Beaver County (Pa.) Times: Informing public is first step in crisis

JAN. 31, 2016 — If ever there was a case of government failing its citizens, it’s the current water crisis surrounding the town of Flint, Michigan.

With the intent of saving money for the economically depressed town of about 100,000, government officials opted to switch the water supply from the Detroit system to a new pipeline consortium under construction. Until it was ready, water would come from the nearby Flint River.

However, the Associated Press reports that anti-corrosion agents were not added to the salty river water, causing metal leaching in city pipes and dangerously elevated lead levels. It’s estimated that as many as 9,000 children were exposed to water with dangerously high lead levels, and the water is also suspected of contributing to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people.

All of that would be bad enough for a town where nearly 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line, but what’s equally troubling is that state officials ignored drinking water test results and complaints from residents about water quality.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said Thursday that the Flint situation is a “test for every level of the country” and signed on to a proposal that would require the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step in and notify residents of problems if local and state agencies do not.

Casey is co-sponsoring the Clean and Safe Drinking Water Act that would require the EPA to notify residents of “dangerously high lead levels” in drinking water if local public water systems and state agencies have not done so within 15 days. The bill would also authorize the EPA to let residents and local and state health departments know results of any lead monitoring.

Casey’s intentions are admirable in forcing public notification of a potential health issue, but it’s a sad commentary on the actions of elected officials in Michigan who chose not to be upfront with Flint residents about the problem. Now, residents are forced to use bottled water and many are wondering what health issues they and their children will face in the years ahead.

And Flint residents are not alone in this public health crisis. Residents in Sebring, Ohio, about 50 miles from here, are also dealing with contaminated water. The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that Ohio environmental officials knew about high levels of lead in October, but failed to notify the 8,100 town residents, instead repeatedly telling the local water plant to inform the public.

While it’s easy to blame those government officials for such unconscionable decisions, don’t kid yourself into thinking the same thing could not happen in western Pennsylvania. We are a region dominated by older communities and aging infrastructure. Water lines that were installed when towns were in their infancy a century ago are still in use today, and there are likely concerns about metal leaching from decades-old pipes.

The cost to replace such aging systems is beyond the financials means of most municipal budgets, which means the monitoring and notification process must be paramount. Casey’s proposal inserts the federal government into the matter, but this is a case where common sense should, and must, prevail.

If there is even the hint of a public health issue, local and state officials owe it to their constituents to inform them immediately and with as much information as possible. We shouldn’t need a federal regulation to dictate basic human decency.

By Beaver County (Pa.) Times