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.
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.