Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Obama as president should have the right to take executive actions, but the current Supreme Court is very political and very conservative, so they will happily deal him a setback (cf. throwing the Florida vote to George W. Bush and forbidding a recount). Adam Liptak reports in the NY Times:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Obama administration’s effort to combat climate change by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants. The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.
But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.
The vote was 5 to 4.
The challenged regulation, which was issued last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, requires states to make major cuts to greenhouse gas pollution created by electric power plants, the nation’s largest source of such emissions. The plan could transform the nation’s electricity system, cutting emissions from existing power plants by a third by 2030, from a 2005 baseline, by closing hundreds of heavily polluting coal-fired plants and increasing production of wind and solar power.
“Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our day, and it is already affecting national public health, welfare and the environment,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote in a brief urging the Supreme Court to reject a request for a stay while the case moves forward.
The regulation calls for states to submit plans to comply with the regulation by September, though they may seek a two-year extension. The first deadline for power plants to reduce their emissions is in 2022, with full compliance not required until 2030.
The states challenging the regulation, led mostly by Republicans and many with economies that rely on coal mining or coal-fired power, sued to stop what they called “the most far-reaching and burdensome rule the E.P.A. has ever forced onto the states.” A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January unanimously refused to grant a stay. The court did expedite the case and will hear arguments on June 2, which is fast by the standards of complex litigation.
The states urged the Supreme Court to take immediate action to block what they called a “power grab” under which “the federal environmental regulator seeks to reorganize the energy grids in nearly every state in the nation.” Though the plan’s first emission reduction obligations do not take effect until 2022, the states said they had already started to spend money and shift resources to get ready.
Eighteen states, mostly led by Democrats, opposed the request for a stay, saying they were “continuing to experience climate-change harms firsthand — including increased flooding, more severe storms, wildfires and droughts.” Those harms are “lasting and irreversible,” they said, and “any stay that results in further delay in emissions reductions would compound the harms that climate change is already causing.”
In a second filing seeking a stay, coal companies and trade associations represented by Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, said the court should act to stop a “targeted attack on the coal industry” that will “artificially eliminate buyers of coal, forcing the coal industry to curtail production, idle operations, lay off workers and close mines.”
The E.P.A., represented by Mr. Verrilli, called the requests for a stay “extraordinary and unprecedented.” The states challenging the administration’s plan, he said, could point to no case in which the Supreme Court had “granted a stay of a generally applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals.” In a later brief, the states conceded that point. . .
Elizabeth Drew reviews some relevant books in the NY Review of Books:
2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
by the American Society of Civil Engineers
available at infrastructurereportcard.org
Rust: The Longest War
by Jonathan Waldman
Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $26.95
Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Norton, 325 pp., $26.95
The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
by Henry Petroski
Bloomsbury, 322 pp., $28.00
Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
by Ted Koppel
Crown, 279 pp., $26.00
It would be helpful if there were another word for “infrastructure”: it’s such an earnest and passive word for the blood vessels of this country, the crucial conveyors and connections that get us from here to there (or not) and the ports that facilitate our trade (or don’t), as well as the carriers of information, in particular broadband (if one is connected to it), and other unreliable structures. The word “crisis” is also overused, applied to the unimportant as well as the crucial. But this country has an infrastructure crisis.
The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water. Broadband is our new interstate highway system, but not everyone has access to it—a division largely based on class. Depending on the measurement used, the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure. The wealthiest nation on earth is nowhere near the top.
Congress’s approval last December of a five-year bill to spend $305 billion to improve the nation’s highway system occasioned much self-congratulation that the lawmakers actually got something done. But with an increase in the gasoline tax politically off-limits, the means for paying for it are dubious and uncertain. This was the longest-term highway bill passed since 1998 and the thirty-fifth extension of an authorization of highway construction since 2005. Some of the extensions of the highway program approved by Congress lasted for only three months. The previous extension was for just over three weeks. Such practices don’t allow for much planning of the construction or repair of highways and bridges and mass transit systems.
