Thursday, February 11, 2016
Poison & disease in our drinking water: Harold Ickes and his PWA warned us about this nearly 80 years ago
(New Deal policymakers invested heavily in American infrastructure. In recent years, we've drastically reduced infrastructure spending - even though we have a quarter-of-a-million water main breaks, and waste two trillion gallons of water, every single year. Image above from the 1939 publication, "America Builds: The Record of PWA.")
By now, we all know that thousands of children have been poisoned by lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. We also know that millions of other children across the nation are at risk for lead poisoning too, because (a) our water lines are old & obsolete, (b) testing for lead is often performed to minimize negative results, and (c) the EPA limits for lead are probably too permissive (many health experts are telling us that no amount of lead is safe to drink). And, as if these things weren't bad enough, the residents of Flint may also have been subjected to Legionnaires' disease due to their "aging water infrastructure."
Amazingly though, even after all this, there is still (still!) no national movement to improve our water infrastructure, just some protests and some band-aid solutions here and there. Indeed, anti-infrastructure Republicans are already--and predictably--resisting efforts to fix the situation, telling us that it's just "too much money" (which is code for, "I'm not going to raise taxes on my wealthy campaign donors, since they've specifically paid me not to"). But we'll keep re-electing these fools anyway, won't we? - because they rile us up with words & rhetoric like "freedom," "liberty," "God," and "taxes are theft." So, it seems, we've resigned ourselves to the "fact" that our children must drink from old & filthy pipes, if that's what it takes to protect the private fortunes, private jets, private compounds, and private islands of the super-wealthy. I mean, my God, we can't tax the holy "JOB CREATORS," right? - even though they're adding hundreds of billions of dollars to their already-bloated wealth without creating good-paying jobs.
In 1939, Harold Ickes and his Public Works Administration (PWA) wrote: "Water is life. Apparently this fundamental fact must be learned on the battlefront of experience again and again. When this lesson is forgotten, even for a moment, the consequences are immediate and disastrous. A brief lapse in maintaining the purity of a water supply occurred in 1928 in Olean, N.Y., a town with a population of 21,000. Typhoid germs rode into the Olean homes through the water pipes. Two hundred and thirty-eight cases of the disease resulted. Twenty-one people died... To prevent similar disasters, engineers everywhere to whom the Nation has entrusted the purity of its water supply must be eternally vigilant" (America Builds: The Record of PWA, 1939, pp. 169-170). To this sentiment, I would add: All of us must be eternally vigilant - and that vigilance starts with electing people who are dedicated to improving American infrastructure, not people who are dedicated to serving the wealthy few with deregulation, tax breaks, and protection from law enforcement.
Between the years 1933 and 1939, Ickes and the PWA provided $312 million for 2,419 waterworks projects (about $5.4 billion in today's dollars). Additionally, New Deal work programs for the unemployed (CWA, FERA, WPA, NYA, and CCC) installed over 20,000 miles of new water lines, the vast majority of it for drinking water. They also made water consumer connections, and built reservoirs, wells, and water treatment plants.
We could do the same today, if we weren't so hooked on trickle-down economics and so immersed in middle-eastern affairs. But we are... so we're letting our children drink risky and poisoned water.