By Shea Howell
April 17, 2016
This week headlines warned that the crisis of water in Michigan is far from solved. More than one third of Detroit elementary schools reported unsafe levels of lead and copper in their drinking water.
Officials believe the problem rests with old lead pipes, not the quality of the water. Still Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, executive director and health officer for the city of Detroit’s Health Department, said that all Detroit children under 6, regardless of whether they attend a DPS school, should be screened for lead.
These reports were followed by an announcement that Henry Ford Hospital advised patients and employees to drink bottled water after water flowing from their pipes started coming out brown. The problem was attributed to a construction issue with the M-1 rail line, not water quality in general. “No patient services are affected and all hospital operations are fully operational. We are using sterilized water for all procedures,” hospital officials said.
The immediate alarm raised by these situations speaks clearly to how concerned most people are about access to affordable, safe water. For many children in Detroit, the schools are their only source of fresh water. Thousands of households are still unable to get their water turned on and the Mayor is announcing another round of aggressive shut offs this spring. Drinking water and school showers are now no longer available to children who have been counting on these resources.
While Henry Ford acted quickly and responsibly, the fact that the problem was discovered by turning on the tap, not by those doing the construction, raises serious questions about decision making and overall understanding of how fragile our water system is.
This fragility goes beyond the pipes. The Oakland Press ran a little noticed report by Ron Seigel raising concerns about the quality of Detroit Water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality raised serious questions about how layoffs of personnel effects the safety of water and sewerage treatment. MDEQ is concerned that layoffs made last October by both Detroit and the new Great Lakes Water Authority mean that the plant is operating with fewer people that required by state law and specified in a consent agreement made years ago.
The violation notice sent to DWSD and GLWA charged that they had failed to provide “adequate documentation” for the MDEQ to determine whether there is enough staff to “properly operate and maintain the Waste Water Treatment Plant and the Combined Sewage Overflow Facilities in the Detroit Water System.”
The local union, which has trying to get attention on this issue said simply, “Action must be taken before another disaster is allowed to happen.”
Susan Ryan, the union president, said: “We have been very fortunate so far that nothing has happened but we are concerned about what is happening in the waste water treatment plant. There are not enough staffers to assure water quality and keep sewage from our basements.”
One hundred and thirty seven people were dismissed, including senior sewer plant operators, water system control instrument technicians and mechanics with special expertise in repair and operations of equipment.
The crisis in Flint happened because unelected officials acted with depraved indifference. Detroit elected officials, especially the City Council, needs to demand a full accounting of what is going in with our the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. They have no excuse.