Scientists to the rescue!

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atomic-titan-disguiseAn interesting back-story to the drinking water crisis in Flint is the way the situation was finally brought to public light. The citizens were repeatedly lied to by their own government, and not just one branch of it either; the lying took place at the federal, state and local levels. Flint was lied to by both elected officials and the bureaucrats who were supposed to protect them.

The media deserves some love for keeping the story alive for more than a year until the facts overwelhmed the politicians, but the real heroes were scientists. Much has been written about  Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, who sounded one of the loudest alarms, but it was a team of environmental scientists at Virginia Tech University, devoting many hours of volunteer labor, who gathered the data needed to prove the fact that Flint’s water was dangerously contaminated. There is a very interesting piece on them in today’s New York Times.

They are a motley crew from a variety of countries. One of them, Joyce Zhu, a doctoral student, inadvertently provided a reminder of how America’s lack of investment in our infrastructure is greasing the skids on our path to second class nation status. The Times quotes Ms. Zhu:

“I grew up in Singapore, where clean water, you take it for granted…”

Remember when America used to be the place where you took outstanding public health for granted? Now it’s Singapore and they pity us.

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More interesting water stuff

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leadThe documents related to the recent water testing, provided by the Vindicator, Warren_Water_Files, contain some interesting insights. For example, of the 30 properties tested, 10 were located in Howland (which uses Warren water); only one property was in the 6th Ward, only one in the 7th Ward, and only one in the central city. Since problems like elevated lead readings are much more likely to be present in older homes, it appears that neighborhoods containing older homes may have been under-sampled.

One city insider also told me that at least 8 of the homes tested belong to Warren City employees (which I am unable to verify), however, there may be good reasons for that. Some of the water tests have to be done very early in the morning before the household has run their water at all, before even flushing a toilet. Not surprisingly, it can be hard to find volunteers for that test, so city employees sometimes have to step up.

Finally, I’d like to make it clear that I am not pointing fingers at, or second guessing, any Water Department employees; especially not the new department director Franco Lucarelli, who has only had his current job for a couple of months at most. I do think that the city fell well short of doing all it could in the current situation, but in my opinion, it is the job of the Mayor to provide leadership that looks beyond the bureaucratic requirements and do the types of things suggested in yesterday’s post.

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That’s not my job

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aMQd1P1_700bSo, Mayor Doug Franklin is “proud” of the city’s lead test results. What about proactively helping homeowners? If the lead risks aren’t in the city’s water or its own water lines, and are actually in the supply lines or solder in home lines, who should test their water? How do they go about doing this? They’re basically admitting that a percentage of the city’s homes are at risk for unsafe amounts of lead and saying that’s not the the city’s problem. We did the bare minimum the law demands. You figure it out for yourself.

I get angry about this because it would be so damn easy to actually help people. All it would take is a database query. The county auditor’s database includes the date homes were built. The city could select only the homes that were built before 1950. It could bulk purchase X number of lead test kits for however many homes are in that group and distribute them at the cheaper price (or free for people under the poverty line) to those homeowners with instructions on how to test. We could train city water employees to be ready to respond to questions or to help with tests. At that point, your role as a public servant could be done. You’ve alerted those who need to replace their supply lines or their plumbing that they need to take action.

This small step would save people from lying awake at night wondering if their children are being poisined. People could then live in, or sell, their homes with confidence. But it could be taken further. The city could aggregate the results and negotiated a bulk rate with a plumbing contractor to have all of the supply lines fixed. We could save people a boatload of money. Maybe we could even set up a payment program with a bank who could contribute a few bucks to subsidize those below the poverty line and write down the costs for their yearly CRA contribution. This would be great for the city as a whole as replacing all the plumbing would exceed the value of many homes in Warren.

But no, we’re just “proud” to do the bare minimum to get in off our plate. It’s not our problem.
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Read this, not that [revised with PDF added]

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Clean-Drinking-WaterCity Council President Jim Graham confidently assured Warren residents that their water is safe from high atop his majestic perch in Council chambers this past Wednesday, and this morning the Tribune echoed that point-of-view on the front page.

