Follow Up: Flint Water Crisis – Officials Criminally Charged & The Fallout Ahead

In a follow up to previous articles on this tragedy, the Flint, Michigan water crisis is back in the mainstream news cycle. A total of five government employees have been charged with manslaughter including the head of the Michigan health department.

These charges stem from their role in the water crisis where lead contaminants left residents deathly ill. The residents got sick from Legionnaires disease, which is a respiratory condition and type of pneumonia that is caused by a few factors, but was connected to the lead contamination of the water supply in Flint.

The news media was speculating about who may be charged next in this investigation into one of the worst public health disasters in American history and whether those charges would reach the Governor of Michigan. It is not known how much the Governor knew, or when he was informed of certain developments surrounding the crisis with the water supply in that beleaguered city.

The water crisis in Flint represented a calamity on so many levels between the negligence being alleged, the lack of adequate training for local city water officials, and then the steps taken when the problems with the contamination were verified. The result is a massive problem with the water supply of an entire city and reports of illness across the demographics from the elderly, to women, teenagers, children, and babies.

It is a very public example of failure of public governance in the area of public health and safety. That is the key message behind the charges handed down to the five public officials accused of these serious offenses. The fact that the water from the Flint River supply source was not treated properly caused lead to be emitted from the older pipes in the system. The damage is costly with estimates running at around anywhere from $55 to $95 million to replace all of the pipes which provide drinking water to residents and other structures in Flint.

Most of that money is going to come from lawsuits filed by the residents against the EPA primarily and the state has pledged to replace the water lines that connect to the main distribution and pipe systems for 18,000 homes by 2020.

That is all well and good but the question remains: what will residents do in the interim? The water crisis has decimated an already depressed market for real estate in Flint. In essence, nobody wants to move there and the residents cannot sell their homes to relocate elsewhere. It is a total mess, with the fallout so far – reaching it is hard to fathom.

There have been accounts of government officials concealing evidence regarding the toxicity levels of the water, which is greatly concerning for obvious reasons. The entire situation has both frustrated and saddened Americans across the country as well as triggered the investigation into lead levels in other cities and counties.

The situation in Flint is tragic and heartbreaking and is unique to other public health issues that came before it for a variety of reasons. First, it was widespread and encompassed an entire American city which is rare for a public health issue which are usually confined to a specific area or neighborhood.

Second, it was so intricately covered up for years by different levels of government from the local, county, and state level as well as involving the EPA. The levels of lead and other toxins in the Flint River have now been well documented. The situation with that water supply was so bad that General Motors stopped using that water supply for their factory in Flint.

The final main component of this whole disastrous situation, at least in the scope of the general public, is that the damage is already done. The water supply has made many people sick with some unable to work, children have been so ill they have dropped out of school, and some people died in relation to the contaminated water supply.

The city and state level of government can issue all the statements they want about how the water supply has been changed back to the Detroit water supply which Flint used for decades before the cost-cutting switch to the local supply took place. The damage has already been done, just because the supply has changed, the pipes are still leaching chemicals and lead so they must be replaced.

The people who are sick and who have sick children or sick parents from tainted water cannot be cured by a switch in water supply or by issuing statements about correcting the problem three years from now. They are sick, that damage has been done, and there is no going back.

Some within the media have dubbed the situation in Flint as the “crisis with no end in sight” because of the sheer scope of the problems caused by the tainted water and the brazen way that the government tried to prevent the people from knowing about the problems which existed.

The attorney general for the State of Michigan has vowed that he is not done with the investigation they are conducting into this disaster. He stated after these first four arrests were announced that they will have more charges handed down to others involved in the coming months.

The federal government has taken no responsibility for helping the effort to be resolved, and some feel that they should provide some type of funding more than the band-aid funds sent about a year ago.

The “crisis with no end in sight” will continue on in a variety of levels in Flint between the government, the public health implications, and the restoration effort for their water supply pipe system. The investigation into this horrible tragedy has a long way to go before it is concluded. In the interim, thousands of American families have had their lives altered in terrible ways and also see no end in sight.

Zero Hour: EPA Superfund Follow Up

The EPA Superfund program has come under fire recently from the new Trump Administration which has cast a shadow of doubt over the future activity from this vital program. The significant amount of sites still being actively contained and remediated by the Superfund program has caused concern within residents of those areas.

The concern comes from the potential budget cuts for the program that could come from the Trump Administration in the coming months. The Superfund provides focused attention on the most contaminated or hazardous areas from past industrial, chemical, or other types of pollution.

