MI Water, MI Future Transcript - Water Justice, Access and Affordability in Michigan

MI Water MI Future Townhall Series 

Water Justice: Access & Affordability in Michigan 

June 1, 2020

Video Transcript

Townhall Video Link (Youtube)

Chat Transcript With Links (end of audio transcript)

 

Panelists

Congressman Dan Kildee (Michigan's 5th Congressional District)

Senator Stephanie Chang (Michigan State Senate District 1) 

Sylvia Orduño (Advocate & Community Organizer, People's Water Board Coalition)

Moderator

Sean McBrearty, Clean Water Action Michigan Legislative and Political Director 

 

Sean McBrearty 00:10

 

Welcome everybody. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. My name is Sean McBrearty, I’m the Michigan legislative policy action for Clean Water Action. Tonight we're going to be discussing the critically important issue here in Michigan that has been an important issue for a long time, and the current pandemic has really only highlighted that issue and that issue is Water Justice, and we’ll be talking about Access and Affordability in Michigan.

 

Thrilled to be joined tonight by three panelists who really have been champions for protecting our water across Michigan. Sylvia Orduño, Organizer with  People's Water Board Coalition as well as Senator Stephanie Chang from Michigan’s first state senate district and Representative Dan Kildee, our Congressman from Michigan's 5th Congressional District. 

 

As you folks are probably aware, there are far too many residents across Michigan right now do not have access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. We're going to focus on two main reasons for that: water contamination, which has affected both of those who rely on outdated water infrastructure such as lead service lines such as fixtures in the home, and also those who rely on wells that may have been contaminated with PFAS chemicals or other pollutants. We’re also going to be talking about water affordability and the rising cost of water bills in several communities across our state which has made residential water service unaffordable for families across Michigan.

 

As we begin tonight just to let folks know if you’re joining on Zoom if you have any questions as tonight, please type those into the Q&A box, which is at the bottom of your screen. Those of you who are watching on Facebook live, please type your questions into the comment box and we'll make sure that those get addressed as well. 

 

Now each of our panelists are going to introduce themselves and we have a special introductory question tonight, which is what does water access affordability mean to you and how does your work help to ensure water access and affordability for all Michigan residents? We’re going to start with Sylvia Orduño from the People's Water Board and all of us extend our best wishes to Sylvia who has recovered from COVID-19 actually, and she has been one of our frontline fighters in Detroit on water issues for a long time. Thanks for joining us tonight Sylvia.

 

Sylvia Orduño 03:03

 

Thank you Sean and thank you Clean Water Action for putting this together and inviting me to participate. So yeah, I guess just first to begin with, COVID. So yeah, there's - this is something that’s unbelievable. I don't think that any of us could have imagined but yeah, especially personally experiencing how horrible it is. And again just trying to tell as many people as possible. Don't take this lightly, right? Like you don't want to end up in the hospital the way I did when you know, we just don't know. And I got it early on in the middle of March and so there's a lot we still didn't know then but we know now. And so one of the things that we are absolutely certain about is that we have to have our residential drinking water service to protect ourselves. There's no negotiating around it in any other way, and we've been trying to drive home that point with elected officials and just the general public for many years now. 

 

I can tell you've been working on this for at least a couple of decades now through Michigan Welfare Rights where I first got my experience in grassroots organizing here and we've been fighting for all these years to try to get it as so that not only are municipal operators but our local officials and the public in general just really understand that, you know, we have to find a way to ensure that every resident who needs portable drinking water and sanitation has it available to them. The COVID crisis here has actually really exposed a lot of other things that we've said for awhile but that we've really taken for granted. We're fortunate to live in a state where we've got just incredibly clean and abundant amounts of clean fresh to surface water and groundwaters sources, but it doesn't always make its way to the taps when people can't afford them. And we've had thousands of low-income residents not just in Detroit but across Southeast Michigan in the state who have not been able to have that. So the governor's order to bring this about this time was critical for us to be able to move forward and address the COVID crisis.

 

Sean McBrearty 05:13

 

Great. Thank you very much, Sylvia. Thanks for joining us tonight. Next we're going to move on and hear from our senator for Michigan's first Senate District, Senator Stephanie Chang, who is in her first term in the Senate and before this in the State House. She fought for water affordability bills and has the same package introduced this term in the Senate. So Senator Chang, please introduce yourself and tell us why water access and affordability means so much to you and what your work like has been in that category.



 

Stephanie Chang 05:45

 

Thank you. Thanks so much for inviting me to be part of this and Congressman, great to see you and Sylvia so good to see you as well and that you look healthy and happy and that makes me feel so much better. So I am happy to chat a little bit about water affordability and some of the legislation that we've been working on at a state level. And then of course looking forward to hearing the Congressman talk about the really important work that is happening at the federal level. So I first took office in 2015 and that was fresh off of the summer of 2014, during which I was knocking on doors my first campaign. And at the same time that summer was the first summer of mass water shutoffs in Detroit. And as Sylvia said, even the United Nations said that this was a humanitarian crisis basically. We’re the Great Lakes State, we're surrounded by fresh water, we should be able to make it a reality for every single one of our residents to be able to have access to clean and affordable drinking water.

