The Flint Water Crisis and the National Need for Consumer Protection – posted 3/20/2016
For those who have followed the slow motion train wreck that is the Republican presidential race, there is a surreal quality to much of the policy discussion. Like gray clouds going by, noxious ideas contrary to the public interest are regularly floated. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the routine denunciation of federal government regulation. It is and has been the mantra of all the Republican presidential candidates.
Typically, they will say regulations are strangling business and sucking the life blood from capitalism. The current leader in the Republican field, Donald Trump, promises to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The other contender, Senator Ted Cruz, is equally hostile to regulation. Cruz is on record favoring repeal of all federal climate change regulations in the United States. He wants to gut the Clean Air Act. He also wants to eliminate the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to prevent another subprime meltdown.
For Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians, federal government regulation is a manifestation of the hated nanny state. Their approach has been to pursue emasculation of federal regulation. At the same time, they have pushed states to be in charge of things like enforcing drinking water standards.
But then, along came the Flint Michigan water crisis. No recent event more directly shows the absurdity of the Republican position on rolling back federal government regulation. Flint powerfully shows the necessity for strong consumer protection everywhere in the country. Sadly, there could be multiple Flints out there.
An estimated 9000 children under age 6 in the Flint area have been exposed to toxic levels of lead from corrosive drinking water flowing through the city’s water pipes. There are also other heavy metals and carcinogens in that water. That is like poisoning a generation. I think it is fair to say that all others in Flint who were drinking, bathing, showering , cooking with, and using the water have not exactly been benefited. Flint residents are having many adverse health consequences.
Lead is a known neurotoxin. It can silently damage developing brains impairing cognitive function and it can also slow growth. It has caused hair loss, skin irritation and rashes, and vomiting. The skin rashes have been widespread with Flint residents’ skin burning and peeling off. Many people in Flint have shockingly had their hair falling out in clumps.
Research has shown that even exposure to low levels of lead can profoundly affect childrens’ functioning. Lead exposure has been linked to learning disabilities, limited attention span, problems with fine motor coordination and violent behavior. Lead is a cumulative poison.
Because Flint’s water has been infested with bacteria, the city has poured chlorine into the water. That created a cancerous chemical called trihalomethane. Flint also has experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, caused by a water-borne bacteria, killing 10 people and sickening many.
Flint was already an impoverished community. About 57% of Flint’s 99,000 residents are black and 40% live in poverty. Since the beginning of the water crisis, Flint residents have been protesting the water but they were ignored by the powers-that-be. You don’t have to be a political genius to know this would never happen in an affluent white community.
So how did it happen that Flint’s water got so poisoned? An appointee of Republican governor Rick Snyder , the emergency manager, decided to unhook the people of Flint from their fresh water drinking source, Lake Huron, in 2013 and substitute water from the polluted Flint River. Flint had been using Lake Huron water for 50 years before the switch. The reason was simple: to save money.
Pumping water out of the Flint River was free. Flint had been in terrible financial straits and Snyder’s emergency manager was all about cutting costs. He believed he could save $5 million a year by changing the water supply. He ignored the fact that the Flint River was tainted by farm runoff, sewage, and decades of industrial effluent.
Almost immediately, Flint residents began complaining about discolored and foul-smelling water. The water was yellow and smelled like a sewer. They were not the only ones who complained. Shortly after Flint switched water sources, General Motors’ executives told Governor Snyder that the Flint River water was causing their car parts to corrode when being washed on the assembly line. Snyder spent $440,000 and rehooked GM back to the fresh water from Lake Huron. However, Governor Snyder ignored the repeated complaints from Flint’s residents. The lead and other heavy metal exposure continued for 17 months.
Flint water bills were among the highest in the nation even though the water was undrinkable, contaminated, and unusable. Many Flint residents received shut off notices for not being able to pay the water bill. They were being made to pay a premium price for poisoned water.
Federal law requires that water systems which are sent through lead pipes must contain an additive that seals the lead into the pipe and prevents it from leaching into the water. Michigan authorities knowingly chose not to do that because of the cost. The Flint River water literally corroded the entire infrastructure of Flint. Now Governor Snyder is sorry but being sorry hardly begins to address his responsibility. Flint needs to have its entire infrastructure of lead pipes removed and replaced. Time will tell but the harm inflicted is almost incalculable.
By devolving authority to the states, Congress has turned the EPA into a toothless tiger. There will, no doubt, be conservatives who try to flip blame for this fiasco primarily onto the EPA but the blame here clearly rests on Governor Snyder and state officials. That is the conclusion reached by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, appointed by Governor Snyder, which just released its report on the water crisis. The report called the Flint water crisis “a story of government failure, intransigence, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice “.
Unfortunately, the problem of lead tainting drinking water is not isolated to Flint. On March 18, USA Today published an investigative report which showed that lead taints drinking water in hundreds of schools and daycare centers across the United States.
The USA Today report estimated that 20% of water systems nationally test above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. The federal government requires only about 10% of the nation’s schools and a tiny percent of daycares to be tested for lead.
Clean, safe water is a national problem. The real problem is that agencies like the EPA have been made too weak. That is why there is potential for many more Flint-like situations. By not regulating, we are failing the people of the Unites States and potentially exposing them to great harm. We should not be taking the purity of our tap water for granted. Many cities around the country rely on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology.
The Flint water crisis is a tale that recapitulates the history of consumer protection in the United States. That history is the story of specific legal and political responses to crises which generate great public outrage. You can go back 110 years to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle with its expose of the horrible conditions in the meat packing industry. Outrage then lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and regulation of food safety.
In the 1960’s, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at any Speed and he targeted the need for federal auto safety standards. His great work led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which oversaw the creation of federal safety standards for automobiles and allowed for recall of unsafe vehicles. Nader’s efforts brought about a marked decrease in traffic fatalities per vehicle mile.
Since 1966, Nader assisted in the creation of eight major federal consumer protection laws, including the launching of federal regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Administration. He also advocated for access to open government through the Freedom of Information Act of 1974.
I mention the history because the Flint water crisis needs to be seen in the context of the national history of consumer protection. American consumers need to be protected from unsafe products, fraud, deceptive advertising and unfair business practices.
Republican presidential candidates who want to eviscerate federal government regulation are fighting a war against consumer protection. They are in la-la land about the dark side of capitalism and our aging infrastructure. Really, in the aftermath of the Great Recession and now Flint, consumer protection should be a widely debated topic. I would have to say though that for thirty years deregulating has been a much hotter topic than consumer protection. That needs to change.
Without consumer protection at the national level, Americans can expect to be fleeced, scammed, swindled, and victimized. There never seems to be a shortage of predatory lenders, con men, and other bad actors. For clean and safe water, we need consumer protection – not a war against it.