The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has prompted some to blame the situation on the government and its disregard for minorities and the poor. While this may help to explain the inaction of local officials, another possible reason can be found in the origin of the crisis. Flint’s switch in water sources, from their original supply to unsafe Flint River water, was primarily motivated by the opportunity to save millions of dollars for the city’s citizens, a seemingly noble goal. However, despite the widespread complaints and the mounting evidence of health hazards, the officials were reluctant to transition back to the old Detroit water source due to the cost of reconnecting. City officials clearly valued money above all else.
The ongoing crisis in Flint proves that government officials across the country regularly value cost before people, often with disastrous consequences. For instance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has failed to issue a recall or even an advisory that urges drivers to replace allegedly unsafe Takata airbags that are used by several major car manufacturers. The NHTSA’s inaction leaves millions of drivers with potentially lethal time bombs inches away from themselves and their loved ones. It is a worrying state of affairs when the lives of citizens are entrusted to companies rather than regulators tasked with the job of safety.
Government officials have often seemed reluctant to intervene or even address in cases where is would threaten a major company’s public image and bottom-line. During the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, arguably the most infamous environmental health hazard in recent memory, government officials were criticized for consistently underestimating the size of the disaster and spreading misleading information as to the extent of recovery. More recently, in California’s San Fernando Valley, a gas leak spewed several million metric tons of methane – a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide – forcing thousands to relocate as many have reported health problems. Despite official knowledge of the gas leak for over 100 days, California Governor Jerry Brown only declared a state of emergency beginning in January.
On a more reassuring note, the action of some California officials exemplifies a proper government response to public emergencies. The Los Angeles attorney’s office has sued the Southern California Gas Company, the owner of the leaking gas well, for its insufficient response to the ecological and health crisis, and forced the company to continue funding temporary housing for those affected. These are the actions of civil servants whose primary responsibility is to maintain the safety and wellbeing of the public, not profits and savings. Officials and citizens alike would do well to learn the lesson that Flint residents have to swallow.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 1 print edition. Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]yunews.com.