 

You know, I didn’t come into the legislature with a science background or anything like that. But it quickly became, you know, one of my top priorities, environmental justice. Including water access and affordability really at the top. And so when I took office in 2015 I worked with - actually the People’s Water Board and a number of other organizations to actually put together a hearing at the state capitol in June 2015 about water issues. And we had people actually from Flint and from Detroit or Highland Park come and talk about water issues. 

 

And so anyway, it was really powerful to hear people's testimonies at the time. This was pre Dr Mona’s study. So we knew that there was Issues with the Flint water but we didn't yet know for sure that there was lead. But the people brought their water bottles full of Flint water and people brought their perfect stories of water shutoffs and what that meant for their own health and for their children and the stigma and all the issues that come with water shutoffs. And so we - it's something that I've been really passionate about because really just hearing so many of the personal stories of people that have been affected by shutoffs. And for me the bottom line is it shouldn't matter if you have money - that determines whether or not you're able to live based on whether you have access to clean water and affordable water. 

 

So out of the hearing that we did in June 2015. We formed a workgroup and out of that we developed a number of bills. Some about water quality, some about water affordability, some about billing processes itself and some about transparency. A lot of folks don't know this but most of their states, actually their Public Service commissions regulating water at some level. But here in Michigan, they’re… no, that didn't happen. There's no regulation of water rates whatsoever at the state level and so that actually is a bill that has been sponsored by Republicans in the past actually. 

 

So we have a number of bills that we've introduced and reintroduce several times now around affordability and as well as shutoff protections. This term, I’ll give you some of the bill numbers. Senate Bill 240 was introduced by Senator Alexander and that one called for the development of a low-income water residential affordability program to really make sure that water rates are not exceeding a certain percentage of one's household income. 

 

My bill, Senate Bill 241, is the water shut off protection act. Which would protect seniors, families with children, people who have serious illnesses or have a disability, pregnant women. It would also place really specific guidelines for what needs to be included on a shutoff notice in addition to providing options for who to call to be able to get into an affordability program. We also have a number of bills related to decriminalizing reconnecting your water due to inability to pay.We also have in the past introduced legislation around transparency. How are our water providers spending their rates? How many shutoffs have they had? Broken down by ZIP code? And there's a lot more things to pick on we’re far behind in my view in terms of really making sure that we are able to provide that guarantee of clean and affordable water. 

 

And one of the things I like to point out is that clearly this is an issue in Detroit, this is also an issue that is going to continue to grow across our state and across our country. Especially thinking about our water infrastructure needs and what that means in terms of the cost involved and how do we ensure that as we think about obviously ensuring that we have clean water when we are doing upgrades to infrastructure how do we make sure that the cost isn't passed along to people who are already vulnerable and don't have the money to pay their existing water bills. So there's a lot of concerns all around. 

 

I’ll end by just pointing out that they're reminding folks about the MSU study year several years ago that pointed out actually I think it was like a third of households in Michigan or something like that will actually be seeing water inaffordability in their own water bills in the coming years. So it's something that we should all be concerned about and not think of it as tied to any specific geographic location because this is a growing problem. It’s a growing crisis. It’s one that we have to solve with urgency, and I'm just happy to be part of this effort that is really being led at the grassroots by folks like Sylvia. So, thanks again. 

 

Sean McBrearty 12:38

 

Thank you very much Senator and thanks for all of your advocacy on this issue in Lansing over the years. For those of you joining on Zoom just to point out in the Zoom webinar chat function our comms person Jen has been adding the links to the things that both Sylvia and Senator Chang mentioned, the link to that MSU study and Senator Chang’s bills on the Senate website is in the chat function if folks want to check that out in more detail.

 

[Zoom Chat and Links Located At The End Of This Transcript]

 

So moving on last but not least we’re really glad to be joined tonight by Congressman Dan Kildee, the Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Caucus in the US House of Representatives, representing Michigan’s 5th Congressional District. So being really the person in the ground in DC fighting both for Flint, Michigan and for Oscoda with the PFAS problem, Congressman Kildee has a lot of experience in this area so thanks for joining us, Congressman. What are your thoughts on water access and affordability?

 

Congressman Dan Kildee 13:42

 

Well first of all thanks Sean for including me in this and Stephanie, it’s great to see you, Sylvia, I’m glad you’re doing well.

 

You know, we live in the richest country on the face of the Earth. I travel to other parts of the world haven't been lately because we're not going anywhere just driving back and forth to Washington, but I do spend a bit of my time on foreign policy and… I’m always dumbfounded by the reaction that people across the world in some of the poorest places on Earth have when I tell them where I'm from. And I say that I'm from Flint Michigan. And they look at me with some kind of sadness and express to me how sorry they are for what the community that I grew up in is going through. 

 

And they can’t square it - How the richest country on the face of the Earth at the wealthiest time in its history can't provide affordable drinking water to every one of us. We have some work to do technical solutions, on legislation, on resources. I think we have to take one step back as we engage this debate. And just challenge our own thinking, challenge the assumptions that we make. What kind of society do we want to be? There are certain fundamentals that we ought to be able to guarantee. And one of them is the most fundamental life source on the planet, and that’s water.

