Apparently, It Isn’t Just Flint

Water, water everywhere…but not a drop to drink.

For several months, headlines about Flint, Michigan have documented a failure of government that is truly unforgivable. Whatever one’s preferred ideology about the proper size or function of government, only the most extreme libertarians or anarchists would argue that government has no responsibility to provide and maintain essential infrastructure.

In the wake of these disclosures, there has been public outrage and condemnation leveled at Michigan Governor Snyder and his administration. That condemnation is deserved. The outrage has reflected a belief that the actions of the administration were “beyond the pale,” that they were a rare and unacceptable deviation from the most basic duties of governance.

Or so we would like to think.

Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, resigned this week in the latest bit of drama over drinking water safety — drama that involves the state’s biggest utility and the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Davies, who accused state officials of deliberately misleading residents, gives up her post of seven years and an $188,000 annual salary.

The story begins in 2014, when a Duke Energy power plant spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and it’s harmful to people and ecosystems, containing silica, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

When the spill occurred, the state told residents that their well water was unsafe, and Duke Energy provided bottled water to those affected. When the state lifted that order, telling those in the area that the water was now safe to drink, a number of scientists working for the state criticized that move, insisting that the water was still unsafe. Davies has now resigned in protest.

There is still no order from the state requiring Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash deposits. This is corruption and it is potentially costing many lives and damaging the environment enormously.

For those of us who live in the Hoosier state, there’s similarly disquieting news closer to home. Think Progress recently reported that “An Indiana City is Poised to Become the Next Flint.”

In East Chicago, the problem is lead contamination in the soil.

Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.

But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.

The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

Children exposed to lead at a young age can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.

These disclosures join a number of other signs that governments–especially at the state level–are not discharging their most basic responsibilities. In Indiana, unsafe bridges have also made the news. Nationally, Congress has yet to authorize funds for needed upgrades to the electrical grid. The neglected infrastructure list goes on.

A country that cannot maintain its infrastructure is a third-world country.

I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When “good enough for government work” attitudes demean public service, government stops attracting the “best and brightest,” the people who want to serve, to make their communities better; instead, it becomes a refuge for second-raters seeking power or influence.

When I worked for the City of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, I was constantly impressed by the number of administration officials and municipal employees who cared deeply about doing a good job, who worked extra hours and took pride in improving their city.

At some point, when “government work” became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.

Instead, we have the Snyders, McCrorys and Pences.


  1. That same coal ash is in ponds all over Indiana operated by utilities that donate to keep their allies in power, regardless of the impact on significant portions of the population. There have been several failed dams on ash ponds in Indiana which resulted in discharges to the White River and others. Fines? Penalties?

  2. Our larger problem is very simply stated in epidemiology terms: The “cancer” in American democracy is now in an advanced state. The illness can no longer be denied. Just examine the political MRI.

  3. Water quality is an issue in many cities/towns across America. I have been following the story in Hannibal, MO on FaceBook. . It appears that chloromines being used in systems with lead pipes causes the piping to leach large quantities of lead into the system. Chloromines are cheaper to use than chlorine. “Bean-counters” have their place but should never be allowed near the reins. Dr. Kennedy I think today’s post ties in nicely with your recent article on anti intellectualism.

  4. We can move closer to home than East Chicago, IN; the small “cancer cluster” in Johnson County was quickly claimed by health authorities NOT to be a “cancer cluster”. One relative’s 11 year old son is one of those cancer victims in that area, the 3 year-old nephew of a friend died a cancer victim living in that area. “It’s not in the water.” was the almost instant diagnosis of health officials in the area. There was little if any in-depth testing of ground water, private wells or waterways.

    Approximately five years ago, local public health officials tested water in the drainage ditch which runs through my small isolated neighborhood; it runs under two streets, between houses and through back yards and into Pleasant Run Creek. They found e-coli; the letter to me states it is a “safe level of e-coli”. The letter also stated that the water is not a drainage ditch but is from the Windsor Village underground creek. It comes through the storm drainage ditch under East 21st Street from the Windsor area with many vacant and boarded up houses. It flows directly into Pleasant Run Creek which is tested regularly since my complaint about scum, smell and rats in the ditch/underground creek. My complaint went to the City Councillor for this area after reports by neighbors on the problems in the ditch were ignored by MAC.

    This is a relatively minor situation (if e-coli can be minor – and safe); our rivers and waterways are all polluted due to the cost to prevent and clean up currently polluted areas and waterways and protection by our own government at all levels protecting the violators. Supporters of Jill Stein and the Green Party are mistaken in their belief she would be powerful enough to rectify the situation as president. She and her running mate, who called President Obama “Uncle Tom” just yesterday, appear to have joined the racist ranks of Trump and the GOP who happen to be the primary support system for the biggest polluters throughout the country.

    Sheila’s comment:
    “I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt.”

