Gov hopeful pledges moratorium on water shutoffs

Jonathan Oosting

Detroit created a public health crisis by shutting off water for residents behind on their bills, said Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, a medical doctor who is pledging to pursue a statewide moratorium if voters elect him in 2018.

Activists have questioned why the city’s former public health commissioner did not sound alarms during his tenure, but El-Sayed said Wednesday he did raise concerns from inside Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration but was increasingly “pushed out” of the decision-making process.

“It’s the single biggest challenge that I wish I could have done more on,” he told The Detroit News. “I lobbied city leadership that was closer to this problem. I lobbied them hard. It just seemed like the will was not there, and the ability to solve large political problems wasn’t there either.”

El-Sayed, who resigned from the city in February to run for governor, is set to roll out a detailed water policy platform Thursday focused on goals to end water shutoffs, ensure universal access at affordable rates and promote conservation through infrastructure investments.

Other candidates for the Democratic nomination, including early frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer, have also stressed water and environmental issues in the wake of the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis. But El-Sayed’s plan is the most specific to date.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown on Wednesday highlighted the city’s efforts to help residents with delinquent bills, including the Water Residential Assistance Program created in 2014, for which he said the city has provided $7.1 million.

“There is no reason any Detroiter should have their water shut off,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “We have assistance programs that can help anyone, regardless of their economic situation.”

Upon inauguration, the 33-year-old El-Sayed said he would expect his state health director “to act immediately to put a moratorium” on water shutoffs while reviewing data and commissioning a public health study. He cites authority under a state law allowing intervention “for the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the people of this state.”

In July, a panel of doctors, educators and civil rights advocates called for a declaration of a public emergency in Detroit and accused city health officials of ignoring a hospital study that found a correlation between water shutoffs and water-related illnesses.

The senior author of that study, Dr. Marcus Zervos of Henry Ford Hospital, has said he is disheartened activists used what he called the preliminary results for “political purposes.” The results did not prove causality between infections and water shutoffs, he said, calling for further study.

The city water department shut off water for more than 76,000 delinquent residential customers between 2014 and 2016, according to figures obtained by The News under the Freedom of Information Act. Detroit resumed the controversial practice in April but says fewer residents are now at risk.

El-Sayed’s call for a statewide moratorium comes as Duggan seeks re-election over state Sen. Coleman Young II. While he worked under Duggan, El-Sayed said he is not taking a position on next week’s election.

El-Sayed did not directly criticize the mayor, but he said city leaders have not paid enough attention to the impact of water shutoffs and have let the issue fall down their agenda. The state has ignored the matter but has a responsibility to act, he said.

“It’s great to be able to build up downtown and Midtown and create an economic engine, but if that comes at the cost of solving problems in Detroit neighborhoods among 450,000 to 500,000 people who seem to have been forgotten, I think we’ve lost a sense of what our responsibilities in government are,” El-Sayed said. “And I think we can do both at the same time.”

The city encourages at risk-residents to enroll in the WRAP program, set up a payment plan or make a payment on their balance. Residents who do so typically get their water turned back on within 24 hours, according to the Detroit water department.

The department is also working with the city health department “to identify individuals it comes into contact with who may be at risk of shut off, so they can be directed to our programs and partners like Wayne Metro to help them get the assistance they need,” Brown said.

Democrats are making water quality, access and infrastructure a key campaign issue as they seek to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Whitmer could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but a campaign spokeswoman called water shutoffs “a local issue and an issue we are going to be talking about.” Whitmer has said she is committed to working with communities to replace lead service lines and wants Michigan to “lead the world in water policy.”

Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar rolled out an infrastructure plan last month with an initiative to remove all lead service lines from municipal systems within a decade. He said in a statement Wednesday that “no taxpayer should shell out hard-earned dollars for dirty water and efforts to shut off water to citizens without due process is unacceptable.”

Besides ending water shutoffs, El-Sayed’s new policy platform proposes legislation that would require regional and municipal water authorities to use a tiered pricing system to charge rates based on consumption, which he said would increase affordability and encourage conservation.

Residents should be given a minimal amount of free water to drink, bathe, cook and clean, El-Sayed said, and rates for additional water should increase exponentially based on volume. State law and legal precedent would allow tiered pricing so long as all customers are treated equally, according to his campaign.

El-Sayed also wants to the state action level for lead-in-water to 5 parts per billion, toughening the 15 ppb federal standard and the 10 ppb proposed by Snyder.