 

The idea that we have people who live in this country, this country with vast wealth, who don't have access to that oughta be a shock to everyone’s conscience. We have to make that case. Because there are people who don't believe that we have an obligation to make sure that people have drinking water. So while we work on the legislation, on the technical solutions, on the sort of intervention us as legislators or policy makers or grassroot advocates advance, we have to remind ourselves not everybody shares our perspective on this. We have a job to do to drive that message home.

 

Now, I think there are some pretty concrete steps. I put them in two categories. One: the short-term and immediate needs. Short-term, you absolutely need. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, she has a bill that sort of what life LIAHEP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] for water.  Basically it's an affordability subsidy for people with low income to pay their water bills the same way we provide direct support for individuals who can’t pay for their heat in the winter. So I support what Congresswoman Fudge and many others - this is something that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has been working on, and Debbie Dingell, and I, and many others. Congresswoman Lawrence has been a part of this. So we need to have that in place for sure.

 

There are probably some other pieces that we would put in place. We want to make sure that especially during this pandemic that we ensure that there are no shutoffs. We did supply some resources into the Heroes Act which needs to get through the Senate to deliver money to communities with the intention of offsetting the losses for non-payment to prevent shutoffs. Essentially a moratorium on shutoffs with us paying the bill. 

 

So there are these interventions that we need to do. Another sort of intermediate level intervention is to get more direct support to municipal governments for their water systems in general. But I think that fundamentally, we've got to do a better job of allocating resources to communities and one of the reasons I say that is that even if we were able to get really progressive water billing strategies enacted in many of our communities where we would have raised based on income or sliding scale rates or there’s lots of different ways to structure a water rates system to accommodate affect that low-income people simply can't afford drinking water. 

 

Problem of course is that in communities that have high concentrations of poverty. You know, in Flint, for example, 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line. I'm sure that the numbers have actually gone up recently. 60% of the children live in poverty. To have a system that is income based means that it has to be skewed so heavily toward the other ratepayers that the rates become so high that it's impossible to maintain residency. We have to get more direct subsidy to these municipal governments. 

 

And then I think the biggest long-term fix of course is to do what we can to deal with income inequality generally. The fact that people live in a situation where they're so poor and don’t have the basic financial support they need in order to support their family and do something fundamental as pay a water bill. Even if it’s affordable.

 

We need to make sure that we're doing better to elevate, to lift the living standards, to lift the wage rates, to lift the direct support for all Americans so that we don't have a situation where people live such thin margins. They are quite literally making decisions between paying your water bill or buying groceries or taking care of their kids health needs or whatever it might be.

 

So I guess the moral of the story is that we have some specific immediate policy needs that need immediate attention. But if we keep approaching it in that way that we're problem solving, and miss the fact the bigger question is that we have too many communities with far too few financial resources to provide basic fundamental essential services and far too many people living in poverty. If we don't deal with those issues we're going to continue to struggle to find the technical solutions to offset the fact that people can’t afford their drinking water. 

 

Sean McBrearty 20:16

 

Thank you so much Congressman. Before we get into some of the questions we have here, Sylvia wanted to add onto this topic a little bit. Go ahead Sylvia.

 

Sylvia Orduño 20:27

 

Thank you so much for that Congressman Kildee and Senator Chang. I think I agree with you that the problem is enormous and the solutions are going to be very difficult because they're so costly. But I think that one of the main points we've been trying to make for years around water affordability and the way that it's becoming more and more out of reach for households - Yes, we started with the discussion of the problems, especially in Detroit in Highland Park in Flint and communities that have really been disinvested over so many years. And seeing what the impacts are especially in these large urban communities where you know, a lot of things have changed and we really haven't had any plans at the state or federal level for how it is we address the types of poverty that we've seen over decades. 

 

But along the way we've known that, you know, there’s really nothing we can do about the water pumps the way that they are - the infrastructure needs, the cost for maintaining and operating systems. Those are figures that we’ve known for a long time. We haven't put the resources forward that we needed to prevent the problem that we're at right now where the costs are enormous and the amount of work to be done is, at least in the case of Detroit - We're talking about hundreds of miles of lines. You in Flint have seen how difficult it's been just in these six years alone just to try to get the infrastructure replacements that you needed WITH funding that Flint had to fight very hard for. 

 

And so what we've been saying is because these kinds of policy and other kinds of programmatic needs don’t align quickly enough with what residents which is fresh clean drinking water in their homes. And there's only one way to get it, for the municipal water systems to provide it. And so when they don’t provide it because people can't pay we haven't come up with any other alternatives. We’ve told people, you know, it's really unfortunate. But that's really a cop out and we have to find ways to instead get people the water they need now while we figure out how it is we address the systemic issues. 

 

That's how we've gotten to this really - trying to get more people to have the conversation in the context of the human right to water. And so when the United Nations was invited here in 2014 to talk about this, it was really part of something we were hoping we could get a greater consciousness of and have people understand that, yes, there are many things that have to be paid for [...] 

