A story about priorities (and bloodsport politics) in Malden

By Warren Lynch

More people need to realize that their local City Council meetings can amount to bloodsport. With free tickets! Especially if they live in Malden, like I do. Let me tell you a story…

In Malden, there are public “Pure Fresh Water” stations where people can secure “sodium- and lead-free, bacteria tested water” out of a spigot. Similarly, when you move into an apartment here, you are given warnings along the lines of this one: “The Malden Water Department wants all consumers to be aware of the potential for elevated lead levels in drinking water, the causes, the health effects, and what can be done to reduce or eliminate the effects or the source.”

“Oh, how quirky,” I initially thought when I moved here. “I wonder if there’s lead in my water. Ha ha.”

But my girlfriend kept getting joint pains and headaches, and her vision kept getting blurrier. She had been drinking coffee made from our coffee maker at home — using tap water — while I get Dunkin Donuts java on my way to work. Sometimes I thought I felt dizzy when I drank from the tap, but I assumed I was just being paranoid. “We’re not living in Flint,” I figured. “Why not drink the water?”

The water stations aren’t what you might expect. No paranoid militia guys in pickup trucks, no riots. While there on a recent visit, I spoke with a Lebanese couple in a nice SUV. “We know the water might be clean,” said the husband, “but in my country, the politicians say the water is clean too, and it is not clean. They have lead, arsenic, cholera, all kinds of things. And they say it is clean even when people die. We just want to be sure, you know?”

Uh, yeah. And I wanted to be sure too. So I filled up a gallon and brought it home, but didn’t think too much about it. A month later, my girlfriend had to get glasses. And I began returning to the station for regular refills.

Finally we spoke with one of our city councilors, Ryan O’Malley, who told us some very shocking things. Malden, he said, is number one out of 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth when it comes to having lead in our water. As was reported in the Boston Globe in 2016: “Malden is the community with the highest percentage of service lines made of lead; 47 percent of the city’s 11,682 service lines are made of lead, according to Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s best estimates.”
 O’Malley explained that although the water here is not Flint-level dangerous, Malden has failed Department of Environmental Protection reviews two dozen times, while the city has been sanctioned by MassDEP three times. MassDEP found that Malden had unacceptable amounts of lead in 1992 and ordered Malden to correct the situation over time. In 2002, MassDEP found that Malden had not followed that order, and it issued another one.

In 2012, MassDEP found that Malden had not followed the second replacement order. At this rate, Malden will not be rid of its lead problem until at least 2034. If that doesn’t sound crazy enough, consider that O’Malley estimates that fixing lead pipes at the current rate only costs Malden about $1 million per year.

So, where are the priorities?

I recently photographed officials from the City of Malden receiving a $10 million check from Jefferson Apartment Group, which is developing a massive public-private mixed use development in Malden Center, that will allegedly be used to fix potholes. As O’Malley points out, for the cost of resurfacing 24 roads, Malden could instead replace more than 1,500 lead pipes. But that’s not what’s happening.

Meanwhile, just a few days ago, a study showed elevated lead levels in the water fountains at our elementary school! O’Malley represents Ward 4, which is one of the areas hit hardest by the lead crisis, and brought up the topic at a recent council meeting. Specifically, the councilor pointed out that although 47 percent of pipes in Malden are still lead, Mass on the whole has only has 5 percent lead pipes.

In response to the remarks of his outspoken colleague, Ward 6 Councilor Neil Kinnon attempted to stop O’Malley from reading (think US Sen. Mitch McConnell’s gagging of US Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate). But Kinnon was overruled by Council President Peg Crowe. Like I said, it’s bloodsport.

In the saddle, O’Malley pointed out that Boston, the second most lead-having town in Mass, has less than 3,500 lead pipes left, whereas Malden has approximately 4,800. At which point Crowe also attempted to shut up O’Malley, who argued that the rules permitted him to speak, which he kept doing, in the process proposing an order that would make the City of Malden “prioritize the replacement of lead service lines above all other non-emergency infrastructure projects.” In other words, as O’Malley explained, he wants the city to take $7 million of that pothole money and spend it to fix 80 percent of the lead pipes — right away.

