Category Archives: Bottled Water

Lessons from Flint: What Flint’s Water Crisis Means to Us All

 

The ongoing story coming out of Flint, Michigan is grim. It was a wholly preventable crisis, and it’s a story of “what ifs?” What if the state’s governor had respected the democratic process over autocracy and not replaced the elected government of Flint with his own appointed emergency manager? What if state and federal political leadership embraced a strong sense of commitment to infrastructure improvements rather than austerity? What if the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had heeded warnings issued nearly a year ago that the corrosiveness of Flint’s water was causing lead to leach into the system?  What if they had added anti-corrosive agents to the water from the very beginning?Cartoon_Snyder

The counterfactuals could go on and on. Unfortunately, what did happen was that an ethos of slashing budgets overshadowed responsible governance, and now Flint faces the daunting task of dealing with the irreversible consequences.

And what of those sought after savings? Turns out that the champions of fiscal prudence have racked up a generation of increased costs in Flint that will not be easily met. Even though Flint has gone back to the Detroit water service, the harm has already been done. Lead will continue to leach into the system for some time, and rehabilitation efforts will not be cheap.

The human cost is far greater, and for the exposed, the injuries will be even more persistent; the social expense more steep.

Lead exposure, especially in children, causes serious damage.  Even if the immediate exposure isn’t high enough to cause coma, convulsions, or death, the long term effects can be seriously debilitating and permanent. Those effects include mental disability, diminished intellectual capacity, decreased attention span, anti-social behavior, and toxicity in reproductive organs, just to name a few. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead contamination are thought to be irreversible.  Flint is therefore looking at a future of greater expenditures for long term health care, special education, mental health services, and probably their justice system, too. Mayor Karen Weaver is right to say that the city and the state cannot possibly meet the costs of this man-made disaster without financial assistance from the federal government. So now the national tax-paying public at large becomes the bearer of the cost-cutting irresponsibility of un-democratically elected officials in Flint. They have externalized their incompetence onto us all.

Okay. So taking Flint off of the Detroit system in favor of using the nearby river for drinking water was a mistake. But why was that water corrosive enough to eat away at the lead pipes and lead soldering in the first place? The likely answer: road salt.

Winter-Salt-Truck

At the risk of recalling painful memories from high school chemistry, the answer lies in ions. When it’s dissolved in water, salt separates into its sodium and chloride ions. The runoff from deicing roads raises the concentration of chloride ions in nearby water sources, thereby making them more corrosive. This is more pronounced in inland water systems (like rivers and streams) than it is in more expansive sources like the Great Lakes. When the town’s emergency manager decided to save money by using the Flint River instead of the Detroit water system (which draws from Lake Huron), he opted for the more concentrated corrosive source (as much as 8.6 times more corrosive). As a result, the water began to eat away at the lead in old supply lines and in the older soldering used in residential copper pipes. Some measurements in Flint found lead levels high enough to classify the water as toxic waste. Thanks to the the salt, though, the winter roads are least passable enough for residents to drive to the store and buy a few cases of bottled water – for those with enough money, that is.

Per person, Americans dump about 130 pounds of salt on the roads during the winter months. Of course, most of that is concentrated in the nation’s snowiest, most heavily populated areas. These areas encompass pretty much all of the Great Lakes, and therefore the region has been a historically high user of road salt. In fact, Detroit was the first city in the world to apply salt to its roads in 1940, so the cumulative ecological effects of winter deicing – higher concentrations of chloride ions and more corrosive waters – are possibly more pronounced there than anywhere else. Already, warnings are being sounded that it’s only a matter of time before the Great Lakes themselves suffer a similar fate. When that happens, we’re talking about altering the ecology of fifteen percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.

When these altered environments run headlong into politicized funding cuts and neglected infrastructures, the results should be cause for reflection and a more vigorous commitment to the public protection of vital resources. Instead, even in the midst of the Flint water crisis, the GOP led U.S. Congress has passed a bill that would stop the EPA’s bolstered enforcement of the Clean Water Act (the President is expected to veto the bill, thankfully).

