POLITICS
01/21/2016 07:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2016

What's Happening In Flint Could Happen In Lots Of Other Places

You might find it "unbelievable that a situation like this exists in America." But it's no mystery how we got here.
Residents of Flint, Michigan, are relying on bottled water because their tap water is contaminated. On Tuesday
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Residents of Flint, Michigan, are relying on bottled water because their tap water is contaminated. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water.

President Barack Obama has called the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, “inexplicable and inexcusable.” A congressional hearing is pending. But Flint's 100,000 or so residents still have no idea when they will be able to safely drink the contaminated tap water they continue to be billed for.

The whole situation is a disaster. But some of the circumstances that led Flint to this point are not totally unique.

In 2014, Flint switched the source of its drinking water from Detroit’s water system to the polluted Flint River in a cost-cutting move. The water became contaminated with lead from the city's aging pipes. There were anti-corrosive agents that could have mitigated the problem, but they would have cost $100 a day and ultimately the city didn't use them. Local children were found to have elevated blood-lead levels, a circumstance putting them -- and anyone else who drank the city's tap water -- at risk of brain damage

Flint is definitely not the only city with aging water pipes. According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, infrastructure needs for the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems exceed a combined $600 billion, and the funding isn't there.

So how likely is it that another Flint will happen somewhere else? The Huffington Post recently spoke with Henry Henderson, Midwest director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of three groups that petitioned the EPA for an emergency response to the lead contamination last fall. Henderson shared his thoughts on the importance of civic participation and the national context of the crisis in Michigan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s happening in Flint is a national story now, but it took a long time to get there. Why do you think that is?

Two things. I think many people find it unbelievable that a situation like this exists in America. There’s a great deal of resistance to believing that people would be exposed to this kind of risk and that the authorities would dismiss, ignore and be lackadaisical about the fact that the entire population was being poisoned due to bad decision-making. And there was a willingness to believe it would be taken care of if it was a really big problem.

There is, in American life, a trust that our citizens will not be treated this way, so there’s a resistance to believing this. Now when the disinterested, unresponsive actions by government, by people in positions to make decisions to protect the health and safety of society, are so obvious, it’s morally appalling... It’s astonishing to people.

How high is the risk of something like this happening again elsewhere, given the current state of our water infrastructure and the high cost of addressing it?

There is a risk. The fact is, we’ve got seriously aging infrastructure and the infrastructure has a series of potential dangers with it. A series of actions need to be [in] place -- regular monitoring, for instance, and attention to needs like treating water so it is not corrosive as it goes through old pipes and the infrastructure that delivers water. We need constant vigilance, and we need people in positions where they actually respond to the signals if there’s a problem. A number of years ago, in 2011, there was an identification of heightened lead in the water in parts of Chicago. The response was “OK, we need to act on fixing that,” and that happened. But the fact is that this is not something that once you fix it, it’s fixed forever.

One of the interesting things about the Flint story is the role of parents -- specifically, the mothers -- seeing there was a problem and looking at what was happening to their children and insisting tenaciously for action to take place. Officials in state and local government were saying basically that these are professional complainers upset about aesthetics and that there was nothing to see there... In the face of that sort of extraordinary lack of interest, these mothers did what parents are supposed to do, so they got the attention that was required. With the aging infrastructure in other cities in other parts of the U.S., citizens need to be informed, tenacious and vigilant to make sure government officials respond to issues like this.

Who is doing water "right," so to speak? Which municipalities should be held up as an example for others to follow?

I think there are a lot of municipalities looking at water infrastructure very carefully on both ends of it. In terms of how to deal with stormwater, we have a gigantic problem of changing weather patterns overwhelming sewage infrastructure, and that has implications for what happens with water sources where we draw our drinking water from. Where you have sewage overflows, you then have massive amounts of water in people's basements and it’s flowing out untreated into rivers and lakes. We have that problem in Chicago with basements being flooded that didn’t use to be, but we have a significant system of replacement and rebuilding of sewage pipes. Philadelphia is doing this remarkably creatively.

But what the Flint example underscores is a significant need for the U.S. to take a much harder look at the safe water drinking implications of our public water systems. I think we have as a nation underestimated some of the risks. I think we need to look much harder at how we’re getting water, what system it is and is it performing appropriately and managing risks effectively.

It’s hard to say “Here is the gold standard.” I would point one thing out -- that New York state and New York City have spent years protecting their sources of water, setting aside areas where the water that makes its way through the state is protected and investing in the kind of protections that are necessary.

The Flint Water Plant is seen Jan. 13, 2016.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
The Flint Water Plant is seen Jan. 13, 2016.

What needs to happen next in Flint? What does a long-term solution to this look like?

What needs to happen is what was previously portended. You need a clean source of water, Lake Huron, rather than the Flint River, which is highly polluted. You need to replace some of the really damaged infrastructure due to the corrosive nature of the water that was running through it. Those pipes are not safe.

While that’s happening, there needs to be a provision of safe drinking water directly from the government, from the responsible bodies, to the citizens who have been deprived access.

What do you think is the most important takeaway from what’s happening in Flint for Americans everywhere?

That parents and citizens have to remain vigilantly engaged in the protection of their children and their neighborhoods. This is not a question of a lack of regulation, it’s a lack of enforcement of the law. It’s not a question of deregulation, it’s a question of vigilance and to make sure citizens are in the position to enforce the law under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Citizens have a right to enforce the law. There are people who have been elected to legislatures who would like to take away those citizen provisions, and if they take that away, we become spectators in our own fate as opposed to agents of our future.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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