 

But we've made it so that they're unable to pay. And we've sort of been saying at the same time, it's unfortunate that you can’t pay, that we can’t do anything about it because the costs of the system are enormous - and so we're left with having people not have water. And again the COVID moment is willing to expose this. And thank goodness we have a governor who's been willing to act and say that for the safety and well-being of Michigan we have to ensure the water service is restored to everyone. 

 

But there's a lot of panic right now. Because when the executive ends people are fearful the shutoffs will continue again on a mass scale and we still never get to the solutions that we need to ensure people have the water they need for life. For many of them just drinking to bathing to flushing the toilets and all those necessities. So we've got to figure out how it is that we approach the conversation from the very basic needs of people and then how it is that our systems can solve that. 

 

Sean McBrearty 24:08

 

Thank you very much, Sylvia. That’s a very good point.

 

Getting into the next question, I think kinda hits on that as well, which is - So water access and affordability during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. I know all those on this call working on these issues for a long time that this really took center stage for a lot of people as the pandemic sort of made people realize there's a lot of people in Michigan who can’t wash their hands at home. So what changes do folks think need to take place in order to ensure everyone can wash their hands at home? 

 

We know that water shutoffs for nonpayment are not done everywhere.There are several cities in the United States that do not do that. So what are some other options out there to ensure that families are getting the water shutoff and how can federal and state policy move these options forward? Sylvia this is kind of your wheelhouse if you’d like to start us off.

 

Sylvia Orduño 25:09

 

Well, because these are many ways understood to be local problems we've sought local solutions, right? So we've done everything that we're supposed to do about - you have meetings with your local officials and you talked about problems and you and you have people who are directly impacted tell their stories and come up with solutions too, right? This is what we can do at least in the city of Detroit to address this and here are some other people just supportive of this. And in fact, here's a policy, here’s a proposal that we put forward and that's where we started back in 2005. The one that was presented to city council, and that was approved but never implemented.

 

And so in the years since we've seen a lot of things that have happened to Detroit, right? People will point to struggles with bond debt and bankruptcy and political leadership. disinvestment from businesses, and all kinds of things that have to do with not having enough revenue in the city including changes in the population size itself. But one of the things that we've been trying to make clear is that we've got to talk about alongside it is the crisis in housing. That you can't have water - that you can’t live in a home if you don’t have water. Otherwise, your home is considered uninhabitable and there is a grounds therefore having your home condemned, your children taken away. And then just the dilapidation of what will happen to your home if you don’t have running water that services your home properly.

And so one of the things that the water department has had to contend with as the Governor issued her executive orders in March was to go and figure out how to repair those pipes in so many homes where the water been shut off for not just weeks or months but years, and had been frozen during the winter months when water was not flowing and when people didn't have the money to get cast-iron pipes repaired. 

 

And so those efforts have been done - not nearly at the level that they need to be - but we're talking about how it is that we really have to address poverty in its different ways. So this is actually an opportunity when we're talking about water specifically to address the crisis of poverty within the context of water. And if we approach it that way then we can see how it is that different pieces of government can do their part to address poverty. If we can figure out within our municipal water systems and operators and other groups that are actually trying to help address the water problems not only from infrastructure to affordability to water quality and delivery. We can make a dent - actually, not even just a dent. We can make significant change in how it is that we make sure that poverty can be eradicated by way of making sure that people are never forced to live without water. 

 

And it's just one piece. We do something similar with housing and we can do it in that way. But I know that one of the things that’s been a struggle for us - We’ll hear officials from the Water Department say: “You know, we know that thousands of people can’t afford their water and we've had thousands of people that have had their water shutoff and it's just the cost of doing business, right? It's something we have to do because that's part of what we're required to do to collect from customers.” Instead of taking a different approach about how it is a city, as elected officials, we ensure the well-being of not just those customers who are impacted but the well being of all the residents. And that gets at the public health aspects that we've been talking about for a long time. But if we can figure out how better to align the issues around water in particular and housing, we could really significantly change the way in which we are offering better security and actually more economic stability to our cities as well. 

 

Sean McBrearty 28:55

 

Great thanks very much Sylvia. Senator Chang or Representative Kildee, would you like to chime in about what we can do to make sure that once this crisis - as this crisis moves on, people still have access to water and can wash their hands? What can we do to make sure that doesn’t end?

 

Congressman Dan Kildee 29:12

 

Well I’ll jump in, I’m sure Senator Change would have something to say. I mean, Sylvia makes an excellent point. I do think though we have to keep in mind that at the end of the day the problem is that we have municipal governments who are financially unsound. And that affects every aspect of the work that they do. And you know I do think we have to, as she I think very aptly pointed out, have to have a different set of values that drive the policies regarding the way water is delivered. But that's going to require resources, financial resources. 

 

One of the things that I've been pushing for is essentially a two-pronged approach deals with the most immediate needs. Step one would be, like I mentioned earlier, something like what Representative Fudge is proposing. That's a LIEHEAP payment so that a person who lives in poverty has someone paying part of their bill to offset the fact that they don't have the resources and it could be based essentially on their need. That's one piece. 

