“What’s in the water?” The question echoed grave concern among the thousands of residents and sparked international attention in what would become known as the Flint Water Crisis.
A once economically booming town, known for its thriving General Motors car plant, providing blue collar workers with job stability and affordability, Flint, Michigan used to make headlines for its refusal to be shut out by a nation that seemed to surpass it in nearly every economical category. Having birthed the Union for Auto Workers and nurtured award-winning documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore -- who ironically before his film days, developed an alternative newspaper known as Flint’s Voice which rose to fame on the wings of Flint’s signatory galant stance -- Flint, Michigan was considered a stubborn mule of a city. So, in 2015 when residents -- not state government officials -- became alarmed at their discolored water, they took Flint’s usual brash approach: sound your voice to everyone listening that this community made up of 53 percent people of color will not accept tax savings in the form of unsafe drinking water.
And just like that, a city rooted in self-assurance all along, suddenly became infamous.
Stories like Flint’s are not uncommon. Communities across the U.S. have taken a staunch adherence to the quality of their drinking water as violators scrambled, sometimes for years, to remedy eroded pipes or otherwise contaminated water. The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for safe levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but leaves it in the hands of states to enforce standards by putting them into law and following through on disciplining rule-breakers. While the approach makes sense on paper with many states fighting for the health of its citizens, it has also opened the door to confusion as communities take it upon themselves to seek liability and rally to bring attention to the lack of funding in water treatment plants. The entire process makes for a tense uphill battle.
According to data from the EPA in 2016, 41 states reported excess levels of lead had been found in numerous drinking water systems. That left a mere 9 states reporting safe levels of lead and other contaminants in its drinking water. The disturbingly high number of reports prompted the agency to publish a longstanding regulation on its website known as the Lead and Copper Rule. The main access point of such chemicals entering drinking water systems are generally found in the plumbing pipes that carry water from treatment plants to places of residence and businesses.
The lifespan of “modern day” water supply lines -- those made of copper, steel, or plastic -- is about 75 years. Galvanized or iron pipes are generally found in homes that pre-date 1950 and are considered highly formidable. In some rural areas, older houses with such pipes still exist. Communities like those found in southern West Virginia manage their own water systems. Many of these systems have long been considered obsolete, with some dating back as far as the Civil War. Elderly residents of such communities complain that they are simply too old to continue managing the systems, further putting them at risk for drinking unsafe water.
When regulators have identified safe level exceedance in water treatment plants, it is the responsibility of the violator to publicly notify those that are or will become affected, then take actionable steps to remedy the situation within a reasonable timeframe. Depending on the severity of the risk, some violations require immediate attention. In Tampa, Florida a sinkhole was identified as having potentially leaked contaminants into drinking water exposing residents who relied on the nearby water system. The responsible party, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, waited weeks before notifying residents about the incident.
The Bigger Problem
“If over 10 percent of samples are showing lead at the tap over 15 parts per billion, and this is occurring over and over again, this is a signal that controlling corrosion from lead in pipes and plumbing is not working,” stated National Campaign Director of Clean Water Action, Lynne Thorp in 2016 in an interview with CNBC.
Infrastructure redevelopment has long been the talk among politicians seeking to capitalize on economic gain. Yet, continual disagreement about how exactly infrastructure will be prioritized and paid for seems to stop any meaningful progress toward action. Proponents of infrastructure redevelopment argue that if investments aren’t made into these vulnerable areas, the U.S. might see a $400 billion loss in the nation’s GDP and a rise in personal spending to cover medically related costs associated with health issues that are directly impacted by contaminated water.
Numerous studies have revealed another stark reality: communities of color often suffer the brunt of the health burden when it comes to contaminated water. Small public water systems are especially prone to experiencing some form of contamination, largely due to low income levels and the inability to offset state costs for proper piping. In East Orosi, a mostly Latino community located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the town’s water system had violated nitrate safety standards 12 times between 2009-2012. It’s no coincidence that East Orosi is also located in an agricultural sector of California. Agriculture is known to play a major role in water runoff which is loaded with bacteria and other harmful chemicals as a result of unsustainable agricultural practices.
If you suspect that your drinking water is contaminated, your first point of contact should be your local public water company. Consumers can also take action by reviewing their Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR’s), a report supplied by water companies to their customers and annually reported by July 1 of each year.