The program also has a National Priorities List (NPL) designation for these sites as well. The specifics on the list and the foundation of the program can be found in my earlier article series on the Superfund program.

The follow up to that series will focus on some sites that have made the news recently, particularly in my home state of New Jersey and the New York metro area. The State of New Jersey has the most Superfund sites of any other state in the country.

The main misconception with Superfund sites from certain factions of the federal, state, and local governments as well as some groups of the general public is that the program is not producing results. The rationale behind that misconception is largely because of the many years it can take for a site with that level of contamination to be remediated.

The other component involved is the sheer time it takes for the entire Superfund process to move through all of the necessary steps prior to remediation work even beginning to take place. This process and the various steps it takes through the public and community input stages can be found in my earlier article series on the Superfund program.

The reality is that the program is effective in maintaining, treating, and remediating very complex areas of environmental contamination. The multiple steps involved are necessary – and the process, while taking a significant time horizon to transition from start to finish, has been proven to work in rehabilitating sites of increased pollutant exposure.

The EPA is currently focusing their efforts on the NPL sites that have been progressively difficult to contain and clean in particularly contaminated industrial areas throughout our country.

Diamond In The Rough

A Superfund site that is recently in the mainstream news here in the Northeast, is the former Diamond Alkali site in Newark, New Jersey. The site is part of the Passaic River Superfund cleanup focus area as well. It is a particularly complicated site because of the types of chemicals used there, and the level of widespread contamination of those chemicals and industrial materials.

The site has housed production of chemicals since the 1940s, when according to the EPA studies, DDT was manufactured there on the premises. The Diamond Alkali Company made several products there in the 1950s and 1960s including the herbicide known as “Agent Orange”, which the process to manufacture creates a dangerous by-product known as dioxin.

The company eventually sold the land, and the EPA conducted site studies in the early 1980s which yielded elevated amounts of dioxin, PCBs, and other dangerous toxins. The plan for the site, as with any other Superfund designated location, included immediate, interim, and longer term countermeasures to contain and remediate the area.

The process took many years and several steps and is still ongoing. The most recent plan to fully remediate the Diamond Alkali site and the greater Lower Passaic River project is slated to take 10 years to complete. The project made headlines recently when the EPA and municipal government officials announced that the companies involved in the pollution of the Passaic River are going to foot the bill for the cleanup.

The Lower Passaic River site encompasses an area of eight miles and it will take, according to NJ.com and other sources, 1 year to negotiate and 10 years to conduct the actual cleanup and remediation work. The cost of the entire project is $1.4 billion (yes billion with a “b”) and any enthusiasm regarding the corporations allegedly involved picking up the tab should be tempered by the fact that none of them have signed up to do so at this time.

The plan calls for dredging and draining of sediment from the river. The sediment will then go through a process known as dewatering, then the sediment will be transported to a remote area for disposal by train. Finally, the entire stretch of the site identified as the Lower Passaic River site (the entire 8 miles) will be capped, which is the process I described in my initial article series, it involves the application of a sand and stone barricade of about two feet in depth to seal off the area.

The companies involved will be in negotiations with the EPA regarding the cleanup costs, and I am certain that the pressure of public opinion will also help benefit this project. It is a long term and large scale job, but the proper cleanup of that site requires that type of diligence.

Ring of Doubt: Ringwood Ford Site

The EPA does not always enjoy the benefit of positive public opinion. The situation in Ringwood, New Jersey is a case in point of that type of scenario. The EPA, the residents, and the municipal government are all at odds over the course of action needed in the Ford site along a river in Upper Ringwood.

The residents are upset because the EPA has seemingly changed course over the plan to recover the site from years of pollutants. The original plan was for the excavation and remediation of over 160,000 tons of polluted soil from the site.

Instead, the proposal from the EPA is now pushing for the town to put a recycling center on the site. The pollutants would be contained by a “cap” and would not be excavated. The recycling center would cost the township about $5 million and the remediation work will cost the town around $30 to $35 million depending on the estimates.

Ford used the site as a waste dump essentially for all the chemicals and other toxic products from their plant in nearby Mahwah.

The 500 acre site has been relisted numerous times on the Superfund NPL because of repeated attempts to remediate the widespread contamination of the site. This latest plan by the EPA to cap the site has resulted in upset groups of local residents that want Ford to be held responsible for the cleanup and for the site to be remediated in a more comprehensive way.

The general public sentiment is understandable, the feelings of distrust of the EPA can also be completely valid in this case. Ford is a multi-billion dollar corporate goliath that used that land to get rid of waste from their plant for decades, and now they want to shirk the cost of the cleanup.