I can’t know for sure, but most likely neither were lying. I suspect they just took the word of someone they thought should know the truth and passed it on without asking any (or at least the right) questions.

We’re lucky that Vindicator reporter Ed Runyan did what real reporters do, he did ask the tough questions, and when he got the stalling and stonewalling that one usually gets from the Warren city government, he found other sources. So read this, not that.

If you have any concerns about the safety of your drinking water, or just an interest in the issue, I strongly urge you to skip the Tribune’s coverage and go straight to today’s Vindy article which demonstrates, with facts and data, that in some cases Warren’s water has had lead levels up to four times the allowed level.

[Added 1/31/16: Here is a PDF file the Vindy posted on their site with raw data from their reporting including reports from the Ohio EPA: Warren_Water_Files]

I don’t want to be an alarmist; I live in Warren and I don’t plan on running out to get my water tested tomorrow. Of course I don’t have young children living with me; if I did I might have a greater sense of urgency.

To me the real story here is how the Warren city government’s first rule for every piece of information is to keep it secret; treat it like the formula for Coca-Cola. Their first instinct isn’t to worry about what is best for you, it’s to worry about covering their own behinds.

I urge you to read Runyon’s article and listen to the rationale from those involved in testing and evaluating the importance of the test results. They don’t want to tell you the full truth because it might upset you, and in their view the data isn’t significant.

But what about the public’s right to know? Isn’t it up to you to decide what’s significant to you?

If you lived next door to someone whose water tested unsafe, wouldn’t you want to know? And how would you feel if you found out that the high lead level reading was taken at the home of a Warren Water Department employee? A little angry, perhaps?

Well, take a deep breath and wait for an apology or any kind of plan to deal with the situation from Graham, Enzo or Doug (GED).

 

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As Niles goes…

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12645194_736757269758502_3909385891503393769_nA week ago today I published a post on the worsening Warren city budget crisis. Since then the Niles budget crisis has been front page news twice, as they first laid off twelve city employees, including six police and firefighters, and then were reprimanded by the Ohio State Auditor for having an inadequate recovery plan.

The budget situation in Niles does not appear to be any worse than Warren’s; both cities have been spending more money than they had for a while and covering the difference with a previous surplus that has now evaporated. As the Niles Fiscal Commission Chairman was quoted saying in the Tribune:

“The city’s history of spending more than it brings in has to end. There are no balances left to access.”

Mayor Franklin has spent approximately $1.8 million more than he took in during four years in office. And to make matters worse, the unemployment rate in Warren rose to 9.2% in December — a sharp up-tick, casting doubt on the Mayor’s already overly-optimistic revenue projections for 2016.

I also spoke with a local businessperson last week who is owed more than $100,000 by the city, which continues to finance its deficit on the backs of local businesses. If you did that it would be fraud.

The budget post got very high readership numbers and provoked a vigorous conversation on Facebook, but all the comments came from private citizens. The people and institutions you’d expect to weigh in, especially if my analysis was wrong, did not:

  • The Tribune wrote nothing.
  • Doug and Enzo have said nothing, although this was no surprise. They seem content to kick sand on the problem (thus worsening it) in hopes they will be saved by a miracle.
  • Our new Auditor, A.J. Natale, said nothing, although the poor man may be asking himself why he ever ran for the office in the first place, now that he is digging into the numbers.
  • City Council President Jim Graham, who rarely suffers from a lack of opinions, has said nothing.
  • Last night at City Council there was no discussion of the budget.

They were all pretty comfortable on social media during the election season. Why are they so quiet now? If you want to ask them, their telephone numbers are on the Warren city web site.

It pains me to watch Warren take leadership lessons from Niles, but I guess we’re just going to sit here and wait for the budget tornado to sweep us up, too. I only hope the State of Ohio treats us better than Michigan treated Flint.

 

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