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mruffaloFor the past two years, the 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, drank, cooked and bathed with lead-contaminated water. Rates of lead poisoning—which can impair brain development and cause other serious health ailments—among the area’s children have skyrocketed, from 5 percent before the water turned bad to 16 percent today.

Flint’s man-made water disaster is an outrageous tragedy and a human health crisis. Photo credit: Michigan Education Association
Flint’s man-made water disaster is an outrageous tragedy and a human health crisis. Photo credit: Michigan Education Association

Residents have long reported brown, bad-tasting and foul-smelling water and unexplained sicknesses. Almost a year ago, water tests showed dangerous levels of lead. Yet state, local and federal officials did nothing. Worse, they assured residents that the water was safe. In recently released emails, state officials demonstrated indifference and even contempt toward the complaints that came mostly from poor, black residents. Furthermore, according to some witnesses and media reports, state officials diluted water samples or took incomplete “slow drip water samples” to game results and claim that the water was safe.

Flint’s man-made water disaster is an outrageous tragedy and a human health crisis. And unfortunately, it’s not an isolated case. It’s one instance in a pattern of government failures to take water testing seriously and respond to evidence of water pollution.

In 2009, federal data revealed that water being delivered to tens of millions of Americans contained illegal concentrations of dangerous chemicals. That contamination has led to widespread ill-effects such as rashes and elevated risk of various diseases and hundreds of thousands of Clean Water Act violations. At congressional hearings that year, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials pointed to failed political leadership under the Bush administration. President Obama promised to turn a new leaf.

Sadly, there have since been numerous high-profile cases of contamination, such as in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, where agricultural runoff and crumbling infrastructure led to an algal bloom in Lake Erie that made the city’s drinking water unsafe. Also in 2014, in West Virginia, a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River, the tap water supply for hundreds of thousands of people. This past August, 3 million gallons of contaminated water were released into the Animas River in Colorado, resulting in lead levels 3,500 times normal and arsenic levels 300 times normal, affecting many communities and farms.

Then there are the horrific, under-reported cases of water contaminated by drilling and fracking for natural gas and oil, another ongoing man-made disaster where politics has trumped providing safe drinking water.

In spite of concrete evidence of water contamination, Obama’s politics—support for natural gas and fracking, particularly around his 2012 reelection—have dictated the EPA’s actions. Case in point: Three EPA investigations into drinking water contamination since 2010, in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming and Parker County, Texas.

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