Our political myopia has put us in actual physical danger as we go about the mundane business of getting about. We let essential structures and facilities deteriorate or go unbuilt. A politician is more likely get in trouble with constituents for spending federal money than for not spending federal money. Moreover, as a rule Washington politicians, whether in office for two or four or six years, aren’t keen on spending for something that doesn’t have a near-term payoff—perhaps a structure that they can dedicate and even get their names inscribed on.
The water pipes underneath the White House are said to still be made of wood, as are some others in the nation’s capital and some cities across the country. We admire Japan’s and France’s “bullet trains” that get people to their destination with remarkable efficiency, but many other nations have them as well, including Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. A friend of mine recently rode on the Turkish bullet train and noted that the coffee in his full cup didn’t spill. Last year, Japan demonstrated its new maglev train, which, using electromagnets, levitates above the tracks, and can go about an amazing 375 miles per hour, making it the fastest train in the world. The fastest commercially used maglev, in Shanghai, goes up to 288 miles per hour. But the United States hasn’t a single system that meets all the criteria of high-speed rail. President Obama has proposed a system of high-speed railroads, which has gone nowhere in Congress.
When it comes to providing the essentials of a modern society, it has to be said that we’re a backward country. California Governor Jerry Brown, a longtime visionary, has initiated the building of a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco; one high-speed rail system scheduled to come into service soon to carry people between the wealthy cities of Dallas and Houston will be privately financed. (Shopping and business made easier.) But not many communities have the means to build their own train.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts a study of where the United States stands in providing needed infrastructure in various sectors. Though the organization obviously has an interest in the creation of more construction jobs, its analyses, based as they are on information from other studies, are taken seriously by nonpartisan experts in the field. In the ASCE’s most recent report card, issued in 2013, the combined sectors received an overall grade of D+. In the various sectors, the grades were: aviation, D; bridges, C+; inland waterways, D–; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; mass transit, D; schools, D; hazardous waste, D; drinking water, D. No sector received an A. That none of the infrastructure categories received an F is hardly grounds for celebration.
The ASCE says that the estimated need of support for America’s infrastructure by 2020 is $3.6 trillion. Total spending at current levels is estimated by the ASCE to be $253 billion annually and estimated spending between 2013 and 2020, before passage of the highway bill, is estimated at $2 trillion, leaving us $1.6 trillion short.
We watched in horror in August 2007 when during the evening rush hour a bridge in Minneapolis over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring another 145. In Washington State in 2013 a bridge with two cars on it collapsed. TheASCE’s 2013 report card said that one in nine bridges was structurally deficient; that as of 2013 the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges was forty-two years, while the Federal Highway Administration estimates that “more than 30 percent of existing bridges have exceeded their fifty-year design life.” According to the ASCE, to have safe bridges by 2028, the US needs to invest $20.5 billion per year, but current spending annually on bridges is $12.8 billion.
As for aviation, the report said, “The national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Inland waterways, which get little attention, are, the ASCEsays, “the hidden backbone of our freight network,” carrying “the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips each year.” But the waterways haven’t been updated since the 1950s and because half of the locks, according to the ASCE, are over fifty years old, barges have to be stopped for hours each day, “preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs.”
As for ports, critical to the US as a trading nation, a few have been built by private investment through port authorities—some of these, as has been apparent in New Jersey, can get enmeshed in petty local politics; but dredging to accommodate large vessels is paid for in large part by the federal government and federal spending for that has decreased.
The recently enacted highway bill will make only a dent in the needed roadway construction. According to the ASCE, 42 percent of American major urban highways remain congested, costing the US economy roughly $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. As of 2013, the report said, 32 percent of America’s major roads were “in poor or mediocre condition.” As a result of congestion, according to the ASCE, Americans wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline and an average of thirty-four hours in 2010, and the cost to the US economy of wasted fuel was $101 billion. But the mass transit we now have far from makes up for the road conditions, and isn’t available to an estimated 45 percent of American households; millions more have inadequate mass transit systems. The report said that “deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost the US economy $90 billion in 2010.” At the time of the report, the Federal Transit Administration estimated a backlog of nearly $78 billion in maintaining mass transit.