The resolutions proposed by the EPA would both entail the taxpaying residents foot the bill for the recovery of the site. This is patently unfair, and this is a case study example of why the EPA has been under such intense scrutiny in recent weeks. The two resolutions they provide in this Ringwood Superfund site will not address or solve the underlying pollution there in an effective manner.

The EPA has to consider other remediation alternatives, determine a whole new course of action, and they need to get Ford involved in the cost of the cleanup process. The whole situation there is a literal and figurative mess.

The legal ramifications of the process are another area where this situation could be very troublesome for all parties involved. It definitely merits watching in the weeks and months ahead.

Down to Zero

The new proposed federal budget from The White House carries huge cuts to a variety of agencies including the EPA. This obviously casts a doubt on the future of the agency and the Superfund program.

The cuts, according to CBS News and other major news sources, to the EPA budget are around 30% and the Superfund projects currently open or active face a great deal of uncertainty. The budgetary constraints take on an added significance when you take into account the duration of time it requires to remediate many of these highly polluted sites.

The Gowanus Canal site in New York City was one of the projects I featured in my series of articles on the Superfund. This project was in the news again on Tuesday with the Attorney General of New York and other Congressional representatives who held a media event at the site urging Congress to reject the budget.

The Gowanus Canal site is one of the worst in the nation as far as pollutant levels and toxicity. They have commitments from several companies to cover about $500 million in cleanup costs, according to estimates from the site proposal. The budget cuts could defund the entire project, which is in the “design” phase with remediation work set to begin in 2018.

In the event that the program was defunded that would essentially waste four years of time that many entities committed to pursuing a solution for this environmental disaster. I understand that big government waste is a real issue, but it should not come at the cost of environmental safety.

Conversely, there are other programs that function well, that is the real cost of some of these cuts: the time, money, and resources already dedicated by countless groups of people. Those groups include volunteers, concerned citizens, local government officials, and numerous professionals from a variety of backgrounds. In this specific case of the Superfund, the cuts or the defunding of the budget create a scenario where there are tax dollars already utilized to evaluate the respective site and develop the cleanup procedure, so the cuts essentially compound the waste of resources.

The future of the EPA and the Superfund program hang in the balance as the budget proposal moves through the legislative mechanism in Congress. The future of our environment, the potential for neglect of catastrophic waste sites, and the very real possibility of untold amounts of chemicals causing illness to Americans is all at stake.

The Superfund program, for the most part, was an example of a government program which actually was effective. The program got the polluters to pay for the damage they caused, which is also a novel concept when applied to a big government run scenario.

The sad reality is that without the Superfund in place, these big corporations would never comply with paying for the damage they caused to the environment. In the event that anyone thinks that these corporate giants will comply in the future, without the enforcement of the Superfund, they are sorely mistaken. That type of negligence comes at a cost, a huge cost, to our American society.

Follow Up: Clean Power Plan, Supreme Court Ruling Explained

In a follow up to earlier stories on this topic, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision last week to suspend the enforcement of the Clean Power Plan pending the resolution of all current legal challenges to the legislation. This decision is an obvious setback for President Obama and The White House who have invested a significant amount of resources and time in moving the Clean Power Plan forward through the legislative process.

 

The Administration was banking on this new legislation to grant the EPA expanded power to impose new regulations on existing coal plants in order to curtail the carbon emissions from these older energy producing sources. The Republicans in general, and conservative groups in particular have railed against this new legal authority for the EPA essentially framing it as economically detrimental for the middle class.

 

In my earlier pieces on this same subject, the focus was on the actual software and hardware that the Clean Power Plan would make mandatory for newly constructed coal plants to obtain in order to be compliant with the new federal government standards. These new technological and mechanical components would add significant cost to the energy companies in their project parameters for construction of new plants.

 

My earlier work focused on the fact that the energy companies (and their lobbyists) would push back hard against this proposed legislation, and that the impact would most likely be felt by the consumer because a portion of the costs to build the plants would be passed along to the average American in higher energy bills.

Retrofitting

 

The challenge presented by this new law was to retrofit existing power plants with new technology to help them to run more efficiently and release less carbon into the atmosphere. In this situation, no matter which side of this issue you favor, the fact remains that the emissions from power plants are the single largest contributor to carbon released into the atmosphere. The higher the carbon or carbon dioxide amount emitted into the atmosphere then the links to climate change can be drawn.

