McCown: Flint disaster runs deeper than tainted water

Brigham McCown

As lawmakers continue debating federal aid for those affected by the drinking water crisis in Flint, the city’s residents are still struggling with the effects of poor public policy decisions.

Perhaps the most significant policy impacts resulting from the crisis are an increased focus on the vital importance of safe drinking water, the acute need for a modern and dependable water infrastructure, and the very real dangers of neglecting those priorities.

The focus of this tragedy must be shifted to the key issue plaguing the citizens of Flint: aging water infrastructure.

Like many other cities in the U.S., Flint’s water pipeline network is largely composed of iron and lead pipes that were laid more than a century ago. According to an article in Fortune, the acidic water corroded the old pipelines over time and ultimately allowed lead and iron compounds to infiltrate the water supply.

Flint is not the first place the country has witnessed water poisoning due to outdated and inadequate infrastructure. In 2004, studies detected metal toxins in the blood of Washington, D.C., residents after high levels of lead were reportedly found in the city’s water supply and they were not alone. Additional cities, including Greenville, Sebring, and Providence, have also reported higher levels of lead in their drinking water.

The American Water Association estimates there are approximately 6.5 million lead pipelines in the U.S. and according to Gary Burlingame, director of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Bureau of Laboratory Services, there might be around 50,000 lead service lines in Philadelphia alone.

Replacing America’s water infrastructure is an expensive undertaking — nearly $1 trillion according to the American Society of Civil Engineers — but not upgrading it could cost far more in loss of human health and quality of life. Whether it be water, roads, or energy, the truth is that our national infrastructure is in dire need of serious attention.

Brigham McCown is a managing shareholder of Kilgore McCown, PLLC, and chairman and CEO of Nouveau Inc.