Investment doesn’t mean using taxpayer dollars only—private-public partnerships should be sought. Infrastructure must be better regulated too. Some may scream there is too much regulation and perhaps on paper that is true, but time and time again it is revealed post-disaster that systems and equipment were not being adequately maintained or regulated. Prioritizing penny-pinching and profit-seeking over people’s safety should never be an acceptable way to operate.
The Flint, Michigan, water situation could have been avoided. It is an example of the devastating consequences when poor governance, lax oversight, minimal to no accountability to the public, poverty, austerity, and aging, unsafe, or contaminated infrastructure collide. The Republican Governor with his mania for austerity and appointing emergency managers (in Flint, Pontiac, Detroit, Highland Park, Benton Harbor, to name a few) has contributed a good deal to this crisis—and yes, he did, no matter how much some people want to spin it. Governor Rick Snyder asserts that Flint’s water crisis was only brought to his attention in October 2015. Even if that proves to be true, why did he wait three months before taking any action to right this wrong?
However, since the release of Governor Snyder’s emails, a different timeline has been revealed. Vox.com reported:
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, who represents Flint, sent Snyder a letter in January 2015 pleading with the governor for help. Flint “stands on the precipice of civil unrest” because its residents cannot trust the water, he wrote, asking the state to forgive a $21 million debt it owed to a state fund meant to help improve water safety.
But a briefing from the state Department of Environmental Quality sent to Snyder on February 1 plays down the Flint water safety problems. And it suggests the city was ginning up panic in order to get access to state funds.
To reiterate: Governor Snyder was sent a letter by a state representative in January 2015 and received a briefing—albeit one that downplays the severity of the crisis—on February 1. For eight months the governor knew something was amiss in Flint.
Still, there is plenty of blame to go around. Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, in his recent article for The Huffington Post, calls out others who were also negligent and slow in responding to the situation. From the article:
This is a bipartisan mess-up. The federal government sets the drinking water standards in America, even though monitoring and administration is delegated to the states. The federal EPA had the authority and responsibility to intervene. The failure in Flint belongs to all of us and it should lead to some hard thinking about the causes of this completely avoidable environmental disaster.
Over and over again we see companies and governments making short-term decisions to save money, but then see these “pragmatic” decisions costing more money when decisions must be reversed: Fukushima’s inadequate sea wall, VW’s deceptive software, BP’s reckless contracting in the Gulf of Mexico, GE’s dumping of PCBs in the Hudson river. The list is long and getting longer. We live on a more crowded planet and to maintain and grow our economy we must learn to be more careful in our use of natural resources.
Yesterday, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman resigned her role effective February 1. The EPA hasn’t acknowledged any wrongdoing but have admitted their involvement should have occurred sooner. That’s little comfort to the residents of Flint who fought for months to get the EPA’s attention. You can read more about this in Rebecca Leber’s article The EPA’s Silent, Guilty Role in the Flint Water Crisis published today on The New Republic‘s website.
A Flint resident shares his story and perspective
Flint resident Connor Coyne penned a piece on Vox.com yesterday in an attempt to correct the narrative he has been hearing from the mainstream media who have omitted important details, specifically in regard to the emergency manager system. It is worth a read, but here are some highlights:
The stage was set on March 16, 2011, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 4. The measure broadened an earlier law that provided an “emergency financial manager” for financially distressed cities and school districts. Under the new law, ‘emergency financial managers” became “emergency managers” with the power to cancel or renegotiate city contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government, unilaterally draft policy, and even disincorporate.
Flint was one of the first cities to be assigned an emergency manager in 2011, and over the course of four years had four such managers. One of the first acts was to suspend local government, and this remained essentially in force until the departure of the last emergency manager in 2015.
Even today, with approbation rightly raining down on Gov. Snyder for his reluctance to act on the crisis, or to release emails that might implicate him and his staff, newspapers have been hesitant to emphatically and unambiguously declare who has been making the decisions in Flint. It wasn’t “city officials,” it wasn’t the city council, and it wasn’t even a mayor who often found himself supporting the state’s priorities. Because the emergency managers had unchallenged authority in their oversight of Flint, it is they, along with the governor who appointed them, who bear ultimate responsibility for creating the crisis.
More will be forthcoming as this situation is further investigated. It is a warning to all of us that we need to be vigilant and hold those we elect accountable to our well-being. The emergency manager system is deeply flawed as there is very little accountability to the public when someone is appointed to carry out a governor’s austerity plan.
Emergency Manager Explained
The Rachel Maddow Show produced an excellent segment titled The American System of Government in May 2012. She explains how the emergency manager system works and how it undermines democracy while not necessarily improving a town’s economic situation.
And we can always count on congressional Republicans…
In light of the Flint water crisis, one would think legislators would be cautious in their zeal to claw back new EPA rules for clean and safe water. You guessed it. Republicans in Congress did exactly that. Their resolution attempted to overturn The Waters of the United States rule that was adopted by the Obama administration in 2014. This rule expands the definition of waters subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act.
Sen Joni Ernst (R-IA) in a statement said: “We all want clean water. This rule is not about clean water. Rather, it is about how much authority the federal government and unelected bureaucrats should have to regulate what is done on private land.” (Note: Ms. Ernst is committed to continuing this fight.)
The president vetoed it January 19. The full veto statement is below:
“I am returning herewith without my approval S.J. Res. 22, a resolution that would nullify a rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army to clarify the jurisdictional boundaries of the Clean Water Act. The rule, which is a product of extensive public involvement and years of work, is critical to our efforts to protect the Nation’s waters and keep them clean; is responsive to calls for rulemaking from the Congress, industry, and community stakeholders; and is consistent with decisions of the United States Supreme Court.
We must protect the waters that are vital for the health of our communities and the success of our businesses, agriculture, and energy development. As I have noted before, too many of our waters have been left vulnerable. Pollution from upstream sources ends up in the rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and coastal waters near which most Americans live and on which they depend for their drinking water, recreation, and economic development. Clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act helps to protect these resources and safeguard public health. Because this resolution seeks to block the progress represented by this rule and deny businesses and communities the regulatory certainty and clarity needed to invest in projects that rely on clean water, I cannot support it. I am therefore vetoing this resolution.”
How to help
If you want to help, below are two articles that provide some suggestions.
The nation’s infrastructure is one of our greatest accomplishments, but it is aging and is being stressed as the population grows. We can and must do better in maintaining and improving our infrastructure. We must insist on it. Why? Because lives depend on it. Furthermore, elected officials and especially those whom they appoint to positions of leadership should always be accountable and responsive to the public. Flint is not unique; these types of stories happen across our nation. Your town or city could very well be the next Flint. I hope not, but do you really know if your drinking water is safe?
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