Flint crisis sheds light on infrastructure

The relationship between a government and its people has been and always will be complicated. Especially in the United States where a two-party system splits public opinion on nearly every issue.

Politicians and city officials work to foster communities where people have access to quality public education and opportunities for employment.

In exchange for public office, citizens expect their representatives to protect them from threats both domestic and international.

At the very least they expect their tax dollars to work for them. It is in no way radical to expect that when power lines go down after a storm, they’ll be fixed. There’s trust there; so much so that questions of reliable infrastructure are rarely, if ever, the subject of debate.

In April 2014 officials in the city of Flint, Mich. decided to switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The switch was a cost-cutting measure projected to save the city $5 million over a period of two years.

Shortly thereafter, residents began complaining about the tap water’s smell, taste and color. Some even raised concerns about bacterial contaminants after noticing the water caused rashes.

City officials claimed the bad smell and taste of the water was not indicative of any other problems and that state tests showed the water met all federal safety guidelines, according to CBS News.

However, a group of researchers from Virginia Tech would later find water from the Flint River to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. E-coli and coliform bacteria were also discovered in the city’s water supply along with toxic levels of lead.
In fact, less than six months after the switch was made General Motors announced they would no longer be using local water at their Flint plant because it was corroding brand new car parts.

Still, citizens’ complaints were largely ignored until September 2015 when a study conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna- Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center found that four percent of Flint’s children had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Hanna-Attisha compared the blood tests of Flint children to children in the surrounding areas and noticed a surprising increase between January and September 2015, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in December 2015 and both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Attorney in Michigan have launched investigations to find out who is to blame for the crisis.

In the interim, Flint’s residents are left to figure out how to deal with the long-term effects of exposure to the toxins. There is no cure for lead poisoning and its effects, which include learning disabilities and impulsivity that may lead to criminality in adulthood, are permanent.

Organizations like the Flint Water Response team are accepting bottled water donations and protesters are demanding the people responsible be held accountable. Some are calling for Gov. Snyder’s resignation while others think, if investigations find him at fault, he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

UW Oshkosh Environmental Studies professor Jim Feldman said there are ways for students to get involved in the relief effort that include things like sending money or support through various online opportunities.

“I would imagine that if people have specialized skills like plumbing there is the capacity to go there on a weekend and help put in water filters,” Feldman said.

The reality is this would have never happened in suburban America. This problem turned into a crisis because these people are poor and disenfranchised.

Flint’s government failed its citizens and there’s nothing that can be done to fix that immediately. Early estimates put the cost of replacing Flint’s water distribution infrastructure anywhere from hundreds of millions to $1.5 billion
Wisconsin lawmakers and residents have the opportunity to prevent a similar occurrence here. They should seize it.

Wisconsin has at least 176,000 lead-service lines that take water into homes and businesses, the highest concentration of which can be found in Milwaukee, according to an EPA study.

Feldman also said students should be informed about the water quality in Wisconsin.

“There are rural and urban communities all over the state that are facing pretty similar situations,” Feldman said. “I think what people need to do is get informed about what’s happening here, too, and see if they can get involved in helping with those kinds of issues as well.”

Earlier this month a bill was proposed in the state legislature that would require tap water testing every time a child is lead poisoned.

The Lead-Testing bill, introduced by Madison Rep. Chris Taylor and Milwaukee Rep. LaTonya Johnson, also aims to lower the contamination level at which lead testing is required from 15 micrograms per deciliter to 5.

“The percentage of kids in Milwaukee that are suffering from lead poisoning is twice what it is in Flint,” Feldman said. “Not to minimize what’s happening in Flint but these are things that are happening here too.”