Perhaps a step forward was taken in . . .
What we see is a country in decline, the US moving in the direction of a third-world country with terrible infrastructure, widespread poverty, and an enormously wealthy controlling elite that treats their own country as a colony to exploited.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that such third-world countries, like the US, have a heavy emphasis on security, in their case to protect the elite, not the people, who are often victims of the security services: a strong military, police forces without accountability, even death squads, which fortunately the US so far lacks.
The US has been bombarded for decades with statement and arguments about the benefits of capitalism, how it fosters innovation and efficiency and entrepreneurship, but we see much less about the costs. Most people are aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch (a sentiment capitalists in general strongly endorse), but we don’t often get a direct look at the tab we run up eating capitalism’s lunch. We see glimpses: the high price and low quality of care (in general) at for-profit hospitals compared to non-profit hospitals, the communities devastated and sometimes destroyed when a corporation moves all the jobs to some region that pays lower wages (thus boosting corporate profits), and so on.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education Steve Kolowich inteviews Marc Edwards, who describes the costs of the capitalizing of science in academia:
When Marc Edwards opens his mouth, dangerous things come out.
In 2003 the Virginia Tech civil-engineering professor said that there was lead in the Washington, D.C., water supply, and that the city had been poisoning its residents. He was right.
Last fall he said there was lead in the water in Flint, Mich., despite the reassurances of state and local authorities that the water was safe. He was right about that, too.
Working with residents of Flint, Mr. Edwards led a study that revealed that the elevated lead levels in people’s homes were not isolated incidents but a result of a systemic problem that had been ignored by state scientists. He has since been appointed to a task force to help fix those problems in Flint. In a vote of confidence, residents last month tagged a local landmark with a note to the powers that be: “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!”
But being right in these cases has not made Mr. Edwards happy. Vindicated or not, the professor says his trials over the last decade and a half have cost him friends, professional networks, and thousands of dollars of his own money.
The infrastructural problems go beyond the public utilities of certain American cities, he says. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Edwards said that the systems built to support scientists do not reward moral courage and that the university pipeline contains toxins of its own — which, if ignored, will corrode public faith in science.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?
A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.
Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?
A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index— and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.
Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?
A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.
Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.
A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table.
Q. Not as much as some of them would like. I heard a lot of people say they thought that a zero might have been missing from the grant moneythat the University of Michigan made available.
A. Right. But the expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies. And some part of that will be directed toward research, so we now have a financial incentive to get involved. I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?
Q. Now, of course, when you walk around Flint and ask people about the reassurances they’re hearing now, they don’t believe anybody. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”
A. I’m really surprised how emotional this interview is making me, and I’ve given several hundred interviews. What these agencies did in [the Washington, D.C., case] was the most fundamental betrayal of public trust that I’ve ever seen. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled.
I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.
Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.
Q. I think of that rock with the spray paint on it that says, “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!” That’s a vote of confidence in you at the expense of confidence in anybody else. Is that a happy piece of graffiti in your eyes? . . .
I recall various instances in the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian where someone would say words to the effect that “The old ways are best,” and I believe Stephen Maturin once mentioned the proverb/prayer, “May no new thing arise.” I am open to novelty, but I also appreciate the heritage of past knowledge, so this article by Stephanie Strom in the NY Times gave me considerable satisfaction:
When Mark Anson came home with his hair on fire after a seminar on the seemingly soporific topic of soil health, his younger brother, Doug, was skeptical.
What had Mark lit up was cover crops: fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.
Mark, 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope.
But to Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained.
So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. Additionally, they spread some cover crops to eroded areas in a few fields.
