The story of poisoned water in Flint has grown and metastasized until it threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room.
The national news media have fluttered in. Even the New York Times, noted for its dismissive nose-in-the-air attitude toward the provincials in Michigan and its habit of running urban ruin porn stories about Detroit, has taken notice. Last week’s editorial mixed assigning the blame to Gov. Rick Snyder and airily instructing we locals about how to resolve the problem. I’m told you can’t walk around Flint these days without running into out-of-state TV notables, reporters and political pundits.
It’s no surprise that the punditocracy has been busy pointing various fingers political blame at: Republicans (including Snyder, the state legislature), Democrats (Flint local government, the Environmental Protection Agency), bureaucrats (the Michigan DEQ, Department of Public Health and the folks who run the Flint water system).
For those whose knee-jerk reaction to crises is to search quickly for somebody to blame, I suggest a careful read of last Thursday’s issue of Bridge Magazine. There you will find a 30,000-plus-word, comprehensively annotated timeline of the Flint crisis in all its currently available detail, as well as compelling evidence that the origins of the crisis are widespread and suggest a systemic breakdown of systems of government – local, state and federal. Bridge reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey, who has spent a lot of time in Flint, tells me virtually everybody there has absolutely lost trust in government.
There’s more than plenty of blame to go around, and it might help if people started concentrating on understanding the root causes and figuring out what to do about them.
The issue of decaying infrastructure in Michigan is not confined to Flint.
Older cities – think Saginaw, Bay City, Jackson – have plenty of lead pipe in their water infrastructure. The research is just starting to be done, but I suspect there will be other episodes of lead in the water, although not likely as dramatic as in Flint.
In Ann Arbor, for example, back in the 1980’s a local high-tech company dumped dioxane, a cancer-causing byproduct of micropore filter manufacturing. The chemical wound up as a plume of pollution slowly advancing through the groundwater toward the Huron River. Local officials are complaining the DEQ, which has oversight jurisdiction, is dragging its heels and allowing the company’s plans to clean up the mess to remain secret, subject to “attorney-client privilege”.
Readers will recall all the the squirming the governor and legislature had to go through for the past several years finally to decide an (inadequate) fix for our deteriorating roads.
It’s beginning to look as though what used to be called “public goods” only begin to have political traction when they have a direct effect on private people – folks who like to drink the water from the tap or drive a car in the winter without repeatedly blowing tires.
Detroit school finances
The next crisis, of course, will be Detroit Public Schools, which face an unsustainable debt load and may well be teetering toward what amounts to bankruptcy.
The district owes $515 million in short-term debt and has a $238 million operating deficit, which is increasing at the rate of around $1 million per day. On top of all that, the district owes bondholders around $2 billion for financing for buildings and other capital assets.
The proximate cause of the financial trouble is the enormous number, something like two-thirds of the historic total of Detroit children, who have withdrawn from their local schools, each taking with them thousands of dollars in state per pupil school aid. Some have switched to charter schools in Detroit, while some have chosen to enroll in nearby suburban districts.
For a number of years now, Gov. Snyder has proposed a long-term solution that would in effect split the district into an old part (with all the historic debt) and a new, operating unit. The legislature, of course, wishes all this would go away. But experts say unless the debt situation is resolved, the district will run out of money this spring.
More than a century ago, English author and humorist, Oscar Wilde, commented that a certain aristocrat, Lord Darlington, “knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
These days, his comment seems more than apt.
Thousands and thousands of kids in Flint are almost certainly suffering from developmental deficits caused by lead poisoning. The damage is irreversible. And after several weeks the lead leaches out of their bodies, so it will be hard to figure out who is affected until they start showing developmental damage in years to come.
In Detroit, where too many within the adult population are functionally illiterate, a generation of kids is growing up facing a choice of attending terrible but local schools or switching to charters, whose financial integrity is secret and whose educational quality is mixed at best.
These days, we’re quarreling over who to blame for infrastructure failures and squabbling over how much fixing specific local problems is going to cost. At some point, we might want to begin thinking about the cost-value equation of mistreating thousands and thousands of poor, mostly minority kids.