 

I think immediately though what we need to do is get - and this most likely best delivered through states, especially now that we have a Governor willing to work with us on these issues - to get money into, for example - One avenue would be the Clean Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund that every state administers. I've been pushing to put a substantial amount of financial resources into those funds that wouldn't serve as a loan but that would be administered directly as a grant to basically write off the bad debts that water systems have in place. 

 

Because the problem is - and I get it, I know it's frustrating to people who have to deal directly with the water department. But those folks are in a position where they don't draw money from the general fund. They have to fund the operation with the water funds that come in the front door and they're financially unsound. So we needed a source to keep them from having to pass on the cost to the other ratepayers because as I mentioned earlier in the short term clearly having the water rates is structured so that people who can least afford water still get access to it and we don't get don't get them shut off. But we can't have it tilted so heavily that the rates become really high.

 

As I’m sure you know in Flint we had this terrible circumstance where it was water that was unsafe to drink, actually killed people. It’s not well advertised or known that while we have the lead crisis which has had terrible long-term impact, especially on brain development in children as well as other health impacts on adults, there was also a Legionella outbreak that was directly related to the water decision made by the Emergency Financial Manager. That resulted in significant deaths. So there are real consequences for this. 

 

But the problem that I’m driving at is that we simultaneously had this terrible situation and the highest water rates in America! It’s still really expensive water. One of the reasons is that we have a water system that was designed for about 250,000 people and 250,000 ratepayers and a really robust set of industrial users paying a lot of water bills and paying for a lot of the fixed costs. We have the same distribution system, the same number of pipes, the same everything with less than half of the population, with about a quarter of the wealth, and a big loss of those manufacturing jobs. 

 

So the economics of the water system are so out of whack that we need to get to that. And the last point I'll make is one of the ways is with significant infrastructure changes that would come in two really important forms. One is to reconfigure the infrastructure, the water infrastructure, so that it's actually designed for the population that we have. Flint had 200,000 people, we had a system designed for 250,000 because we expected to grow. You now have a need for a system that is naturally smaller because we have a smaller population. You can’t have 100,000 people paying for a water system for 200,000 people without having the rates go really high..

 

The other really important piece of that is that about 50% of the treated water going into the Flint water distribution system does not go to a house or a business or anything. It goes into the ground. So those ratepayers are paying for treated water that because of the loss rates, the leaks, the breaks in that system - half of the water that we pay for,nobody ever gets to use. So we have to upgrade the infrastructure to help bring the cost structure down. Then at that point it's a little easier to have a sliding scale that can actually be sustained. 

 

Sean McBrearty 34:50

 

Thank you, very good point. Senator Chang, what are your thoughts on this? How can we make sure we can have affordable water for everybody?

 

Stephanie Chang 34:57

 

I think Sylvia and Congressman Kildee touched on a lot of really important points and I think I learned a few new things from Congressman Kildee so thank you very much for sharing all of your insights. Also it's helpful to know some of the actions that you all are looking at a federal level. 

 

I mean, I think that in terms of at least in terms of what we’re working on at the state level is the idea of an affordability program that does require funding, right? I think that that is a big piece of the puzzle here. We know that, at least in my view, we should be setting water rates based in a way that takes into consideration people's household income. I think there's an agreement sort of among a lot of grassroots folks and among people who are looking at this issue but I think again there's that question of how do we pay for all of this? Especially when we're thinking about those infrastructure costs. 

 

I definitely think the state has a role to play there. I would hope that the federal government could help as well in terms of providing some funds to come down whether it's through whatever grants or other programs we might be able to design. So I think that these are all really important things that we need to take into consideration. For me, I want to follow the lead of folks on the ground for saying well, what are the programs in terms of - from the provider to the residents to what works - and then obviously backwards making sure that we have [aside] - that we're figuring out how how we can actually fund a program like this to work. It’s gonna be a big team effort.

 

Sean McBrearty 37:03

 

Thank you very much, Senator. Thank you all, very good answers on that. So moving on we’ve talked about affordability for the main part so far tonight, the other topic we wanted to make sure to hit on tonight is about water contamination which we know has also been widespread in communities across Michigan. Specifically to Flint with the Water Crisis as well as the lead crisis in Detroit and several of our other large cities and then we also have the crisis of PFAS compounds which they’re really finding in places across our state. What more can we do and what have we done recently to help protect our residential water? I’d like start this one off with you, Congressman Kildee. I know that nobody really in Washington has worked on this issue probably as much as you have especially with representing both Flint and Oscoda.

 

Which, I don’t know if folks on the call have seen the news from today but Clark’s Marsh was just designated – the DNR put out a warning not to eat any fish or aquatic adjacent animals coming from Clark’s Marsh because basically everything they’ve tested has been through the roof in PFAS levels. So Congressman Kildee, can you talk about some of the things that I know you've worked a lot on in Washington recently to protect residential water from PFAS and also lead and what more do you think we need to do?

 

 

Congressman Dan Kildee 38:38

 

Well it’s a good question. We really need to do a lot more just starting with PFAS. For example, we've made some progress. The bigger progress is going to come when we get a clean drinking water standard, groundwater standard, and clean air standards for corporations.