The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. And the water that ran off it during a rainstorm was clear, a sign that the roots of the cover crops were anchoring valuable topsoil in place.
But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”
Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice.
Cover crops are coming back in other areas of the country, too. The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. . .
Jimmy Carter has reason to be proud of this great accomplishment. Nell Frizzell reports at Motherboard:
The image of a serpent twisting around a staff is probably medicine’s most enduring icon; we wear it on medical alert bracelets, hang it in doctors’ surgeries, and print it on healthcare documents. But the story behind the so-called fiery serpent is, at least according to former US President Jimmy Carter, almost over.
Since 1986, incidences of Guinea worm disease have reduced from 3.5 million to just 22. Read that again—just twenty-two. It’s a drop so enormous that medical experts believe Guinea worm disease is on the brink of becoming the second ever human disease to be completely eradicated through human endeavour, the first being smallpox in 1980.
This week, The UK’s Department for International Development announced a £4.5 million partnership ($6.6 million) to support the Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Programme. Following the announcement, Carter took to the stage in the gloriously camp, gilt-edged Queen’s Robing Room at the House of Lords on Wednesday evening to speak about his 30 years spent battling the disease.
For centuries, the only treatment for Guinea worm has been to wait for the parasite, which breeds unseen in stagnant water, to burrow out of human skin, then wrap it around a stick and slowly wind it out of the body like a blistering cotton reel over 20 days. This is one theory of where we get the snake around a staff symbol from—a worm and a stick. The process of extracting Guinea worm is not only as unpleasant as it sounds (the worms grow up to a metre long and can break out anywhere on the body, sometimes with as many as 81 emerging from a single person, according to one representative of the Carter Center) but the lesions can often lead to secondary bacterial infections. In short, getting Guinea worms out of your body is every David Kronenberg nightmare made flesh.
The eradication of Guinea worm disease is, in his own words, former President Jimmy Carter’s “most satisfying achievement.” In 1988, just a few years after leaving the White House, Carter travelled to Ghana where he saw a woman holding what he thought was a baby in her arms. As he moved closer, he realised that what this woman was holding was in fact her right breast; a Guinea worm was emerging from her body through her nipple, creating a searing blister and untold tissue damage. As there is no known cure for Guinea worm disease, the focus had to instead be on prevention; educating what Carter described in his lecture last night as “the poorest of all people, but who are as intelligent, ambitious and as hard-working as we are.”
The science behind the programme is so simple that it can be communicated in a cartoon. A special water filtration system—which looks like little more than a large fine-weave hair net fitted over a bucket—cleans water of the copepods or “water fleas” that carry the Guinea worm larvae. In Nigeria, which had 656,000 cases back in 1988 at the beginning of the programme and now has none, 6 million square metres of a special fibre were created to filter people’s drinking water without rotting in the damp, tropical conditions. In countries like South Sudan, where people frequently move around to access water, the Carter Center gives out special straws, worn around your neck like a pendant, to filter water as you drink it.
Back in 1986, there was no YouTube, no television, and little radio to be found in the countries worst affected by Guinea worm disease. So the medical experts involved in the programme turned to cartoons—posters and picture books showing how Guinea worm disease is contracted and how to filter your drinking water. These pictures have now become so widespread that they can even be found printed on the cloth that people use to sew t-shirts, dresses and shirts—literally a walking advertisement for the public health programme. . .
Gruesome photo of a guinea-worm extraction from someone’s foot is shown at the link.
This story shows a very ugly aspect of the Michigan government’s view of its responsibilities and suggests to me that criminal penalties are in order. Liam Stack reports in the NY Times:
Throughout most of 2015, the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder told the residents of Flint, Mich., that their tap water was safe to drink. But emails released on Thursday suggest the state was concerned about its own employees’ exposure to the city’s water as early as January of last year, even arranging for purified water to be provided at a state office building there.