A lot of people in the crowd seemed upset, and O’Malley got some cheers — all while Councilor John Matheson shouted, “This is a problem that’s going to be fixed together, and we should not be pulling the rug out from under our residents that have had their water main replacements done, and now their road looks like a third world country.”

Some witnesses gasped. Others laughed in disbelief, perhaps thinking that their lead pipes reminded them of a third world country as well. Councilor Kinnon, visibly livid, claimed, “What we’ve seen here tonight is the most shameless grandstanding I’ve seen in a decade!”

Councilor Paul Condon jumped on the pile: “It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the public when they hear stuff like that!” Other councilors said O’Malley was “misrepresenting” and “oversimplifying” matters, reminded everybody that we’re not in Michigan, and said that O’Malley’s proposal would “leave the streets like a war zone.” In the end, eight out of the 10 other councilors voted against O’Malley’s order.

Following the meeting, to the apparent shock of rival councilors, people thanked O’Malley for his advocacy. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Photo by Warren Lynch

O’Malley was back in the news last week, this time defending the will of voters who pulled for recreational pot last year. When Question 4 passed, the cannabis law included wording that allowed cities and towns with dispensaries to charge up to an additional 3 percent tax on top of what the state takes and to use those funds in any way they want.

In Malden, Councilor Kinnon proposed a ban on all retail cannabis dispensaries, recreational and medical, until cannabis is made federally legal [Ed. note: This is not likely to happen anytime soon]. The rules committee voted four to one in favor of the ordinance (O’Malley voted against it), which was discussed by the full council last Tuesday evening.

While Malden officials continue to mull over the pot issue, they should consider that, if passed, according to the current law, such a ban would also have to be approved by at least 6,500 Malden residents and that every single ward in Malden voted yes on Question 4, some overwhelmingly.

Councilor Barbara Murphy, who is not on the rules committee, hinted that she’ll vote against Kinnon’s ordinance. “It doesn’t seem American to me,” she said. “It seems like we’re infringing on people’s right to choose.”

O’Malley also objected to the prohibition ordinance at the meeting, arguing that it would drain desperately needed funds from Malden. He countered with another order, which he summarized thusly: “If a dispensary opens in Malden, all municipal tax funds derived therefrom will go to replace lead service lines and to take the financial burden of the pay-as-you-throw recycling program off the Malden tenant.”

Shaleen Title, a cannabis advocate, attorney, and Malden resident, testified: “As the mother of a young child, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t pursue every single option we have available to replace the lead service lines and water mains and get the lead out of our water.”

I also hit the meeting, sitting with my buddy Mike Crawford from the Tokin’ Truth and The Young Jurks. And it was epic: Councilor Kinnon literally attempted to hide behind a pamphlet during nearly the entire reading of his motion., after which O’Malley goaded Kinnon into swearing on camera. An all-around embarrassment ensued, cherry-topped by Councilor David D’Arcangelo, a Republican, proposing to “solve” the problem at hand by suspending the existing rules and making a new rule that nobody is allowed to talk for more than 15 seconds. To which O’Malley blasted his colleague’s “blatant disregard for free speech,” spurring President Crowe to bang the gavel.

Like I said, bloodsport.

At the end of the meeting, ordinances were sent back to committee for review — which should make for more exciting meetings in the coming weeks.

As for me… I started buying the “pure water.” That’s what we put in our coffee, in the water dishes for our cats, everything.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done if I want my kids to stop being poisoned before 2036, when I’m 62 years old, and when any kid born in 2017 is 20.

Warren Lynch is a filmmaker and a sidekick on The Young Jurks show on WEMF Radio, and was an alternate delegate in the Malden delegation to the 2017 Massachusetts Democratic State Convention. He also may have accidentally started the Brony movement.