 

Industry is pushing back pretty hard on t hat. But we're going to get there. A year and a half ago I launched the bipartisan PFAS Task Force which I co-chair with a Republican member from Pennsylvania, Brian Fitzpatrick, and all our Michigan - many of our members are part of our task force. We've been able to get pretty significant provisions including in the Defense Authorization Act which is one of those bills that you know, always goes all the way through, goes to the President’s desk. So it’s the way we’ve been able to get some things done, including pretty significant increase in cleanup dollars, phasing out of firefighting foam which is the source of a lot of PFAS contamination in groundwater.

 

But we've got a lot to go. We’ve got to get the drinking water standard. We have to get the groundwater standard. We have to simultaneously clean up the remnants of the past which means a lot of money but also make sure that we're not putting more of the stuff into the environment which is a really important thing. A lot of people assume since we know PFAS is really dangerous that there's no more of it coming into the environment. Only if that were true – it’s not.

 

I think the main objective for us right now is to continue to educate people. One of the bills that I was able to get included - my bills - in the last Defense Authorization Act is a complete study of all PFAS sites. We know where the military sites are, there’s about 400 sites where there is PFAS contamination, military sites, but the private sites are not as well known.

 

So we have legislation which was included that tasks the US Geological Survey with getting out there and identifying all the sites. When we identify all the sites, we have a public sentiment on our side. And northing – Stephanie and Sylvia as you all know – nothing works quite like public sentiment getting behind something. So we've got a lot of work to do on PFAS.

 

We equally have a lot of work to do on lead. There's no safe level of lead in drinking water. But we allow 15 parts per million right now. It’s OK, right now, okay across the country for people to drink lead. What scientifically we know - we know the science tells us that there's no level that is good for us. So what we have right now is a standard is based on the convenience to the government and we need to make it inconvenient, I believe, by having a much stricter standard. I have legislation the No Lead Act that would take it to five parts per million. What's happening at the EPA is that they're going in the opposite direction - essentially weaken the Lead and Copper Rule with this most recent iteration. We've been pushing them to update this thing for years. Finally they get around doing it, and it’s is worse than what we have right now. 

 

So it's going to take I think - the grassroots organizing is fundamentally important to this because it’s the only way this ever changes. The reason that Flint became known is because the grassroots people in Flint showed up and would not take No for an answer. That's the same thing we need when it comes to PFAS and I worry that the conversations about lead dissipated a bit. There was a time when it was front and center and now it's sort of taken a back seat. It is given that this particular EPA, I think, more of a green light to pursue the beginning of this Lead and Copper Rule, which is happening right before our very eyes and there ought to be a lot more outreach.

 

And, so, I know what I can get through the House of Representatives at least in this Congress with the majority that I have. But we need a Senate and a White House that is more aligned with the needs of people who are worried about drinking water and we got to change that somehow, let's just put it that way.

 

 

Sean McBrearty 43:24

 

Absolutely, it would be very nice to have an EPA that’s not run by a former coal lobbyist.

 

 

Congressman Dan Kildee 43:33

 

 

Yeah! EPA shouldn’t stand for Everybody Pollutes Always. But that’s what they are.

 

 

Sean McBrearty 43:38

 

 

Absolutely. I know that we’ve made more progress at least in Michigan than we have at the federal level, with both the state Lead and Copper Rule and also the proposed standards, proposed PFAS standards. Senator Chang, would you like to talk a little bit about what we’ve been able to do in Michigan on those issues and also things that you and your colleagues in the Senate have trying to get done?

 

 

Stephanie Chang 44:07

 

Yeah – On PFAS I take the lead of Winnie Brinks, Sean McCann, and others in my Senate Democratic Caucus over on the west side of the state as they have been following these issues very closely. But I also am really glad that we have - who we have at EGLE, our Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. You know, they are working really hard and earlier this year - I'm losing track of the months here because we're sort of in like a weird time warp with COVID, but it wasn't actually that long ago, I guess? In February, which seems like forever ago, Michigan actually did adopt new PFAS standards over the objections of some industry and agricultural groups. I'll include a link to good Bridge Magazine that hits the highlights on this new standard which I think is a really, really positive move forward because it's the first time in our state's history that we've set our own enforceable maximum contaminant levels to regulate chemicals in public water! So it's really, really exciting and I think will be helpful.

 

Obviously, there's probably much more than we can do and it's great to see all of the work that is happening at the federal level. Although, you know - serving in the minority my entire time the legislature. We are going to work on - hopefully next year. We'll be in a similar situation if we can if we can have some Democratic control of the House.

 

I will also say one of the things I think is really important to point out that in addition to the PFAS standards is that there's a lot of growing - ongoing and continuing to grow - conversation about polluter pay legislation that I co-sponsored. Jeff Irwin and I think Yousef Rabhi in the Michigan legislature have really been leading the way on that. And those bills do exactly what they sound like it. It's really to make sure that those who are polluting our groundwater are responsible for paying the bill.