 

It is also not unexpected that this regulation would meet with challenges in the court system so The White House is looking at this decision by the Supreme Court as more procedural in nature until the other cases against the Clean Power Plan get resolved in the court system.

 

The environmental groups and the environmental lobby is understandably frustrated with the ruling by the highest court in the land on this issue, but the public relations releases for those groups show support and confidence that this plan will eventually move forward.

 

However, some of these groups were also quick to point out the impact of carbon emissions on the rising temperatures and the impact on various species of wildlife.

 

Paris Accord

 

The ruling on the Clean Power Plan will not have any impact on the plans for the measures being taken to comply with the historic Paris climate change agreement. The issues are seen as being separate and distinct.

 

It should also be noted that the ruling from the highest court in the nation does not translate to an immediate or future action that is prohibitive to the plan to implement cleaner technologies in America’s power plants. It does allow for the other legal challenges to move forward with regard to the Clean Power Plan which were largely anticipated by the Obama Administration already.

 

It is also important to understand that while some conservatives on Capitol Hill and the energy lobbyists and special interest groups are positioning this plan as a very negative one based mostly on economic factors (i.e. rising energy costs); the amount of litigation that they have filed in the court system is going to cost the American taxpayers a great deal of money too. However, you will notice how that topic is conveniently left out of the equation.

 

The Paris climate change pact that was agreed to recently will challenge the developed countries of this world to do more to reduce our carbon footprint, our consumption, and to enact measurable steps toward the protection of natural resources. I would like to think that those goals would be important to most people especially those with children who would want to have our planet protected for the generations to follow.

 

The legal process on the Clean Power Plan will play out and some elements of the Paris agreement will most certainly be challenged as well. In the end, we as citizens have to decide what side of this issue we are on. The Earth, and all of the natural resources we have been given by God to protect and be good stewards of hangs in the balance. I know I would prefer a world with clean air and clean water and less wasteful consumption patterns. I hope this article helps you to determine where you stand on this critical issue.

 

 

 

 

 

Earth Day

Today as we commemorate Earth Day, I am reminded of some of the functions and activities I have participated in throughout my life. During that participation I was amazed by the generosity of others either through their giving of time, money, or their talents to help make those events have even greater impact.

 

In my college years at Marist, the school always had a number of activities going on through the course of the day. I learned a great deal about the environmental issues effecting the Hudson River and the surrounding Hudson Valley communities. I participated in a variety of activities to volunteer my time with different environmental organizations in the area.

 

The pollution in certain areas of the Hudson River as a result of a variety of commercial and industrial activities going on there was an area of great concern to me. I assume that interest could have been driven from my time growing up on the New Jersey Shore and seeing the effects of water pollution first-hand. The pollution and garbage on beaches and in parks along the coast also bothered me a great deal growing up and still does today. I have offered my time in beach clean-ups with local organizations and I know my neighbors have done the same.

 

It is that spirit that I came to have a great affinity for with regard to Earth Day: it is a grassroots movement that organizes itself every year on the local level. It is the collection of many people doing many small things which collectively have a large impact on our environment and how we come to perceive our environment as part of our community.

 

Earth Day 2015 has been marked by a few key news stories from President Obama’s visit in the Florida Everglades to speak about the fragility of the ecosystem and climate change, to the man in Brooklyn who planned to swim the Gowanus Canal, to Google having a contest “what type of animal are you?” based on a short quiz. In addition the Gallup poll numbers regarding climate change were released today, which continues to be a highly divisive issue in the American national discourse.

 

The President urged greater awareness of the impact of carbon emissions on the environment. The EPA and several doctors warned the man in New York not to swim the Gowanus Canal which is contaminated by 200 years of industrial waste. In fact, I did a whole series on the EPA Superfund that included the planned cleanup of that Canal which was published in January 2014 (see this link: http://frankmaduri.com/?m=201401) and can attest that swimming in that water is not medically advisable. However, the man, Christopher Swain, is trying to prove a point that people should not have to live near such a horribly polluted body of water.

 

In addition, for those of you who are wondering, yes I did take the Google quiz for Earth Day and found out that I am a Pangolin, known to be a practical sort who can fend off predators, well I am from New Jersey so I think I can definitely fend for myself.

 

In all seriousness, Earth Day is a reminder that we have been given the responsibility to be stewards of the natural resources provided to us by God. The issues of deforestation, erosion, drought, and pollution are rampant throughout the world. We need to work together to determine effective strategies to solve these complex problems and safeguard our natural resources and our ecosystem for the generations to follow.