Lessons learned from the Flint water crisis; and as if the city wasn’t hit hard enough by toxic water, now it’s awash in plastic.
The Flint water crisis has uncovered the most ignoble aspects of human decision making and a complete indifference to an already marginalized community.
It also exposed the blatant neglect of existing environmental regulations—namely, the Federal Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Water Quality Act. If the Flint River had been managed according to regulations, perhaps the lead water crisis could have been avoided entirely.
The catastrophe shines a spotlight on our country’s aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take approximately $3.6 trillion to update essential national infrastructure by 2020, with $1 trillion of that needed to replace US water pipes.
Detroit is not alone in its lead pipe problem, and it would not be surprising if other jurisdictions encountered similar water contamination calamities in the near future. The melting infrastructure in many eastern cities should have been replaced 20 years ago. “Most communities have waited until the end of the life cycles, and all of the bills are coming to roost at once,” says Yeadon, PA mayor Rohan Hepkins.
The only silver lining from the entire fiasco is the increased national awareness about the danger of lead pipe exposure. Michael Stefkovic, CEO of lead testing firm Environmental Testing Services, said in an interview with Environmental Leader, “The same lead that is found in Flint’s drinking water also exists in hidden forms located in many homes. Too often the dangers of lead are down played through disclosure and release of liability. New renters and homebuyers are provided information concerning lead and its dangers without knowing if it actually exists. It is a common practice to ‘play dumb’ on behalf of landlords and home sellers in the housing industry relating to the presence of lead. Renters and homebuyers normally sign releases accepting liability on lead present. Homes built prior to 1978 are assumed to have lead in certain painted surfaces. Unless testing is preformed the occupant will never know.”
Jack Huffman of the Salvation Army helps carry bottled water at the Salvation Army Flint Beecher Corps Community Center in Flint, Mich., Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Carlos Osorio / AP via NBC News
And, back in Flint, while the city’s residents wait with bated breath for a comprehensive, long-term solution after a prolonged period of confusion and fear, another problem has reared its nasty head—as generous donors send hundreds of thousands of bottles of water to protect Flint residents from lead poisoning, the city is drowning in plastic.
Authorities have no idea what to do with the peaks of plastic that are piling up, the problem exacerbated by the very thing that caused the water crisis in the first place: budget cuts.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, “In 2001, the city of 99,000 cancelled curbside recycling because of costs. Curbside pickup started up again in 2013, but only about 13-16% of residents are participating... Not everyone realizes that the service is available, and although everyone's taxes pay for it, houses need to call the contracted provider, Republic Services, to opt in… Many residents seem unsure what to do with the sudden influx of plastic, and much of it is headed to landfills, where each bottle takes hundreds of years to decompose.”
Emergency response and environmental remediation provider Young’s Environmental Cleanup, Inc. is stepping up to help to recycle the growing mountain of plastic. While a quick recycling fix is certainly needed, the solution is tangential—trying to solve the water crisis with bottled water, even if it is recycled, is like putting a Band-Aid on an aneurism.
While increased education may ultimately be the key to solving Flint’s mounting toxic water and trash problems, the roadblock remains the same: limited funding for essential public services.
Which begs the question—how many more times will we see ignorance or neglect, or some combination thereof, cause decision makers to disregard the fundamentals of environmental management, placing financial advantage over public health?
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