 

And I'll also just say that we - I just dropped today actually a number of bills that will be read on Tuesday related to the dock collapse. And while it doesn't seem directly connected there is a connection, there is a connection, because obviously we want to protect our Detroit River and our waterways because all of our water is connected and we want to make sure that what goes into the Detroit River could potentially go into our drinking water. And so ensuring that we have strong protections for notification and inspection requirements of our docks along major waterways as well as a risk assessment data base that takes into consideration high water levels of contamination in the ground at sites along so many of our commercial and industrial or former industrial and commercial that never really been cleaned up properly. I think that all of these things are really important to make sure that we're protecting water really at the source. So there are a lot of layers to this, of course, but I think that we've got a lot of really great solutions out there. Now we just need to find the support that we need to get them done.

 

 

Sean McBrearty 48:07

 

Absolutely, thank you. And also for those of you watching if you check out the YouTube channel about a month ago we did a town hall with Representative Rabhi and Senator Irwin specifically on the Polluter Pay legislation that Senator Chang co-sponsored. And just mention that’s really good for reference.

 

So we have a few minutes here and a couple of questions from the audience, looks like we’ll probably only have time for one of them. So we’ll go with the first question here, posed here tonight from Rahul, who says:

 

“I thought that the contrast Representative Kildee made between a piecemeal problem solving approach and a deeper understanding that large swaths of the American public cannot afford basic resources is very important. For the panelists, what are your thoughts about using a risk management frame to bridge the gap between short and long term? Acknowledging that unless we address these risks, the country is basically not safe – we’re in danger right here and right now.”

 

Who would like to answer first?

 

 

 

Congressman Dan Kildee 49:17

 

I’ll jump in because that's an extremely important point, one that I try to make every chance I can. The reality is that there's a cost to every choice that we make. Question is who bears the cost and over what time frame? And for most of us our values drive our decision-making in a sense that we think there's a certain element of justice that ought to be a part of our decisions. That a matter of justice that people have access to clean drinking water, or a matter of justice affordable housing, or a matter of justice decent school opportunity.

 

But for those whose values either don't move them to take action or somehow believe that while there ought to be something like that, that the government shouldn't do anything about it? I think we have to offer a different argument. It's an economic argument. Again, it's not the core value that I take to the conversation. But it is a fact that society pays a very high price for the fact that people can’t drink water.

 

And I'll just give you one example: Flint. At a time when Flint was just getting into the financial crisis that it was in, it would have cost about 20 million, 25 million dollars, that the then mayor asked for to substantially upgrade certain aspects of the Flint water system. 20 million bucks. 

 

The answer was no.

 

Because the decision makers said they couldn't afford it.

 

We are at about 500 million dollars in public expenditures to deal with the failure of the water system. We put all the dollars that are in place - including all the healthcare costs, all the downstream costs. So the question for us is not just whether our values align, even though I think that's the motivating force, but whether it’s just good economic policy that deal with these problems when we can in a way that prevents bigger problems from emerging.

 

I believe that there's a good economic argument or risk management argument says invest the money in steps to mitigate against the crisis that we will absolutely certainly face if we allow people to go without something as fundamental as drinking water.

 

 

Sean McBrearty 51:47

 

Thank you very much, Congressman. I want to be respectful of people’s time, we have one question coming for Sylvia,

 

“With all the good work People’s Water Board is doing, what can good activists and people do to get involved with your work in the People’s Water Board?”

 

Sylvia? We can’t hear you… still can’t hear. Well why don’t we just do this, we’ll get the answer for how folks can get involved with People’s Water Board and will make sure we email that our to all the folks on the RSVP list tonight so they can get involved.

 

To wrap up tonight, just wanted to thank all of our wonderful panelists for joining us and thank each of you for the important work you do to protect our water and fight to ensure Michigan residents have access to safe, affordable, and clean drinking water.

 

 

In Michigan people understand that we're surrounded by over 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. There’s really no excuse for us not to ensure that all residents have the water that they need, especially as Representative Kildee pointed out, in richest country in the history of the world.

 

So thank you to everybody watching tonight as well on Zoom and on Facebook Live, also our production team Jen Schlicht our Communications manager for Michigan and our Southeast Michigan Program Organizer Meredith Gillies.

 

And for more updates on how you can get involved, please, we put a link in here for peopleswaterboard.org to sign up to get more involved with the great work Sylvia's group is doing in Detroit. And also please like and follow Clean Water Action on Facebook and Twitter.  Check out our website, cleanwateraction.org/MI for more updates on how you can get involved with our water.

 

Two weeks from tonight on June 11th we’re going to have our next town hall event. This one tonight we talked about water access and affordability, we’re going to talk about a really important point in two weeks as well. Which is the fact that every Michigan resident is a co-owner of the water that surrounds our state and is underneath our state. And that’s due to the Public Trust Doctrine, which is part of English common law and – it’s become a fairly misunderstood doctrine but it ensures that people have a right to water in our legal system.

 

So please RSVP for that on our website join us two weeks from tonight on June 11th at 7 PM for our next event. Thank you all and have a great evening!

 

Chat Transcript

00:24:23    Jen Schlicht:    Thank you everyone for joining us tonight! If you have questions please put them in the Q&A section. We'll be sharing relevant links and actions in the chat as well. 



