Commentary / News

Infrastructure Emergency! Flint Water Crisis Flows into Newark and Detroit

By Angela Vullo

Dec. 30, 2018–The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave the state of drinking water in the United States a D rating, detailing that 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost every day, and that more than $105 billion dollars is needed for water funding. Not only are water mains bursting with increasing frequency, but the system includes millions of dangerous lead pipes that threaten the health of millions of children.

In 2014-15, the effects of lead and bacterial contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint, Michigan became a national scandal. Now we are witnessing the water crisis spreading nationwide.

Emergency measures during the Flint water crisis (dreamstime)

In October 2018, a city official of Newark, New Jersey acknowledged what everyone already suspected: the water crisis of Flint, Michigan had flowed into Newark.  There had been severe denial for over a year and a half by the Mayor and other elected officials who insisted that the water was “absolutely safe to drink.” Subsequent extensive testing of lead levels in the water have shown that not to be the case. Measures are now being taken to relieve the problem, but only for the short term.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had said, “Nothing is wrong with the water.  It’s the infrastructure.”  Kareem Adeem, assistant director of Newark’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities, backed him up by reporting that “The city’s water coming out of the reservoir is safe … The only problem is when the city’s water enters the lead lines.” Indeed, some of the water pipes in Newark date back to the 1880s. It would seem that the water is safe only as long as you are not drinking from the tap!

In Flint, the crisis is being addressed with a Federally-funded program to replace 18,000 pipes, with a scheduled completion date at the end of 2020. But as the Newark crisis, and a recently uncovered lead-poisoning crisis in Detroit, have underlined, the need for replacing our decaying water infrastructure is massive and nationwide. Like the disastrous state of transportation infrastructure around the nation, it must be addressed as the national emergency it is.

The Newark Crisis

The current focus in Newark is not on replacing aged, dangerous pipes, but on distributing water filters and seeking to correct problems at its water treatment plants.

A New York Times article of December 3, 2018, reported that Newark decided to deal with only one of the two treatment plants that were considered to be leaching lead into the water supply. Water tested at the Pequannock Plant exceeded more than 15 parts per billion of lead, which is the threshold for Federal action.  However, a review of city records showed that lead levels recorded since January 2017 in neighborhoods served by the second plant, the Wanaque, were not nearly as high, although some were still above the 15 parts per billion, and one sample of residential tap water that came from the Wanaque tested at 182 parts per billion.  Two dozen city schools that were found to have high lead levels in their drinking water two years ago are served by the Wanaque.

In a recent letter, state regulators asked Newark to investigate whether the elevated levels in the Wanaque service area are caused by water leaks from the Pequannock—the two water systems border each other at certain points. The city admitted that “blending is occurring” between the systems.  40,000 filters are being distributed to households in the neighborhoods served by Pequannock.

Water treatment plant (dreamstime)

When Newark’s filter distribution began, the city’s website described water in homes in the East Ward as “safe”.  A week later, the safety reference had disappeared, but language remained stating that residences served by the Wanaque “do not require a filter under this program.”

According to the Times, one quarter of 14,000 children under the age of six who were tested in 2016 had measurable levels of lead, according to an analysis by Advocates for Children of New Jersey. In one home in Newark, 42.2 parts per billion of lead was found in the water. That is three times the Federal action threshold. In fact, no amount of lead in the water is safe for children, and one mother noticed a rise in her son’s blood lead level when they moved from Queens to Newark in 2016.

Detroit has sprung a leak

According to Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of the Detroit schools, there is also a water crisis statewide in Michigan. One center is Detroit, specifically the school system.  According to a Washington Post article published December 19, the crisis erupted days before the 2018 fall semester, when two-thirds of Detroit’s 50,000 school children showed alarming levels of lead in their bodies.  It has been reported that the crisis in the school system is worse than in homes, because school water stagnates when schools are closed for breaks.  Of the 43% of school districts tested in 2016-2017, 37% were found to have lead in the water.