The emails depict an exchange that month between employees of two state departments that expresses concern about the water’s safety within the Michigan government long before Mr. Snyder acknowledged to residents in the fall that there was a problem.
The correspondence — between employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget — was obtained by a liberal advocacy group, Progress Michigan. The news was reported on Thursday by The Detroit Free Press.
Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, accused the state government of valuing the well-being of its employees more than that of Flint’s residents.
“While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building,” Mr. Scott said in a statement.
The emails, he added, show that “the response was not only late and so far ineffective, but it was also unequal.”
The email exchange began on Jan. 9, 2015, when Jeanette Doll, an employee of the management and budget department, which oversees state buildings, wrote to Jennifer Wolf, an employee of the environmental department, to forward her a “facility notification” regarding the State Office Building in Flint.
The management and budget department had recently been told by city officials that the tap water no longer met safety standards, the document said. It wanted to reassure employees of the state office that it would provide coolers of purified water.
“While the city of Flint states that correction actions are not necessary, D.T.M.B. is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” the notification said. “The coolers will arrive today and will be provided as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements.”
Ms. Doll sent the notification to Ms. Wolf with a question attached: Would the environmental department be able to determine by March 1, 2015, whether the tap water contained unsafe levels of trihalomethanes, or T.T.H.M., a by-product of chlorine that had been added to the water to kill coliform bacteria?
Ms. Doll’s email was forwarded at least twice by environmental department employees, according to the email thread. One of the recipients was Stephen Busch, a district manager in the department’s drinking water division who was responsible for Flint.
“Steve, appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ,” wrote Michael Prsyby, an engineer in the department, using an abbreviation for water quality.
Mr. Busch has since been reassigned within the department and has no role in resolving the water crisis, according to The Detroit Free Press. . . .
The Flint situation, like many situations before it, show an unresponsive government not fulfilling it basic functions and obligations and no real promise of accountability and punishment for misconduct (such as outright lying to the public, refusing to recognize evidence, and the like—all done to avoid spending money to keep from raising taxes).
Evan Osnos has a good report in the New Yorker, one that is well worth reading. It begins:
Last July, after more than a year of public complaints about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan—water so pungent and foamy that a local pastor had stopped using it for baptisms—reporters were calling the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The response from the department was of limited urgency. In an internal e-mail to colleagues, a spokeswoman, Karen Tommasulo, wrote, “Apparently it’s going to be a thing now.”
The D.E.Q. tried to stop the water from becoming a thing, partly by downplaying concerns. A memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that the city’s use of a new water source was exposing the public to unsafe levels of lead, but Brad Wurfel, the.department’s lead spokesperson [heh heh – LG], told a reporter, “Let me start here—anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” Even after a group of Virginia Tech researchers found unsafe levels of lead, Wurfel disputed the importance of the findings because, he wrote, the group “specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go.” He added that “dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.”
As it turns out, the residents of Flint needed much more of that. The state’s inept response is now a full-blown national scandal. President Obama has declared an emergency in Flint, making available five million dollars in federal assistance. Much of the blame falls on Governor Rick Snyder, who acknowledged, on Tuesday, that he had run out of excuses. “I am sorry; we will fix this,” he said, in his State of the State address. He thanked the whistle-blowers, and promised to seek millions more in state funds for bottled water, health care, and infrastructure fixes. Facing calls for his resignation, he told the people of Flint and elsewhere, “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here, with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth.”
In his speech, Snyder promised to release his e-mails from 2014 and 2015, which may fill in some details of how he lost his way. Snyder, an accountant who ran on the slogan “One Tough Nerd,” was a first-time candidate when he won in 2010, in a Republican wave that also elected Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He preached pragmatism and austerity, calling himself America’s “token-CPA governor,” and, as recently as this spring, he talked of a possible Presidential run. His image as a technocrat is, for the moment, finished. He acknowledged this week that Flint is tantamount to his Hurricane Katrina.