    Those yelling these accusations the loudest and longest are the Republicans who continue protecting the giant polluters; this is called “projection”. Translate that “CYA”, “cover your ass”.

  5. Thanks Shelia,
    In my ideal United States infrastructure is the one building block between all political parties and those with other agendas leave those to unite.

  6. JoAnn,

    “Supporters of Jill Stein and the Green Party are mistaken in their belief she would be powerful enough to rectify the situation as president. She and her running mate, who called President Obama “Uncle Tom” just yesterday, appear to have joined the racist ranks of Trump and the GOP who happen to be the primary support system for the biggest polluters throughout the country.”

    A very similar situation as this occurred in Germany just before the end of the Weimar Republic. As I have mentioned before, we’re on the same track to catastrophe.
    “All aboard for the Runaway Train.”

  7. Nancy, to answer your question yesterday, no my brother doesn’t work for Carrier. My hotel internet is doggy and it failed to post my comment to you.

    Thanks Professor for another reminder that protecting citizens is very important and politicians and corporations must be held accountable. Why isn’t Gov Synder in prison waiting trial?

  8. The problems arising from ground and water pollution would be easy to solve if we only had to clean up this area or that creek. The real problem is that way too many of us, as individuals, continue to pollute the ground and water. The big corporate polluters are for sure a terrible menace, but so are the millions who use chemicals in and around their homes and think that pouring away this or that won’t have any effect. If your home has a septic system every chemical you pour down the jon goes into the ground water. If you are a gardener all of those pesticides and herbicides end up in the groundwater. And here is the thing, folks. Those chemicals do not disintegrate any time soon. They move along to well heads with all of the other chemicals that have leached into the water. Where bacteria breaks down after a year or so underground, not so that pesticide, that paint thinner, that floor cleaner you used. Now think farming and you get the real picture of the purity of the water we all drink.
    For those who drink treated city water do not fool yourself into thinking that “they remove all that stuff”. They can’t, and that annual report on water from every water company in the country does not reflect ALL of the chemicals in your water. There is no way to test for all of them.
    JoAnn, I’m with you wanting the truth about all of those children in Johnson County with cancer.

  9. I think it is easy to simplify this as the result of the so-called Republican attack on gov’t. It is a ruse, imo. The narrative is: Republicans stop funding and spending on infrastructure, food stamp and other necessary programs et al… and yet we don’t tie the lack of funds to the diversion of our tax dollars to war, bail outs to bankers and brokers, privatized services, and subsides going to other industry or how our paychecks are eaten up by health insurance (crafted in the shadow of the health industry as was Bush’s energy policy written by fossil fuel).

    Without this story, how do our Dem politicians (such as our Dem president) explain the lack of our tax dollars not being invested in our people, the earthlings with whom we share the land, and all of the systems that support life and real health (water/soil/air and the food that comes from it)?

    Whatever the story is, it isn’t a complete one. We are directed to snapshots and soundbites but there is a whole picture out there. One establishment Dems cleverly hide behind the bat-shit crazy Republicans and their even crazier Tea Party cousins.

    ps… note the lack of noise from Washington regarding Flint? And now the flooding in Louisiana?

  10. Here in sunny southwest Florida, we have a problem with green algae from Lake Okeechobee. All of the local politicians are screaming about how they will fix it, if they are elected. These are the same people who demand an end to regulation and who cheer when EPA’s funding for enforcement is cut so badly the agency becomes impotent. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but nobody wants his own ox to be gored by the budget knife.

  11. Ditto what daleb said.

    Our republican governor and legislature has been doing everything they can think of to destroy the power of the EPA. They favor the coal industry and their pollution of our land and water over protecting the citizens from disease and death.

    ALEC’s power is destroying our country.

  12. Theresa,

    You are so correct about citizens polluting the ground water too. All of the beautiful weed-free yards are beautiful because of chemicals. My yard is full of weeds because I do not want to kill a single one of the butterflies or other beautiful insects that I almost never see anymore. As a former farmer, I recognize and regret the damage that I did to the environment with farm chemicals. At that time, it was just the way you farmed and people were unaware that they were polluting the soil and water and killing beneficial insects.

    In my garden I use organic fertilizer and use diatomaceous earth as an insecticide. They both work very well and don’t pollute the environment.

    With regard to farming, it is unfortunate that chemicals were ever developed. Farmers must use them to survive. The rare farmers that grow organic crops can only do so if they are pretty wealthy and can afford the lower crop yields. Most farmers cannot afford to switch to organic.

    As I said, I live with regret.

