February 9, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 15°C

A principled man

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seeks major investment in infrastructure, and human capital.
By Don Carroll
Published: 2016-01-30

ommuting to work on a Vespa means passing the countless decorative and utilitarian fountains that represent the backbone of Rome's ancient water infrastructure. It's easy to take Rome's water riches for granted until, that is, you read about drought or water rationing elsewhere.

Maybe that's why the Flint, Michigan water scandal hit me so hard. In 2014, Flint switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a water source. Short-cut thinking led to widespread lead contamination. Like the 2008 financial crisis and the Volkswagen's emissions scandal, the Flint story is long and politically complex. In less than two years it's created a host of villains and damaged lives.

But this column isn't about water, at least not as such. It's about the misguided side of American culture that tends to lionize money-seekers at the expense of those whose concept of fulfilling work is that which contributes to the greater good.

It's also about the presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Loved or loathed, his campaign has centered on breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, overhauling campaign finance laws, and raising taxes on the hyper-rich. Sanders wants to dismantle the American money alter by repairing what he sees as distorted priorities.

His proposed Rebuild America Act, which would pump massive investment into deteriorating national infrastructure, is part of a larger philosophy that seeks to change the definition of wealth. In Sanders vision, having a good job with a decent standard of living should trump (yes) being flush with cash.

What does this have to do with water? The Flint scandal followed a similar one in Washington, D.C. In 2002, drinking water in many D.C. homes tested positive for lead at levels equal to the amount found in hazardous waste. Both cities were trying to control costs without sufficient understanding of public health implications.

Many low-income families were hit hard by the Flint water crisis.

In D.C., local water officials chose cheaper chloramines over other more costly options for reducing the presence of byproducts of chlorine disinfection. In April 2014, Flint switched from buying treated water from Detroit's Lake Huron, as it had done since 1967, to treating its own water from the nearby Flint River. The idea was to save as much as $5 million. Taken alone, neither decision was strictly speaking incorrect.

But in both cities, the newly treated water interacted with old and soldered pipes, dissolving and releasing lead into customers' homes. Until the D.C. incident, the phenomenon of lead interaction after a change in water characteristics was little known. The Washington scandal not only traumatized the city but also generated considerable publicity and discussion about lead contamination, including widely published research that highlighting the critical importance of testing out new water treatment programs before putting them into effect. That didn't happen in Flint.

I spoke with Dr. Alexa Obolensky, a water chemistry consultant to U.S. drinking water utilities, who told me the D.C. scandal sent ripple effects throughout the water industry. That city officials, regulators and professional advisors a decade later would reduce or even bypass testing before a significant water source change now seemed unfathomable. But again, that's what happened in Flint.

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