Most schools in the nation are not testing for lead in the water.  New York State was the first to call for testing.

However, the Detroit situation was not just caused by lack of infrastructure maintenance. There was also a level of greedy malevolence, according to outgoing Detroit school board member and former state legislator Lamar Lemmons. Lemmons contends “that the crisis was intentionally created during the period of 1999-2017 by the Republican leadership in the state.  At the time, the school district was running a $100 million surplus, and the leadership created a New Orleans `Katrina’ model, in order to privatize, under the guise of “academic improvement,” and loot the surplus.  This forced the public schools to go into disrepair, resulting in no maintenance and creating toxic buildup of copper and lead in the pipes. These were not educators, but administrators and financiers who should be in jail.”

The coverup of a national emergency

Detroit School Superintendent Vitti cites many reasons he is being given as to why the water was not tested.  The most indicting is, “We better not test the water because we’ll have a problem that we don’t want to deal with.”  This brings to mind the famous Henrik Ibsen play, Enemy of the People, in which the city’s officials refused to expose the contamination of their spa water for fear it would ruin their income from tourism. In the play, the Mayor and elected officials covered up the truth, and instead vilified the medical official who spoke out.

Much of the nation’s water infrastructure was built by the WPA in the 1930s. Here, workers dig a main in 1937. (commons-wikipedia)

Now Vitti has declared “Ignorance should no longer be bliss because we’re talking about the safety and well-being of our children.”  Doctors and other health officials have announced that “exposure to even small amounts of lead “can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems,” especially in children.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped to expose the Flint water crisis, declared that the “worst problems are the ones we don’t hear about.  Detroit is a success story. The real problem is the schools that never test. It cries out for national standards.”

Vitti has begun raising $3 million from local charities to purchase and install highly filtered water hydration stations for every Detroit school.  He contends this is cheaper and more practical than ripping out aging pipes. Lemmons claims that half a billion dollars is needed to solve the water crisis in the schools alone. That would be in addition to the urgently needed capital for Detroit’s dilapidated schools.

Vitti joins Edwards in calling for federal intervention. He proclaims: “This is a national issue and it should have a national solution.”  But in the meantime, “Our children cannot wait for safe water.”

During a recent trip to Newark and Essex County, this writer spoke to a leader in Essex County who gave another example of how widespread the urban infrastructure collapse is.  She reported that a nearby high school recently suffered a shocking structural breakdown when three stairwells collapsed.  Fortunately, no one died; however, the senior class has been moved into trailers on the parking lot where they will finish up their final year.

No light at the end of the tunnel

Combine these life-threatening water crises with the recently exposed breakdown crisis in the NY-NJ transit system, dramatized in the video made by Governor Cuomo for President Trump on the horror of the Hudson River Tunnel, and it’s obvious there is no solution without Federal funding.

Setting up hydration stations, port-o-potties, and trailers are only band-aid remedies, and are not the American way. There is no short-term solution, whether you are addressing water, transit, or our schools. Our country desperately needs a national mission. We must have a long-term solution to rebuild the nation’s overall infrastructure.  When the nation’s water is contaminated with lead, this is no different than a terrorist attack or a deadly bullet to the head.

And when President Trump’s priority infrastructure project is to build a Wall to keep out immigrants, you might say we have a problem.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in his First Inaugural Address that if Congress didn’t act, he would demand powers to “wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

We now have a new such emergency in the making.

Newark, Detroit, and Flint are simply sign-posts of the crumbling state of our national infrastructure.  This nation, once the envy of the world, has now seen much of its infrastructure reduced to Third World levels. Or, as President Trump would more delicately make the point, “We have become a shithole nation.”

It is time to commit ourselves to solve the entire infrastructure crisis as the first order of business.  We need trillions in Federal credit directed into long-term advanced technology projects in the first 100 days of the coming Congress. Nothing short of that will suffice.

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