But, as in New Orleans, unravelling what went wrong in Flint will probably require more than the release of e-mails and a prime-time apologia. The headwaters of Flint’s crisis are not located in the realm of technical errors; rather, there are harder questions about governance and accountability in some of America’s most vulnerable places. Who controls policy and why? How does the public check those who govern in its name?
The lessons apply beyond Michigan: Two years ago, in West Virginia, chemicals leaked into a river about a mile from the largest water treatment plant in the state. It was one of American history’s most serious incidents of chemical contamination—and, not incidentally, West Virginia’s fifth industrial accident in eight years. As I described in the magazine in “Chemical Valley,” that disaster was the confluence of trends in campaign finance, lobbying, and ideology, which had allowed elected officials to scale back the state’s environmental regulations and enforcement. (In one five-year span, the state had recorded twenty-five thousand violations of the Clean Water Act by coal companies, but never issued a fine for them.) West Virginians were left feeling that one of the nation’s most impoverished states had been robbed. Denise Giardina, one of the state’s best novelists, told me, “Water—it’s the most elemental thing except for air.”
In Flint, people feel a similar sense of injustice, although the political causes are different. Many blame . . .
Later in the article:
To some critics, Michigan’s use of emergency managers has been especially harmful to African-Americans. By one account, approximately half of the state’s African-American population is now governed by an emergency manager. Flint has had six emergency financial managers, or E.F.M.s, in thirteen years. Writing in The Root, Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn described it as a policy derived from the “premise that democracy in predominantly African-American cities is unnecessary and that the state knows best.”
And in ProPublica Cynthia Gordy reports:
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan – in which the city’s drinking water became contaminated with lead, bacteria and other pollutants – has come to national attention in recent weeks. President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up $5 million in federal aid, but Flint’s water problems have been unfolding for almost two years.
Ron Fonger, reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive, has been writing about the water contamination since 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as its water source. From covering city council meetings and town hall forums, where almost immediately residents complained about discolored, tainted water, he has had a front-row seat to the crisis. On this week’s podcast, Fonger speaks with ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg about what caused the problem, who dropped the ball, and what happens next.
Following the podcast at the link. Highlights from their conversation:
- For months, the government downplayed residents’ complaints.Fonger: If I wrote it once, I wrote it 100 times. The city and the state’s response was the water is fine; it’s tested and it meets all of the health and safety requirements of the law. They didn’t exactly say, “You people are crazy,” but they said there’s nothing wrong with the water. (4:09)
- Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that the city’s testing had cherry-picked neighborhoods that didn’t have a lead problem.
Fonger: We reported late last year, based on documents that we had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the city filed false reports with the state. They certified to the state, as a part of complying with the lead and copper rule, that they were testing in homes that were at high risk of elevated lead. In other words, homes that had lead service lines. … Through FOIA, we requested the service line information that the city had for each of the homes that they tested. We found out that for only a very small number – much less than half – did they have any type of data to support that they were testing in areas that had lead service lines. That cast a large doubt on their sampling results, which they kept saying showed there wasn’t a problem. (9:28)
- Flint’s socio-economic status – predominately poor, predominately of color – may have factored into how the problems were handled.
Fonger: When people say that, I can’t help but recognize that there’s something to that. We are an old, great industrial town. Flint is where a sit-down strike produced what is the modern-day union movement; the United Auto Workers Union was born here. The city has taken a lot of hard knocks in the past 40 years. We’ve lost a lot of employment. Our crime is high. A lot of people who had the means to leave Flint did so. Our population has fallen from 200,000 to about 100,000. With all of those things happening, a lot of poor people live here. If you think about this happening in a more affluent area…I think the population generally would’ve been already more mobilized, and more politically connected, to be able to demand that this get addressed. (13:24)
- While Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has released emails related to the water crisis, suggesting that officials derided concerns as “political football,” local reporters are calling for more documents to be made public.Fonger: I went through all of those emails, and I was underwhelmed by what we saw. . .