Political Threats to Water Safety: Lessons from Flint, Michigan

published on al.com on January 29, 2016.

By Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance

I have been following the Flint, Michigan drinking water story with great interest and horror.  Children’s lives have been forever altered because unsafe water poisoned with lead was delivered to citizen’s homes for drinking, bathing and cooking, but this is not another article about the technicalities of toxic pollution in our water.  This is about the political atmosphere that has led to a situation where poisoning children seems more palatable than admitting that mistakes were made and working urgently to alert the people impacted.

As the leader of Alabama’s statewide river protection organization, it is my job (with my team) on a daily basis to  discern who is responsible for situations that compromise clean water and how to make the responsible party do what needs to be done to keep our water clean and safe.  The primary laws that govern this objective are the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.  These are federal laws, but their implementation and enforcement involve a multitude of state and local statutes, agencies and officials.

While other agencies, our cities and towns, and even the private sector are intimately involved in the process, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring these laws are carried out in Alabama lies with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).  These agencies, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are what we call environmental regulators.

Of all the protections we are concerned with at my organization, ensuring that water is clean and safe for human use is the most fundamental.  How could the Flint crisis have happened with all the laws we have in place?  According to most of the reports, the state environmental regulators in Michigan shoulder the bulk of the blame for not requiring the city to take the necessary steps to prevent the corrosion of the pipes which contained the lead.

While the lead contamination came from the city’s pipes, it is important to note that an increase in treatment was vital because the city’s water supply — the Flint River — was overly polluted.  The increased treatment of the water made corrosion controls more necessary.  It is also important to note that the reason the city had to switch water sources in the first place was for financial reasons.  The city had been in a financial crisis and needed to cut costs.

Citizens and lawsuits are accusing the environmental regulators of deliberately withholding information that the water was unsafe and of purposely not putting in place the proper corrosion control treatment needed to ensure clean water for all citizens of Flint.  The Governor has basically admitted that things were withheld and action was delayed.

If I lived in Michigan, this is where my job would come in.  How would we ensure that something like this is dealt with in such a way that nothing like this ever happens again?  I would have to determine if those regulators truly acted deliberately or why they did things the way they did that caused this shocking problem.

I don’t know the politics of Michigan like I know the politics of Alabama, but I can tell you with a clear mind that in Alabama our politics put regulators in an extremely difficult place when it comes to protecting our clean water.  The constant drumbeat of rhetoric pitting jobs versus the environment and claiming that environmental regulations cripple economic growth is creating a generation of regulators who are — at best – being made to fear the consequences of actually doing their job to protect the environment–at worst — taking the underlying message to heart that their job as regulators is to rubber stamp or facilitate bad decisions rather than protect the people of Alabama.

Either way, our state and national politics is creating this hostile atmosphere that is compromising the security of clean, safe water for ALL Alabamians. Many environmental regulators begin their career as bright-eyed graduates of distinguished environmental science or engineering programs who want to protect our environment and make a positive impact for the people of Alabama.  That is why they seek jobs at ADEM or the EPA. Somewhere along the way they become jaded by the constant refrain that “If you protect the environment, you’ll kill jobs.”

Ironically, this leads to a suspicion from some environmental groups that a regulator who is touting “jobs” is not concerned about the environment. Too often the best and brightest give in or even leave their positions resulting in an overabundance of regulators that seem more concerned with keeping their job than protecting the public health and our environment.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the politics of environment versus jobs. It’s also the politics of less government spending and no new revenue.  We are constantly hearing about government waste, but is it really government “waste” to raise the funds necessary to keep ADEM’s inspectors out in the field monitoring our drinking water?  Is it government “waste” to make sure that our cities have enough funding to protect and upgrade vital infrastructure, like our drinking water pipes and waste water treatment plants?  Our environmental agencies consistently face a shortage of the resources necessary to carry out their responsibilities.

We expect our government to provide abundant water whenever and wherever we need it; and we expect the water that comes out of our tap to be clean and safe for our families. That security doesn’t happen for free and it certainly did not happen by accident. It happened because a bipartisan congress was forward-thinking enough to put laws in place that ensure water sources like our rivers and streams are protected by regulations.  We have safe and abundant water because governments from federal to state and local invested our tax dollars in infrastructure that would provide that water to our homes and businesses.  But those regulations and investments were done decades ago when at least some issues transcended politics as usual.

There are many lessons to be learned from Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis.  How we rise above the politics, invest adequate funding in our state government, and develop a more supportive yet accountable atmosphere for state and federal environmental regulators are all lessons essential to ensuring Alabamians will not experience a similar crisis.  Let’s reject the rhetoric that suggests protecting our drinking water for our families is a conspiracy to kill jobs.

Let’s move Alabama politics forward to a place where the fear of not doing the right thing for the health and safety of all Alabamians bears a greater consequence than standing up to business as usual.