The situation in Flint is heartbreaking. It represents a failure on many levels – including a subversion of democratic governance and a lack of public investment in infrastructure. But it also holds other, less obvious lessons. The crisis in Flint is ultimately the product of a much broader dislocation between us modern humans and the natural world. We have refused to be inconvenienced by things like weather or distance. We spent the better part of the twentieth century moving our homes and places of recreation further and further from our places of work (although, this is a trend that seems to be reversing in the digital age). We balked at mass public transportation and eagerly adopted an individualized car culture. And when the forces of nature threatened to disrupt our productivity or the speed, ease, and comfort of our mechanized movement to and fro, we invented clever ways to further disregard such antiquated concerns as nature – ways that included climate controls, Aquatred tires, and road salt. By rejecting any limitations – even environmental ones – on either our work or play, we have collectively added to the sorrows of those living in Flint. And now that Flint has garnered the attention of federal disaster relief efforts, we are all paying the price – as we probably should. Je suis Flint.

 

The Wild West of Bottled Water

At a time when southern California residents are asked to ration their water usage due to prolonged drought, Nestlé is taking vast quantities of water from the area for its Arrowhead brand of bottled water. As the Desert Sun reports, no one is really sure how much water Nestlé is taking. The company operates on reservation lands in the Cabazon basin owned by the Morongo band of Mission Indians and are therefore exempt from the local water agency’s oversight and reporting requirements. Although the numbers have not been independently verified, the Morongo report 601 acre-feet of water diverted or pumped from Millard Canyon in 2013 – about 200 million gallons, or enough to supply 400 typical homes in the area. For the water agency and the parched local communities, the bottling operation is understandably a cause for concern.

Nestlé’s extraction of water despite potentially threatening ecological conditions highlights a hallmark of the culture of capitalism. For whatever economic benefits the capitalist culture may bestow, like other cultures it has its own set of values and beliefs regarding the natural world. In his classic study of the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster summed up those values thusly: First, “Nature must be seen as capital.” Second, “Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement.” Third, “The social order should permit and encourage this increase of personal wealth.” In other words, as Worster went on to say, “The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs” of such pursuits.

These maxims constitute the internal logic of capitalism as it relates to the natural world. The consequences of that logic, however, do not play out equally everywhere. Place matters. The ecological conditions in one geographic area may absorb some the harshness of such imperatives. Elsewhere, where ecological conditions are less forgiving, acting according to these maxims results in brutal consequences for individuals and communities.

The West – that geographic area of the nation extending west of the 98th meridian, where average annual rainfall is below 20 inches – is exactly the kind of landscape where the ecological circumstances are less forgiving. It is a “marginal landscape,” meaning that it is an environment not particularly favorable to permanent human settlement, and such settlement is only maintained at great effort and is always tenuous. Look at a precipitation map of the United States and it becomes apparent that the West is categorically a different place than the rest of the country with a different set of environmental realities with which to contend.

Average_precipitation_in_the_lower_48_states_of_the_USA

Much of what we have come to know as the culture of the West was the result of adaptations made to those environmental realities. Walter Prescott Webb noted these adaptations and the world that made them necessary in his work, The Great Plains (1931). As Webb argued:

For two centuries American pioneers had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid regions east of the Mississippi River. They had found solutions for their problems and were conquering the frontier at a steadily accelerating rate. Then in the early nineteenth century they crossed the Mississippi and came out on the Great Plains, an environment with which they had had no experience. The result was a complete though temporary breakdown of the machinery and ways of pioneering.

The kind of crops settlers could plant, their mode of transportation, the form and function of their houses, the style of husbandry and cattle raising, their weaponry, even their property laws – all had to be adapted in response to a new environmental reality. As Webb put it, the 98th meridian represented such a stark change in the lived reality of westward settlers that “practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered.”

Part of Worster’s argument in Dust Bowl was that the culture of capitalism, with its inherent set of values relating to the natural world, ultimately led to catastrophe when those values were applied to the marginal landscapes of the West. In response to a war ravaged Europe clamoring grain, increasing numbers of farmers (encouraged by grain speculators) plowed up the Great Plains at a rapacious pace in order to plant wheat. When the pendulum of alternating decades of drought and rain swung back toward extreme aridity in the late 1920s and 1930s, the wheat withered and died. The soil, once clothed by hardy native grasses, then lay bare and exposed to the blistering winds of the open lands. The result was the Dust Bowl, a disaster that destroyed lives and livelihoods, uprooted families and communities, traumatized a generation, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s agricultural economy.

Nestlé’s bottling operation in the Cabazon basin, while far from the scale of the Dust Bowl, is but one more example in the long history of the West where the pursuits of industries bent on ever expansive profits apply a logic ill-suited to a marginal landscape. Like other incidents in that long history, the corporation operates within a culture that sees nature as merely an instrument for further monetary gain – burdening the community at large with the  ecological costs of that pursuit.