Residents of Worden and Ballantine, Montana — two tiny towns northeast of Billings — were recently informed they may be unable to use tap water for a year or more. Tests began detecting pollutants in the water back in May, but officials have been unable to pinpoint exactly where or how the groundwater supply is being contaminated. The people have been told to use bottled water only for the foreseeable future, a future of indeterminate length.
The residents of Flint, Michigan, can relate. So can residents of Newark, New Jersey, and East Chicago, Indiana, along with thousands of other communities of color that are being poisoned by the water in their homes, schools, parks and businesses. Unlike Worden and Ballantine, whose water supply was likely contaminated by nitrates used in farming, Flint and the other municipalities have been dealing with the dangers of lead.
“What does lead do to the human body?” I wrote in 2016 when the Flint crisis was revealed. “Infants and small children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, weakened immune systems and general physical collapse that can lead to death. Pregnant [people] have a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. A raft of studies has pretty much concluded that lead can cause cancer. It causes cardiovascular diseases and kidney damage which, like cancer, can also kill.”
Tamara Rubin, filmmaker and lead poisoning activist, has firsthand experience with the damage lead can cause. “My son was acutely poisoned 14 years ago as an infant,” she told Truthout, “and there is simply not a day that goes by that we don’t struggle with the impact of his exposure. We need a shift in political will; I truly cannot understand why this has not yet happened in 2019.”
“When my 4-year-old always asks me if it’s safe to drink from a water fountain, I realize the lead poisoning he has endured reaches far beyond the medical,” Danielle Feinberg, mother of another child poisoned by lead, told Truthout. “He not only has to deal with the permanent brain damage it caused — altering his behavior, mood, and even his physical health. He also has to face this idea that nothing is truly safe, especially not the water.”
There are few things in life more frightening and bewildering than when that which you never think twice about suddenly goes sideways and does you harm. When something as prosaic as tap water becomes a menace, everything is suspect. When that menace is caused by greed and institutional racism, it speaks to the rot at the core of the country itself.
Flint’s story in brief: Rick Snyder, Michigan’s Republican governor at the time, appointed an emergency manager to run the city amid the region’s broader economic woes. The emergency manager, in an insidious move with no measurable financial benefit, opted to switch Flint’s primary water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a wildly polluted waterway used as a dumping ground by General Motors for decades.
That filthy, highly acidic water flowed into the miles of lead pipes in Flint, striping the lead off as it went. Nobody warned the predominantly Black, predominantly poor residents for two years. Thousands of people drank, ate and bathed in lead poisoning, which has lifelong effects, particularly on children. The problems with the water still have not been adequately resolved.
In Newark, also a predominantly Black community, lead in the water is an ongoing crisis. “The levels of lead in Newark, New Jersey’s, drinking water are some of the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the United States,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “And we know the cause: City and state officials are violating the Safe Drinking Water Act in several ways, such as failing to treat its water to prevent lead from flaking off from pipes into residents’ drinking water and neglecting to notify people about the elevated levels and the health risks.”
As in Flint, the governmental response to Newark’s active crisis was horrifyingly low-key.
“Critics have compared Newark’s crisis to that of Flint, especially since they believe city officials have been slow to act and have understated the severity of the contamination,” reports The Guardian. “Also similar to Flint, affected communities in Newark are predominantly low-income and African American.”
In the face of insufficient municipal action, some politicians are pointing out that the federal government also has a responsibility to act.
“Newark’s water emergency demands our federal government’s immediate attention,” New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker, previously the mayor of Newark, tweeted recently. “Everyone deserves clean, safe water — it’s shameful that our national crisis of lead-contaminated water disproportionately hits poor black and brown communities like my own.”
In 2017, high levels of lead were also discovered in the water supply of East Chicago, Indiana, another predominantly Black community, but the Trump administration’s EPA was slow to reply. “This boils down to: How much does the administration value the lives in low-income communities of color?” NRDC attorney Anjali Waikar told Truthout’s Mike Ludwig at the time.
Indeed, if the administration valued the lives of people in these communities, clear actions would be immediately available. Contaminated drinking water is a huge and growing national problem, but one that does not lack for solutions. “A health-protective regulatory standard for lead in water should fall below 5 parts per billion, accounting for the limited capacity of utilities to reliably reduce water-lead levels,” argues Mekela Panditharatne, attorney for the NRDC. “Federal regulations must also require the full replacement of lead service lines adjoining water mains to people’s homes — which deliver water to millions of Americans — regardless of lead levels in water.”
Such an undertaking would be expensive — around $30 billion according to Panditharatne. But expense is relative; $30 billion is about 20 percent of the estimated price tag for the dubious F-35 Joint Strike fighter program. It is about 20 percent of the tax cut Trump and congressional Republicans gave to the wealthy and corporations in December of 2017, right around the time East Chicago was learning that it was being poisoned by lead.
U.S.-style capitalism was born in the cauldron of slavery and genocide. Maximizing profit for the few at the expense of the many, especially people of color, remains the guiding principle of the U.S. economic model, and the ongoing water crisis is further proof of this.
If poison in the water does not galvanize this government to act, regardless of expense, they may as well drop all pretense and hang a sign on the White House door: “We Don’t Care. You Can Die.”