Friday, January 22, 2016
Flint Water Debacle - Yet Another Result Of Our Crumbling Infrastructure
The water calamity unfolding in Flint, MI has many causes - including the neglect and crass cost-saving efforts of the Repuke Snyder administration (decision to use water from the Flint River instead of tapping Detroit's). But the primary oversight was in not attending to the city's deplorable water pipes - already corroded even before the Flint River change caused lead to leach from the pipes into the water. Effectively poisoning thousands of kids in the city, with devastating consequences to I.Q. as well as probably leading to higher crime rates. See e.g.
This is part and parcel of the ongoing national debacle of allowing a rotting infrastructure to proliferate. We act like essential idiots, paying more attention to the Business News crawl of the DOW's daily gyrations, than to our REAL wealth - tied up in water mains, pipes. highways, bridges and sewer systems. Yet the cost of that unattended and lackadaisically maintained infrastructure is growing by the day. The American Society of Civil Engineers already estimates a cost of over $2 trillion to attain a stage of basic repair.
The water pipe issues, in fact, are not new. Many may recall barely two years ago the incident near Charleston, WVA, At that time a solvent known as MCHM ( methylcyclohexane methanol ) leaked from a chemical storage plant and invaded the entire water supply system from the treatment plant to the pipes in people's homes. Even after the water itself had been restored to its original drinkable-washable form, it remained subject to re-contamination as it passed through the now MCHM -laden pipes. Hence, the complaints of people (as reported on the news shows then) that they still smelled the licorice odor of the chemical. Of course they did, because the water collected it as it's transferred into and out of the pipes. To be clear- as in Flint - all the pipes needed to be replaced, though the authorities were reluctant to admit it.
Too much expense. But they're perfectly ok with thousands being poisoned and health expenses.
As long ago as 2011, The Economist ('Life in the Slow Lane', Apil 30, p. 29) delivered a blistering assessment of the nation's infrastructure that was enough to make any red-blooded American sit up and take note. Then puke.
In examining the state of U.S. infrastructure, especially in comparison to other industrialized western nations, we brought up the rear in just about every category. It was enough of an Rx to cure once and for all the misplaced and delusional belief in American exceptionalism.
It is really eerie, creepy and more than a little sickening, to behold how so many in this country have been eerily fixated on the rise and fall of the stupid DOW while their national infrastructure has essentially regressed to the status of a third world nation's. It is more than a little frightening also, that people can become so transfixed by an artificial set of numbers based on phantom money (e.g. http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-few-will-make-money-with-stocks.html ) while the very concrete developments that support it lay crumbling across the land: from burst sewer mains in Atlanta, to burst water mains in Colorado Springs and Denver (most over 100 years old), to collapsing bridges such as the one shown in Minneapolis from some years back. All symptoms of a country with misplaced priorities. A nation that would rather piss trillions away on military occupations and tax cuts (like the $660b one in December) than spend for true domestic security.
The Economist piece noted that while the American highway system (mainly constructed in the 1950s when infrastructure spending was a healthy 4.8% of GDP) was a shining beacon, it is now a near travesty. The degenerating quality of the roads sees Americans spending more time commuting than nearly all Europeans with the exception of the Hungarians and Romanians, still trying to dig out from the communist-depleted pasts. The longer commute time means more time wasted as well as more potential for deadly accidents.
Rail is not much better. What most of us who have traveled overseas behold here is not a patch on the rail systems of the Germans, Austrians or Swiss. In fact, the rail systems here are downright retro by comparison. While the fastest U.S. rail transit is the northeastern corridor's Acela (between D.C. and Boston) which moves at 70 mph, the French TGV from Paris to Lyon travels at an average speed of twice that, or 140 mph. Japanese trains go even faster, up to 220 mph. Not only are American trains slow, the Economist observed, they are usually late, with a 77% punctuality rating compared to 99.9% for the Swiss and 98% for the Germans. But then the Swiss and Germans don't squander their capital and resources on useless "wars".
The Economist noted that "between 1956 and 1992 America constructed the interstate highway system, among the largest public works projects in history which criss-crossed the contry with nearly 50,000 miles of motorways." So what happened? Well, according to the report, "modern America is stingier". The total public spending on works is now barely 2.4% of GDP compared to the average 5% of GDP in European nations. I would also add that this diminished contribution parallels the nation's ever diminishing vision, which has almost correlated with its increasing finacialization, e.g. enhancing growth in "financial services" - stock managers, bond traders, investment bankers...at the expense of supporting engineering works.
And don't even get me started on antiquated water and sewer systems now affecting over 22,000 mid to large size communities with pipes over 75 years and corroding just like Flint's. Rather than replace the damned pipes with new ones, the cheapskates have taken to using a chemical proclaimed to inhibit corrosive effects and prevent lead from leaching out. But this is a temporary fix at best and eventually those pipes will have to be replace or we will all be facing a water crisis just like Flint's.
What is the solution? WHERE do we get that $2 trillion to begin maintaining our infrastructure - which admittedly is not as sexy as stocks? The Economist for its part (p. 31) proposed introducing a "fuel tax rate increase"(currently at 18.4 c a gallon) but they also noted that "these are even more unpopular than deficits". Well, tough luck! Do Americans want to be able to keep driving without breaking an axle on a pothole or not? DO they want to retain other benefits, like drinkable water, or not? It's time to make up their minds! And it's time for politicians to stop game-playing and coddling people with the myth they can have endless tax cuts and also have a prosperous nation.
Flint is the 'canary in the coal mine' warning us of the dystopic future that we all face if we don't wake the fuck up for once and get our national priorities in order!