Water crisis shakes America

The governor of Michigan has declared a state of emergency in Flint, the state’s fourth-largest city. Lead levels in the city’s drinking water are too high. But this is no isolated incident in the US: infrastructure is crumbling all over the country but the costs to upgrade it are deemed too high. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Residents in Flint, Michigan have to drink bottled water due to a crisis involving lead contamination in the city’s drinking water. (Image credit: philografy, flickr)

Residents in Flint, Michigan have to drink bottled water due to a crisis involving lead contamination in the city’s drinking water. (Image credit: philografy, flickr/Creative Commons)

It’s been a week since officials began handing out free water bottles, water filters and replacement filter cartridges to residents of Flint, Michigan. The reason: lead-contaminated water pours out of the city’s faucets. The water is so filthy, it is no longer fit for consumption.

Emergency after 1.5 years

Residents are becoming increasingly fed up with the catastrophe, which began in April 2014 when a state official charged with overseeing Flint’s dismal finances decided to stop buying water from nearby Detroit and instead drew polluted water from the Huron River to save money. Since then many of Flint’s 100,000 residents have been complaining about foul-smelling water that is giving them rashes and making them ill.

“Their one job was to make sure our water was safe,” said Flint resident Melissa Mays, referring to state environmental regulators. “They cut every corner. They did more to cover up than actually fix it. That’s criminal.”

Not an isolated incident

The scandal is the third in recent memory when a large American city’s water has been undrinkable.

Last year, an algae bloom in Lake Erie overwhelmed that water system of Dayton, Ohio, forcing 500,000 to drink bottled water for around a week. Around 300,000 residents living around Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, could not drink their water for a few weeks due to a chemical spill related to coal mining.

“Some of these systems were built a hundred years ago. Some of the pipes are made out of wood,” said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. “Some of them were built the times when metropolitan areas were expanding and decentralising. And we just need to reinvest in these existing systems.”

Flint officials said the city’s water system needs USD 1.5 billion in investments.

Evacuation from methane leak

It’s also just the latest big environmental disaster in the US. In California, a leak from an underground storage facility has dumped around 74,500 metric tonnes of methane into the air in the suburbs of Los Angeles for the past two months. Residents have evacuated the area while the gas continues to leak with no end in sight.
Activists at the Environmental Defense Fund have estimated that the methane spill pollution is equal to putting an additional 7 million cars on the road in the same period of time.

Poor left out

But the Flint water crisis has become the biggest scandal of the day. Nicknamed Vehicle City, Flint was once an industrial powerhouse that manufactured automobiles alongside Detroit. Now, it’s a largely a poor African-American city.

Officials in Snyder’s administration initially tried to calm residents down by telling them the water was fit to drink. Then in October the governor switched the city’s water back to cleaner Lake Huron. Federal officials are now investigating whether state regulators broke any laws when they ignored residents’ pleas for months.

Melissa Mays was happy the federal government was launching a probe. She and 150 other people recently held a rally in front of Flint City Hall calling on authorities to arrest Snyder. She noted that 40 per cent of Flint residents live under the poverty line and don’t have cars, so they can’t drive to distribution centres where officials are giving out the free water, filters and cartridges.

Elevated lead levels in blood

So far, the state has identified 43 people with elevated levels of toxic lead in their bodies. But an independent study by Virginia Technical University found that 6 per cent of children in the city had elevated lead levels. In children, elevated lead can stunt growth and cause mental disabilities.

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