Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” dramatically reports how early Western science and medicine revolutionized world health, pausing to stress the importance of clean water to its success.
By 1900 America’s drinking water was the envy of the world with thousands of modern utilities throughout the nation. Even “Old Madame Vinegar” Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens, had earlier raved about Philadelphia’s Waterworks.
Mysteriously, it all worked without a water quality ministry.
Remote Flint Michigan was one of the pioneers with its modern lead pipes installed in the early 20th century sending fresh water into every city home. One hundred years later President Barack Obama himself rushed to the city to apologize for the high lead levels in its drinking water.
The deteriorated water quality was originally traced to April 2014 when the Flint City Council switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the closer and more reliable Flint River and complaints about water quality appeared soon thereafter, even though all of the necessary higher-level approvals were obtained.
By August, local water test samples revealed excessive chlorine byproducts whose results were reported to state environmental officials. In January 2015, state warnings against possible degraded water quality were delivered by city officials to residents.
By February, tests showed the chlorine again met all government health standards.
Lead levels did not become a problem until Feb.15, when a woman called the Chicago branch of the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complain about high levels of the more serious chemical that she found when testing water in her Flint home; accompanied by rashes on her children.
The EPA officials communicated with state and local ones and then later to higher level national officials and began discussing whether various requirements and procedures had been violated. These deliberations went on for months.
After high lead samples in December, the local mayor declared a state of emergency, almost a year after national officials had been made aware of the problem by a concerned mother.
The story actually started three decades earlier when an EPA analyst leaked a study to the front page of The Washington Post. The research claimed there were potentially dangerous levels of lead exposure in national drinking water supplies, possibly affecting one in five Americans, requiring strong national EPA standards.
While the threat was only potential, media and environmental group hype resulted that same year in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1986, granting EPA control of drinking water quality in the entire U.S.
EPA finalized its Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 setting how water utilities must monitor at customer taps for high levels of lead and copper pollutants. The rules were hailed as “the most stringent in the world.”
But for the five years it took to produce the national regulations, the local utilities froze new actions awaiting instructions. Water facilities were given an additional six years to implement the new requirements, a deadline which utilities considered difficult to meet and to finance.
Testing every faucet was especially costly so customers were required to assess their own water, even though utilities claimed that lead levels could be better monitored at treatment plants. Requests for modified regulations went unanswered and the companies were forced to comply.
To meet the government safety standards, Washington Post investigative reporter Brady Dennis found utilities had aerators removed from faucets, issued test bottles with instructions to fill them slowly, tested at safe locations, and pre-flushed lines before sampling. EPA and state regulators apparently tolerated or overlooked these methods and they themselves could hardly monitor every faucet.
After high pollutant levels in 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the EPA had no recent test results from a third of facilities and compliance information was missing on 70 percent of water systems. A decade later this produced Flint.
There are 68,000 public water systems in the U.S. with millions and millions of pipes. Trying to fix them from the top presents a staggering undertaking. How to devise a single plan to fit them all? How test every faucet in America? The problem, when nationalized, is so overwhelming and shockingly costly that nothing gets done.
The U.S. government has been in charge since 1986 and cannot even re-write its own rules that it concedes are outdated and inefficient. The national experts have no troops and so can only endlessly debate abstract rules; the utilities with the resources follow the rules rather than solve the problems, and real people suffer the consequences.
The only solution is to break the problem down to manageable size and place the responsibility where the resources and knowledge are — back locally where they were when water supply worked.
Thirty years of national control and all the powerful President of the U.S. could do was to drink the water to show it was safe, at least through a filter.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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