State of the Planet

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There’s Plenty of Blame for Flint, Michigan’s Water Crisis

Whenever I hear that environmental protection is a partisan issue, I’m reminded of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s famous statement that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. The provision of clean air, safe drinking water, solid waste management and flood control are all basic public services that people who pay taxes expect to receive. Too bad the folks running Flint, Michigan, and the state of Michigan didn’t get that memo. It’s also too bad that the federal Environmental Protection Agency sat on the sidelines and allowed Michigan to damage Flint’s water supply.

In the spring of 2014, the city of Flint decided to stop using Detroit’s water system and instead began pumping its water from the Flint River. This was a cost-cutting measure designed to be temporary until the city could connect to a regional water system, then under construction. In September of 2015, the Associated Pressreported that: “A group of doctors led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center urges Flint to stop using the Flint River for water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of children. State regulators insist the water is safe.”

While the city has now switched back to the Detroit water system, the water from the Flint River damaged the city’s water pipes and released lead and other pollutants from the pipes into the water supply. Had the state required corrosion protection chemicals to be added to the Flint River’s water, the lead pollution might have been avoided, but the state agency neglected to impose this requirement. In order to use the public water system, in-home filters must now be used and changed frequently to ensure that the water is safe. Last week, President Obama signed a declaration stating that Flint is under a state of emergency and requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funds for filters and other remedial actions. Unfortunately, since this is a human-made disaster rather than a natural one, the funding available is capped at $5 million-although the cap could be raised by a specific though unlikely act by our dysfunctional Congress.

According to Paul Egan and Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder requested a disaster declaration, but instead received an emergency declaration, probably because the law typically doesn’t apply to human-made disasters. Egan and Spangler noted that:

“Snyder’s application said as much as $55 million is needed in the near term to repair damaged lead service lines and as much as $41 million to pay for several months of water distribution and providing residents with testing, water filters and cartridges.”

In other words, the cost of this cost-cutting measure will be at least $100 million and that does not include the cost of health care resulting from lead poisoning and the productivity lost when people go hunting for clean water that they once were able to obtain easily from their faucet. Flint has had a tough time throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, as the auto industry and other manufacturers abandoned this once thriving town. The water crisis is really kicking a good town when it’s down.

Flint’s water crisis is not a natural disaster but a disaster of poor management based on the ideology of cost-cutting at all costs. According to Ryan Felton of the Guardian:

“Flint has been embroiled in a never-ending stream of water quality issues that began in April 2014, when the city started pulling water from a local river as a cost-saving measure. The switch took place while Flint was operated by a state-appointed emergency manager, who held vast powers to oversee day-to-day operations, as the Rust Belt city was buckling under financial straits.”

Michigan’s state environmental agency kept insisting the water was safe, but anyone with a sense of sight, smell and taste knew that the state’s bureaucrats were wrong. Finally, Dan Wyant, the head of Michigan’s environmental agency resigned, and Governor Rick Snyder, apologized for the human-made disaster that has taken place under his watch. But it is not simply the state agency or the governor who should accept blame, but the federal EPA and President Obama as well. Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s efforts to make this a partisan issue is cynical presidential primary political pandering. This is a bipartisan mess-up. The federal government sets the drinking water standards in America, even though monitoring and administration is delegated to the states. The federal EPA had the authority and responsibility to intervene. The failure in Flint belongs to all of us and it should lead to some hard thinking about the causes of this completely avoidable environmental disaster.

It starts with a careless and poorly thought through engineering decision. Before the water source was changed there should have been an analysis of the possible impact of changing water sources. First, the water itself needed to be analyzed to see if the two sources were different. Second, the impact of the new water on the city’s water tanks, pipes and pumps needed to be analyzed. Third, the change over should have been preceded by a pilot test to ensure that the on-the-ground reality matched the theory of the design’s analysis. It is not clear that these steps were undertaken, and if they were, clearly the data or the risk assessment was inadequate.

The fundamental concept of sustainability management is that CEOs and COOs must know enough science to manage what I have been calling the physical dimensions of sustainability: water quality and quantity, toxicity, waste, energy efficiency, environmental impacts and the impact of toxics on ecosystems and human health. Just as a manager must be able to read a financial statement and understand an analysis of marketing focus groups, that manager must understand enough science to make decisions about an organization’s use of and impact on natural systems.

Over and over again we see companies and governments making short-term decisions to save money, but then see these “pragmatic” decisions costing more money when decisions must be reversed: Fukushima’s inadequate sea wall, VW’s deceptive software, BP’s reckless contracting in the Gulf of Mexico, GE’s dumping of PCBs in the Hudson river. The list is long and getting longer. We live on a more crowded planet and to maintain and grow our economy we must learn to be more careful in our use of natural resources.

This is not an impossible task. We simply must move past short-term expedience and the type of thinking that states: “in order to make an omelet you’ve got to break some eggs.” We need to use our analytic, information and communication resources to do a better job of managing human impact on the environment. While this may raise some costs in the short term, it will lower costs in the long term. As we get better at managing our activities we will learn more about how to produce and protect simultaneously and the price of protecting the environment will go down.

All over the world, from China to India and from West Virginia to the city of Flint, Michigan, poor management is harming the environment, public health, and everyone’s pocketbook. There are no short-cuts, and the sooner the people running our governments and businesses figure that out, the sooner we can proceed with the real work of growing our economy without destroying our home planet.

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