  13. Nancy, here is an idea I have played with over the last few years. It is why can’t the government support organic farming practices in the same way they support mega corn farming? Yes, I know that those corn crops go to the making of ethanol or for feed for livestock, but both of those segments of our economy continue to be under attack for what they are doing to the environment Large corporate farms get huge subsidies for growing corn, have been for years, and I do not understand why organic farmers do not get help too as we phase out what we know is not working for us in the long run.
    Yes, I know the answer to my question is special interests and the power of money buying Congress. But still, people need to wake up and connect the dots of the entire pollution problem. Then perhaps they will demand real change in the form of programs that push us in the right direction.

  14. Science is truth and Democracy is action. Both are the enemies of oligarchy and are what created the special world that we are privileged to live in.

    They both are under attack and we must choose between defending the gifts that we have been given or surrendering them to what oligarchy’s advocates, our enemies, assume is a greater power, ignorance.

    Our move.

  15. I have said for several years that drinking water is going to eventually be as valued as gold. Michael Moore was on Bill Maher several months ago commenting on the Flint situation. Bill seems to have a fair number of people on his show talking about the very thing we are discussing here. Water and how corruption and sucking up to corporations have left us in a wasteland…during their conversation they brought up Michael Burry who was the character played by Christian Bale in the movie the Big Short. He apparently saw the housing crisis (implosion) coming WAY before anyone else did….I guess he is not making his investments in water as he foresees a national crisis in clean, drinkable water.

  16. I feel you got a bit off track when you said, “when ‘government work’ became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.” We are dealing with something more fundamental–the conscience of an individual who is not allowed to do her “government work”. I think Megan Davies left her job because Governor Pat McCrory would not let her do her job in a conscientious manner. Government is probably full of conscientious people who would like to quit, but for whatever reason(s), feel they can not afford to quit. When we elect people who do not believe in government for the common good such as developing vaccines or protecting our environment, then we destroy the government that is needed to carry on civilization. Government is not the bad thing that so many politicians make it out to be. The individual is not equipped to combat every disease or foresee every environmental hazard they may encounter. The group (government) has responsibility to the individual. We seem to be rapidly becoming a nation of “every man for himself”. And that impacts people without means first.

  17. I follow Erin Brockvitch on face book. There are probably very few people who have dedicated themselves to environmental justice with such vigor. She recently pointed out – Under fire from water agencies who were losing millions of dollars in lost water sales, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration two months ago dropped all mandatory water conservation targets and allowed cities, water districts and private water companies across the state to set their own targets.

    Now, the results are in: 343 urban water agencies — or 84 percent of the 411 largest in the state — gave themselves a conservation target of zero for the rest of this year. <

    Other news-
    California’s Porter Ranch methane-gas leak, which displaced over 2,200 families, grew to become the biggest leak in U.S. history—what some reports have called the worst environmental disaster since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “Over 112 days, the leak poured 100,000 tons of methane—a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon dioxide,” according to the first study of the leak by a team of researchers from U.C. Irvine, U.C. Davis, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other sources, cited by Wired.

    Our so called News Media, CNN, FOX and MSNBC will devote hours and hours of coverage to the Trumpet and now the Olympics but follow-up on Flint – no way. Flint had it's few corporate minutes of fame.

  18. There are now too many of us for our one planet to support. We’re making things worse by changing to a climate less hospitable to our civilization.

    Things have to change so they will, our way or nature’s way.

    I would much prefer our way but am in a minority.

  19. I live in southwest Michigan summers and southwest Florida winters. The Great Lakes provide abundant water and southwest Florida’s aquifers are (so far) providing enough water for a rapidly increasing human population there though, depending upon the rate of rainfall and rate of increase in the number of new golf courses and algae growth in Lake Okeechobee, I expect there to be a water problem in southwest Florida, especially with local politicians saying yes to every developer’s plan that is up for hearing. One wag has said that at the present rate there will be concrete all the way along Alligator Alley from Naples to the east coast before long. It is not just nasty water that describes the coming crisis; it also involves increases in human population and development. I think we are captive to the old idea that development is congruent with progress. We will know better when the condos empty for lack of water.

  20. Gerald, we winter in Bonita Springs which could well be a good diving spot in a few decades. Come and see the underwater homes. Of course that will take care of the fresh water problem.

  21. What water safety issues is the Baton Rouge, LA, and surrounding areas dealing with at this time? How long will it be before they will have safe water in the devastated areas covering 80% of the Baton Rouge area? Will the disruptive visit by Trump and Pence and their entourage (after the LA Governor explained why he did NOT want President Obama to visit at this time), to pass out Play-Doh, help this life and death situation for thousands of Louisiana public safety officers, first responders and those from other states going into the area to bring food, water, medical supplies, clothing and practical help for survivors?

    Can no one of authority stop Trump from worsening problems in this country? This is a new low; even for Trump – with Pence trailing along behind. The Louisiana situation has loss of life, which could escalate; safe water is only one of their problems at this time. Pence has had to deal with floods in Indiana; yet, there he was , part of Trump’s bucket-brigade handing out boxes of Play-Doh rather than bottle of water.

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