00:27:30    Jen Schlicht:    Op-Ed from Sylvia about this issue: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/2020/03/25/opinion-water-access-urgent-detroit-during-outbreak/2901878001/



00:31:38    Jen Schlicht:    Great background for exactly how much water costs have increased - Detroit has gone up by 65% from 2010 to 2018. https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/691409795/a-water-crisis-is-growing-in-a-place-youd-least-expect-it



00:32:54    Jen Schlicht:    More about legislation Senator Chang is talking about: https://senatedems.com/chang/news/2019/03/22/michigan-senators-fight-for-clean-affordable-water/



00:34:44    Jen Schlicht:    MSU study Senator Chang mentioned: https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/affordable-water-in-the-us-a-burgeoning-crisis/



00:37:17    Sylvia Orduno:    Here is the original Water Affordability Program proposal presented to and approved by Detroit City Council in 2005 but not implemented https://www.peopleswaterboard.org/affordable-water/



00:40:34    Jen Schlicht:    https://waterfm.com/lawmakers-propose-banning-delinquent-water-shutoffs-during-coronavirus-shutdown/

 

00:42:51    Jen Schlicht:    Update from last week on Detroit shutoffs and the slow pace of restoration: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/20/detroit-water-shutoffs-covid-coronavirus

 

00:46:30    Jen Schlicht:    EGLE recommendations at the moment if you or someone you know still doesn't have water restored: 



00:46:35    Jen Schlicht:    Michigan residents without running water should take the following steps: Contact your local water department and tell them you are eligible for reconnection under the governor’s executive order. If you are unsure how to reach your water department, contact your local city, village or township offices to find out. Detroiters can call the city’s reconnection hotline at 313-386-9727. If you are unable to reach your water provider or they are unwilling or unable to restore service, you may obtain assistance from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) at 1-800-662-9278. EGLE Clean Water Public Advocate Ninah Sasy monitors every request for assistance. She will work with local suppliers to resolve the concern and will elevate issues directly to the office of Governor Whitmer as necessary. Once your service is reconnected, it is important to properly flush the pipes to clear stagnant water that may have collected contaminants. Guidance on flushing is available in English, in Spanish



00:50:48    Jen Schlicht:    Detroit Action from December: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2019/12/11/protesters-want-end-residential-shutoffs-claim-water-human-right/4393976002/



00:51:34    Jen Schlicht:    Lots of resources and information on the People's Water Board site: https://www.peopleswaterboard.org/



00:55:12    Jen Schlicht:    A bit more about the water financing issue from Rep Kildee: https://dankildee.house.gov/media/in-the-news/seeking-solutions-water-infrastructure-death-spiral



00:59:30    Jen Schlicht:    "Aging water pipes in Detroit leak more than 35 billion gallons of water each year, costing residents more than $23 million each year" https://www.downtownpublications.com/single-post/2019/02/19/Billions-of-water-gallons-wasted-in-the-region

 

01:00:54    Jen Schlicht:    DNR warning about Clark's Marsh https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/28/study-pfas-wildlife-wurtsmith-base-oscoda-clark-marsh/5269495002/



01:01:40    Jen Schlicht:    Rep Kildee - PFAS Action Act https://dankildee.house.gov/media/press-releases/house-passes-historic-package-address-pfas-chemical-contamination



01:02:04    Jen Schlicht:    And PFAS task force: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/23/pfas-taskforce-house/2651005002/



01:04:35    Jen Schlicht:    Lots of info on lead in drinking water, including some printable images: https://www.cleanwateraction.org/features/lead-and-drinking-water



01:08:16    Jen Schlicht:    Bridge Magazine article on new PFAS standards https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/heres-what-gretchen-whitmers-new-pfas-water-rules-mean-michigan



01:09:29    Jen Schlicht:    Polluter Pay legislation: https://www.cleanwateraction.org/features/making-polluters-pay-michigan



01:10:51    Jen Schlicht:    2016 MI 21st century Infrastructure task force report, water section (PDF) https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/Ch_7_-_Water_Recommendations_551286_7.pdf



01:11:14    Jen Schlicht:    Our YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/cleanwateraction



01:14:47    Jen Schlicht:    More about infrastructure investment, cost/benefit from a coalition group http://protectcleanwater.org/project/infrastructure/

 

01:15:51    Communications Department:    Take action to expedite water reconnections: https://cleanwater.salsalabs.org/mi-publichealthwateraccesssibilitymar2020-watdrnk-gov

 

01:15:52    Jen Schlicht:    People's Water Board: https://www.peopleswaterboard.org/

 

01:16:44    Jen Schlicht:    Our site: cleanwater.org/mi

 

01:16:59    Jen Schlicht:    RSVP link for our next townhall at cleanwater.org/MIwaterMIfuture

 

01:17:22    Jen Schlicht:    More about the next topic https://www.cleanwateraction.org/features/our-water-must-never-be-sale-%E2%80%93-explaining-public-trust-and-why-it-matters

 

01:17:27    Jen Schlicht:    Thank you all for joining!