Photo: Moussa81/iStock

We Need to Talk About Flint

As the presidential candidates arrive in Michigan to debate, there’s no debating what topic should be on the agenda.

By Rhea Suh and Pastor Allen Overton

Beginning tonight, presidential candidates of both parties will be in Michigan, where they’ll be debating one another over which of them deserves to guide the country for the next four years. Given where these two debates are taking place, it seems impossible that the moderators of either event will let the evening pass without asking the candidates to discuss the crisis in Flint.

We’ll be listening closely to these questions, and to the candidates’ answers. And so should all Americans.

Flint, where officials allowed residents to drink lead-contaminated water for more than a year and then pushed back when those residents began to speak out, clearly represents an abdication of responsibility by the local and state authorities. That’s why our organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Concerned Pastors for Social Action — along with the ACLU of Michigan and local residents — felt compelled to sue these same authorities on behalf of citizens who were given contaminated water to drink and then given excuses instead of remedies when they complained.

But in truth, Flint represents an abdication of responsibility at all levels of government. Our groups also petitioned the EPA to use its emergency powers to secure lead-free drinking water for the city’s residents. Instead of acting, the agency initially balked — for many months, despite clear knowledge of the public health crisis at hand. Once again, the residents of Flint, who are disproportionately poor and working-class people of color, were made to understand that they had been abandoned by those charged with protecting them.

Over the next several days, moderators from CNN and FOX News will have the opportunity to ask the current presidential candidates how the federal government should react to water and public health crises of the sort we’ve seen unspooling in Flint. And if it so happens that these moderators need any help coming up with questions, well, we’re only too happy to help out. Toward that end, here are some observations that would serve as an excellent basis for questions to be asked of the next president — whomever that may be.

The laws regulating our tap water are in sore and urgent need of updating.

The Safe Drinking Water Act and the Lead and Copper Rule are overdue for revision. Regulations need to be strengthened so that the public can take swift legal action to protect themselves in cases like Flint where there’s an imminent threat to their health from tap water. And stronger protections need to be put in place to prevent harmful toxins from getting into our water supplies when these systems prove insufficient.

We need a national campaign to replace and improve our drinking-water infrastructure.

Our nation has neglected our aging public water system for decades; now, as we’re seeing in Flint, we’re paying the price for all those years of neglect. This antiquated system contains more than three million lead pipes, in towns and cities — and underneath homes and schools — all across the country. Replacing these pipes and significantly upgrading our other water infrastructure need to become national priorities. If they aren’t, what happened in Flint could happen again elsewhere, and soon.

If local and state governments are unable or unwilling to carry out their responsibilities in a public health crisis, it’s appropriate — and necessary — for the federal government to step in.

Local government failed the people of Flint. The state of Michigan failed Flint. And when residents of a beleaguered city of 100,000 people desperately cried out to the EPA for help, punting — what the agency did — was not an acceptable option. The EPA has both the authority and the resources to take immediate, dramatic measures in order to keep drinking water safe in the event of a major emergency. And if Flint doesn’t constitute a major emergency, then nothing does. Ensuring that the agency has the mandate and the tools to act effectively is key — and that means that the political attacks, which have helped limit the EPA’s effectiveness, need to stop.

Flint is the rare administrative failure that manages to shock and disgust conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, and independents in equal measure. But that also means it presents a rare opportunity for all Americans to come together to demand action, and to hold officials — at all levels of government — accountable. Right now, for example, help for Flint has been delayed by some Senate Republicans who have placed holds on a desperately needed aid bill, underscoring just how important it is that the next president follow through on the issue, regardless of his or her party.

In recognition of lead’s unique toxicity, especially to children, we’ve already taken it out of our paint, our gasoline, and our toys. None of these accomplishments came easily; each of them came not a moment too soon. The job of getting the lead out of our nation’s water supply begins today, with the leaders that we have right now. But it will necessarily continue into the next presidential administration.

Debate moderators and candidates: We hope you’re listening to us. We’ll certainly be listening to you.

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Pastor Allen Overton is a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action with lifelong ties to Flint, Michigan.