EDITORIAL – Divining the lessons of Flint, Michigan

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a terrible and terrifying story of government gone wrong, and ordinary people, primarily children, suffering as a result.

In case you haven’t been following the news, please pay attention: Flint is a blue-collar, industrial town of about 100,000 in the American state of Michigan. It is located 70 miles from the largest source of liquid freshwater on the planet — the Great Lakes. Up until 2014, Flint purchased its water, sourced from Lake Huron, from nearby Detroit.

Nearly two years ago, state officials (who had taken control of the city’s budget during a 2011 financial state of emergency) decided to switch Flint’s water supplier from Detroit to (guess who?) the state. While the new state-operated project was being built, the city was instructed to draw its water from the Flint River which runs through town.

The problems were immediately both obvious and odious. The water in the Flint River, you see, happens to be particularly corrosive, and as the river water coursed through Flint’s aged system of pipes, heavy metals — including, most sorrowfully, lead — made its way into the water people use for drinking, bathing and washing. By the way, much of the water came out of the taps visibly brown.

High concentrations of lead in the blood are linked to a myriad of lifelong problems, including low IQ and behavioral issues. The effects can be mitigated somewhat with early intervention but are largely irreversible.

As soon as the switch was made, Flint residents appealed to city and state officials, first brandishing glasses of brown, smelly water (made so by the presence of otherwise-innocuous iron), and eventually the results of blood tests on local children, which showed elevated levels of lead.

Yet government officials, at multiple levels — either because they didn’t listen, didn’t believe them or didn’t care — didn’t act. Instead, they pointed to tests from their own experts claiming the water was perfectly safe.

Only after a Flint pediatrician and independent researchers raised a thunderous hue and cry (whose efforts, by the way, the state initially attempted to discredit), did officials finally admit the obvious, and Flint reverted back to its previous water supplier, Detroit, in October.

As if the above weren’t bad enough, it has come to light that in 2011 — years before the switch to the corrosive Flint River water was made — a study had been done on the Flint River showing that in order for it to be considered a safe supply of drinking water, it would have to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent. The cost of the treatment, which would have averted nearly all of the ensuring problems, would have been about US$100 per day.

It didn’t happen.

Now, some readers may wonder what Flint has to do with the Cayman Islands. After all, our water system is safe, even pristine. If there were a problem, surely we trust our officials to alert us to its existence.

And yet, consider the George Town landfill. Officials and their consultants assure us that the combustible behemoth poses little immediate threat to the surrounding environment (except, of course, when it is periodically bursting into flames).

Next door to the dump exists a threat that is potentially of the same magnitude as its mountainous neighbor, but is less obvious because it is underground. We refer to Cayman’s very own piping problem: the wastewater sewerage system.

Can our officials really look us in the eyes and pledge that the dump and sewerage system, located proximate to the Seven Mile Beach corridor, pose no real danger to the thousands of people who live, work and stay nearby?

Do we believe their assurances? Should we?