Lead-Tainted Water Is America’s Worst Infrastructure Failure
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that President Joe Biden has signed the $550 billion infrastructure legislation, $15 billion will be spent to remove lead from the nation’s drinking-water systems. Of all the economic and social necessities in the spending package — from roadways and bridges to the power grid and broadband expansion — ensuring access to safe, clean water is perhaps the most fundamental.
Biden visits Michigan today to promote his bill and he might want to consider Benton Harbor, a predominantly Black, low-income community on the shores of Lake Michigan that neighbors many predominantly White, more affluent communities. Three years ago, the state told Benton Harbor’s residents that their drinking water contained unsafe levels of lead — reminiscent of the infamous public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, that started in 2014. Replacing Benton Harbor’s lead service pipes would cost $30 million and take 20 years, the state said, so instead it began distributing free water filters to residents.
The filters apparently didn’t work. As environmental and community groups sounded more alarms and petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in, Michigan finally prioritized the crisis. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, declared an “all-hands-on-deck” emergency in Benton Harbor in October. The state recently advised residents to avoid the taps in their homes altogether and drink bottled water. In early November, the EPA ordered Benton Harbor to overhaul its water system to comply with federal drinking water laws. Last week, the state began removing the city’s old pipes, and $18.6 million in federal and state funds have been earmarked for the task. Supplemental funding from Biden’s infrastructure plan should pay the rest. Whitmer says she now hopes to finish the job in just 18 months.
No one in the world’s wealthiest and most innovative country should lack access to potable water, and yet here we are. Lead is a vicious neurotoxin that causes cognitive damage even in small amounts, and it is particularly harmful to children. For three years, 10,000 Americans in Benton Harbor have lived with that threat. They’re not alone. Several million lead service lines remain in place across the country, largely in low-income areas and communities of color. Biden’s infrastructure plan will address a significant portion of this problem, but some analysts estimate that it will take $60 billion — four times the new federal outlay — to complete the work.
None of this spending amounts to a giveaway. The U.S. enjoyed historic economic growth in the post-World War II era through the creation of a large middle class that enjoyed steadily improving wages and living standards. American consumers ultimately accounted for two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product, and they had the ability to provide better lives for their children. Public infrastructure benefited taxpayers and many communities. But this economic model, whose advantages accrued primarily to White Americans, has been decaying for decades. Low-income rural areas and communities of color have been left even further behind, depriving the economy of untold numbers of potentially productive, creative people.
“This water crisis has lifted the veil on what I call a mass underclass that has been ignored,” says Bankole Thompson, a columnist with the Detroit News who has focused on Benton Harbor’s travails. “Both political parties are guilty when it comes to structural inequity. Why did they wait until now to warn Benton Harbor’s residents that they had a lead problem, especially after everything that happened in Flint?”
St. Joseph, Michigan, next door to Benton Harbor, is largely White, with a thriving local economy, good schools and functioning infrastructure. It was able to eradicate a minor lead-poisoning scare of its own. Localities with resources can confront crises; those that don’t simply erode. Meanwhile, the federal government’s share of funding for national water infrastructure has plunged from about 63% in the 1970s to about 9% today.
Benton Harbor’s lead nightmare is being addressed because the community agitated, and Thompson and others helped shine spotlights on the problem. Local newspapers such as the Herald-Palladium, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News — as well as digital publications such as MLive — kept the pressure on. But dirty and poisoned water problems that persist in other small towns — including Jackson, Mississippi; Tallulah, Louisiana; Clarksburg, West Virginia, and Belton, South Carolina — have drawn less attention. Many of these communities exist in sagging, post-industrial conditions with residual pollution, and their citizens have little political muscle.
“It’s political and economic negligence,” says Thompson, who also runs a Detroit anti-poverty advocacy group, the Pulse Institute. “The government makes choices about where it wants to invest, and the government’s focus has been elsewhere. The people suffering through this economic negligence in Benton Harbor are the faces of what’s happening all over the country.”
Big cities — including Newark, Houston, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee — have also been sideswiped by water coursing through lead pipes. They, too, have had to scramble to clean up the problem. With cities of every size looking for more help, Biden’s infrastructure effort offers an enormous step forward.
There is much more to be done, if Congress can muster the will and common sense to keep rebuilding the country — and to keep making sure that water is safe to drink.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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