Lead in the Water: Local Cheats, National Disaster


Where the water comes from. Image from Wikimedia Commons

If you’re unaccustomed to the view of Lake Michigan from Chicago, you’ll be surprised to notice several strange objects about a mile out into the lake. Depending on the weather and the light, they’ll look like large ships, before you realize that they aren’t moving, and anyway, seem to be made of stone. As your eyes focus on them, they look like houses, and the romantic among us imagine that they are old lighthouses, steering ships in through stormy western winds. Of course, there aren’t lights on them. What they are, you’ll have explained by a local, the glint of the trivia revealer in his eye, are the pumping stations, where the water that quenches a city is pulled from the vast and ancient lake and brought into the modern metropolis.

If asked why they are so far out, the local, still glinting, will explain that of course, when they were built, the river was still dumping pollutants into the lake, and just the dirty flotsam of millions made the shore and its near environs unsafe. Better to pull from, if not the open blue water where land is no longer visible and directions suddenly and terrifyingly seem to have no meaning, then close enough. This water rumbled through long pipes under water and land, through thousands of miles of pipe north and south, and into our homes.

And as an explosive Guardian report revealed, it’s been poisoned, and those in charge of testing it dodged their responsibility to let people know.

As The Guardian reports, 33 cities east of the Mississippi have regularly used “cheats” when testing water for elevated lead counts. The way these tests are supposed to work is to use tap water in a sampling of homes (houses, condos, and apartments) across the city. Many cities have officials conduct testing in their own homes, which initially sounds like a cheat, but at least has the dint of knowing that it will, in theory, be done right. And why would people cheat about their own drinking water? (We’ll get to that)

There are three ways to cheat the system. One is to let the water run for a while before testing. As anyone who has seen a long-dormant faucet judder out yellowish water for a few seconds before running clean can attest, running it shakes out some lead. The second is to run it very slowly while getting a sample, like Indiana Jones trying not to trigger som booby-traps. The third is to remove aerators from spouts, which lowers the lead count. Some cities use one of these, some use two. Six cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Buffalo, use all three.

It’s hard to overestimate what a gross display of negligence this is. Water is the fundamental right of citizenship; it’s the most basic need, and if a municipality can’t deliver on that promise, than it has failed the animating reason for it to come together in the first place.

Not only that, but it puts an enormous burden on those that can afford it the least. In a separate Guardian piece, they talk of how private citizens will have to spend $18,000 to replace the lead pipes that run into their homes. This is obviously something very few can afford. The secondary $10,000 fix barely helps the problem, and even that is out of the reach of most people, who don’t have $400 for an emergency. And non-homeowners, people in apartments, especially Section 8 and other low-income areas, have literally no recourse except to hope that landlords, who have a slim profit margin as it is, pony up. That seems, to put it mildly, doubtful.

This gets to the heart of the two main problems with water in this country (or rather two out of three; the third is water shortages, which isn’t the issue in the Great Lakes region, but it still ties in). The privatization and commodification of a vital resource, and the lack of infrastructure spending to take care of it.

In Chicago, billions have been spent to overhaul pipes. The outgoing head of the MWRD, Tom Powers, has worked to replace miles of pipeline, as anyone who has had to drive in the city can tell you. But that’s not enough. The city obviously has terrible finances, and it’s a question of immediate emergencies vs. long-term solutions to problems that don’t seem obvious. After all, the levels of lead aren’t at Flint levels; you can’t tell just from drinking that it is brackish and gross. I actually like our water, but that might be habit (my wife, who moved here as an adult, can’t stand it). So there is a lack of immediate will to fix, because there are so, so many other problems.

This is a national issue, then. All over, our infrastructure is crumbling, and if we don’t even have the willpower to fix bridges, which seems like something that would grab you attention in a visceral way, we are unlikely to take on a national project of replacing dangerous lead pipes. Instead, we leave it to states, which can be venal, cities, which can be broke and corrupt.

Then that trickles into privatization. You can already see the outlines of this in the cost of replacing pipes on your property. It becomes a bifurcated system, de facto if not de jure. This acceptance, that clean water is something only for the wealthy easily becomes a scenario where water is sold off to private groups, who then sell it to the rest of us. Sure, there will be regulations passed that say there has to be a bare minimum, but don’t fool yourself: there will be a price structure. You can get the good stuff if you can afford it. In areas where there are water shortages, this will be even worse.

That’s why it is almost hard to blame these cities and the testers for the cheats. What can one do? There is no will to fix it, and no real incentive to report otherwise. Saying that water is bad will be seen as a failure of government, which is true, but it is a failure of government to act- which they won’t, even if you report it right. You’re in a trap, and the psychological pressure to cheat must be enormous.

This doesn’t excuse it, obviously. It’s a frustrating nightmare, and one that is getting worse. You would hope that this would spur action. But instead, it will spur finger pointing, a condemnation of government, and a slide toward making water a commodity. We already ignore the way the poor have to drink. We’re halfway toward making it official. These our local issues, but the blame lies on the historical priorities of a drying nation.


One thought on “Lead in the Water: Local Cheats, National Disaster

  1. Pingback: Sins of the Fathers: East Chicago’s Poisoned Water and The Weight of History | Shooting Irrelevance

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