Reaction to Flint

Here’s a recap of the ongoing discussion and revelations surrounding the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan.

In terms of how this all happened, there are now many articles detailing what’s known so far. Thousands of people have been seriously affected.

The calls for accountability continue to grow. Congressional hearings and investigations by the FBI and EPA are underway. On January 20th Governor Rick Snyder released 274 pages containing his emails from 2014 and 2015 related to Flint. activists are lending their voices to express wider outrage.

With increased public attention comes renewed emphasis to ensure water supply in other places is and remains safe. The New York Times article framed the situation thusly:

Federal officials and many scientists agree that most of the nation’s 53,000 community water systems provide safe drinking water. But such episodes are unsettling reminders of what experts say are holes in the safety net of rules and procedures intended to keep water not just lead-free, but free of all poisons.

Scientists are receiving their own share of criticism.

And, in the midst of the anger comes a warning from Stephen L. Carter of Yale about the legal challenges ahead associated with sovereign immunity rules. These he argues, may strengthen the case for water service privatization (as is the case in the UK)

Of course one might argue that providing clean water is indeed a core function of government. But the truth of that proposition is far from obvious. Private companies provide drinking water in many parts of the country. Historically, some of the earliest municipal contracts in the U.S. involved cities and towns hiring water suppliers. The private company would gain the right to lay underground water mains and avoid competition, and in return would guarantee potable water at an agreed price. The law on regulation of municipal “franchises” largely grew out of the dependence of cities and towns on private companies for water, gas and power.

[…]

Many advocates contend that in the specific case of water, there are advantages in having the government provide it directly. [..] Let’s assume that’s true. Still, along with those advantages come the costs I mentioned above: a lack of tort liability and an increase in moral hazard. […]. Ironically, the most troubling issues on the group’s list — low water quality, corruption, unheard local concerns and suffering among the poor — are all present in Flint

Technical and logistical challenges exist as well, as discussed for instance in Nick Stoton’s piece for Wired on what it will take to replace the pipes in question.

Most of the corroded pipes in Flint—20,000 to 25,000 in total—are what is known as service lines. These are one inch in diameter, and connect homes to the larger, main pipes running under the middles of streets. (The mains are cast iron.) Because Flint is in Michigan, and Michigan is a very cold place, the service lines have to be buried about three and a half feet deep, below the frost line. “But most of the main pipes are between five to seven feet deep, so the service lines are at a similar depth,” says Martin Kaufman, a geographer at the University of Michigan-Flint. So that’s the basic challenge: dig up several hundred miles of poisonous pipe buried as deep as dead bodies.

Before calling in the backhoes, somebody needs to figure out where all those pipes are buried. Not just which houses they’re in, either. Remember, the pipes are an inch wide, and buried under roads, sidewalks, and front lawns, beneath lattices of cables, fiber optic wires, and gas lines. Digging in the wrong place would be both dangerous and expensive. Kaufman is one of those in charge of figuring out where all the lead pipes are buried, but the pipelayers of yore didn’t do him many favors. “The recordkeeping of the city is not very good,” he says. “They kept information on three by five index cards, a lot of which are smeared.” The only definite way to check if a pipe is lead or not is to scrape the pipe’s interior as it comes into the house. “If the residue is gray and nonmagnetic, it is lead,” he says.

[…]

Replacing a typical service line takes three people. “You need an operator to run the equipment, one guy hand digging to make sure you don’t get into any other utilities, and another guy getting the floor busted out in the basement,” says Harrington. As long as they don’t run into any problems, the whole job should take the team about half a day. Harrington estimates that he could reasonably call in about 20 such teams to work full time until the job is done. Assuming the rate is forty pipes a day, roughly 249 days a year (nights and weekends, y’all), the Flint plumber’s militia could bang the job out in just over two years.