Several years ago I came to work to discover that the city was digging up the church’s yard. This was a serious dig. I knew we didn’t have any water supply problems, so I asked that was going on.
“We are replacing your water supply pipe. It is old and made of lead.”
That’s interesting, I thought and went about my business. We had a plumber come in and check the rest of the water connection, which was fine. No lead.
But why would the city want to replace a lead pipe?
In two words, lead and children.
This came to public attention recently when a federal emergency was declared in Flint and Genesee counties in Michigan because of extremely poor water quality and the real possibility of lead poisoning of children. Over 8,600 kids were exposed to hazardous levels of lead leeching from water supply pipes, largely because of intentional cheapness of the city of Flint.
Flint, Michigan is a largely black industrial city. Much of the auto industry and associated suppliers have closed up and left, leaving one General Motors plant and not much else.
This resulted in the city ending up in serious economic difficulty and the state appointing a manager, taking over the operation of the city.
Flint got its drinking water from Detroit, but had to pay for it. They sought a cheaper source through a pipeline consortium to purchase water supplied from Lake Huron, but that project fell behind schedule.
In early 2014 the city started to draw water from the Flint river. But the river water was heavily contaminated and deemed corrosive. That caused lead to leech out of old water pipes and enter the drinking water stream.
There is no safe limit for lead in drinking water. Exposure to lead affects children and their brain development, even in the womb. They end up with damaged brains.
General Motors complained that the water quality was so poor that it was ruining their steel tooling. The city gave them a new water supply from Detroit.
The local hospital complained that their instruments were being ruined by the water. They got a new water supply, too.
The children of Flint got nothing.
Today, the city is living on donated bottled water supplies as the state and city figure out what to do. Service clubs have committed together to establish a community foundation to support the delivery of critical public health, medical, and community-based services and interventions that address and mitigate the short and long term impacts of exposure to lead by families and children.
As we learned here in Grey and Bruce in 2000 at Walkerton, water is our most precious resource. It has to be protected at source and guarded jealously. Although our city has removed lead feed lines, old homes may still have lead plumbing. And lest we think we are any better than Flint, let’s not forget the hundreds of boil water orders still in place in indigenous communities across Canada.
The lesson from Flint is that we can’t cut corners over water. If we are to live with respect in creation as Canadians, then we have to protect our water. At all costs.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.