Just yesterday, the federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan over lead-contaminated water expired. What comes next for a community continuing to deal with a public health crisis?
Residents in Flint have been understandably concerned about the August 14th deadline, as Michigan Radio reports. President Obama declared a Federal State of Emergency over Flint’s poisoned water on January 15th of this year, making 5 million dollars of federal money available to help with the crisis. With the state of emergency in place, the federal government has covered 75% of costs necessary for providing bottled water, filters, filter cartridges, and home testing kits to Flint residents. This aid isn’t going away, according to state officials; instead, the state will be picking up the tab for the necessary supplies –estimated to cost 3.5 million dollars a month, based on current water needs (approximately 10,000 cases of water a week.)
Will those needs remain steady, or have they reached their peak? Current testing suggests conditions in Flint are improving. NPR reports that Virginia Tech researchers, who first exposed the lead contamination, found no detectable levels in half of the homes they tested last month. One expert described Flint as “entering a range that’s considered normal for other U.S. cities.” Unfortunately, water contamination is not unique to Flint, and what’s considered ‘normal’ around the U.S. may simply not be safe enough.
Lead is not the only threat to water supplies across the United States. In addition to known and regulated contaminants, emerging contaminants that have yet to be evaluated may be impacting our water supplies. According to the EPA, many streams that supply water nationwide are not covered by clean-water laws. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a public health expert at Tufts University and former chairperson of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee, noted that we have “lots of really good professionals in the water industry…but it doesn’t take much for our aging infrastructure or an unprofessional actor to allow that protection to fall apart.”
Given the financial aftermath of the Flint crisis, it’s unsurprising that some ‘unprofessional actors’ were hesitant to disclose the unsafe drinking water conditions. The cost of supplying water to Flint residents is just the beginning; Governor Snyder’s original application for federal aid estimated that as much as 55 million dollars would be needed to repair damaged lead service lines in Flint. The consequences are steep for a city whose crisis originated with a water supply switch intended to cut costs.
Most critically, the crisis in Flint has called into question the trust that we place in our federal, state and local officials to disclose threats to our safety presented by unsafe water. In Flint, the lead contamination persisted for years before it was discovered, and even longer before it was disclosed to the public. Even if water treatments and infrastructure repairs are ultimately successful and lead is undetectable in every Flint household, residents may never again trust their water supply, or the reports they are given about it by their local and state officials. Water can be treated and pipes can be replaced, but trust is much more difficult to repair. In the meantime, at least Flint residents will continue to have access to clean, bottled water. Whether they will trust their faucets again in the future is another matter entirely.
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