Nel's New Day

March 17, 2016

Gov. Snyder, Government Isn’t a Business

The U.S. House actually did something today: they held committee hearings about the travesty in Flint with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder testifying. For those of you who lost track of Flint’s water problems in the midst of Trumpmania, a governor with no political experience who was hired on the basis of his “business” skills and anti-government policies said he saved money on the water supply to Flint’s citizens by poisoning them with lead and causing deaths from Legionnaires Disease. The brilliant minds behind the scheme that poisoned Flint residents were a think tank funded by the powerful, conservative DeVos family, owner of Amway marketing.

Leaked emails show that Snyder didn’t poison Flint residents to save money. He just wanted to privatize the utility.  The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) offered Snyder a deal of $800 million over 30 years, 20 percent cheaper than switching to the polluted Karegnondi Water Authority. It also offered a 50 percent reduction over what Flint had paid in the past to stay with DWSD. By breaking up DWSD and starve it of the Flint customer base, DWDS would be forced to privatize, sold off by Snyder. Snyder refused to release the emails from 2013 which would confirm this information. The governor has also slashed corporate taxes while instituting a flat tax and crippling public schools with budget cuts.

Ironically, Michigan could have saved billions of dollars and thousands of people suffering from serious health issues and brain damage for only $50,000 a year. A city administrator refused to pay to add orthophosphate to the process, as is done in Detroit to Lake Huron sourced water. That chemical would have prevented the corrosion of lead pipes.

Snyder came into today’s hearing after ignoring the problems for almost two years and said, “This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials — we all failed the families of Flint.” To Snyder, everyone else was responsible, and he is innocent, despite his appointment of an “emergency manager” instead of allowing elected officials to guide the city’s government processes. That was before he ignored all the complaints from Flint residents about the dangers of the water after his manager changed the water source and caused the disaster. According to Snyder, “Bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical competence over common sense.” He’s wrong only about his personal bureaucrats. No one valued “technical competence” and no one showed “common sense.”

The governor who believes in states’ rights—and would have screamed bloody murder if anyone had tried to violate them—blamed EPA’s Gina McCarthy for not fixing the problem while Snyder ignored it. McCarthy responded that Snyder’s people in Michigan’s DEQ told the EPA that they had done corrosion controls when they hadn’t done anything. She concluded, “We were strong-armed, we were misled, we were kept at arm’s length, we couldn’t do our jobs effectively.”

After the EPA sent Michigan’s DEQ directives about the Flint water two months ago, the state agency’s director questioned the EPA’s “legal authority” to “order a state and its agencies” to protect the health of its citizens. EPA had told Michigan to inform the public about upcoming steps, but Michigan is one of two states in the nation where the governor is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. In that way, the state thinks that it can legally violate the state’s open meetings act as the governor meets with all his emergency managers behind closed doors. Before this order from EPA, the state supplied the federal agency with altered documents and purposely skewed test results to support the falsehood that there was no problem with Flint water.

Snyder also blamed federal regulations. The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires chemicals to reduce corrosiveness in public water systems to keep water from leach lead from pipes. Michigan, however, misread the regulations.

With the disaster in the public spotlight, Snyder now feels really bad about what happened. Yet he refuses to provide any funding from the state’s surplus funds of $575 million to replace pipes and instead is spending $1.2 million on lawyers to deal with the crisis. Snyder’s AG, Bill Schuette, also appointed a special counsel, a donor to both Shuette’s and Snyder’s campaigns, to investigate whether anyone broke state laws. The governor also hired a public relations firm with no offices in Michigan in order to cover himself. Its senior vice president in the Florida office is married to Snyder’s Chief of Staff.

Today’s hearing was the second on the subject this week. On Tuesday, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings (MD), called the testimonies “sickening.” State-appointment Darnell Earley who switched the water moaned about how he’s been “unjustly persecuted, vilified, and smeared.” He claimed that the water was safe even after GM refused to use it because it corroded its auto parts. “I’m not a water treatment expert,” he said. At the same time that he denied any problem with the water, state employees were receiving bottled water at their offices.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who largely contributed to exposing the sham, said, “Apparently being a government agency means never having to say you are sorry.” He said that the agency “covered up evidence of their unethical actions by authoring false scientific reports.”

The water is unusable, but parents were told that the state would take their children if they didn’t pay their water bills because they needed running water in their homes. Flint residents also pay more for unusable water than other U.S. communities pay for usable running water. Average  spending for each Flint household is $864.32—more than twice as much as homes served by public water utilities and ten times as much as Phoenix, Arizona. The average cost for private water utilities is $500, typically 58 percent more than other public utility systems and 2.7 times the average cost in Michigan. The cost in Flint skyrocketed after the emergency manager raised water and sewer costs by 25 percent. Over 40 percent of Flint residents live under the poverty line, and the media income is $25,000.

After Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton brought Flint’s inexcusable condition to the media forefront—soon followed by Bernie Sanders–GOP candidates spoke up. Sen. Marco Rubio, now out of the race, praised Snyder for taking “responsibility,” and Sen. Ted Cruz offered to send water, but only through anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.” He also single-handedly blocked an aid package of $850 million to help victims in Flint and other cities suffering lead crises.

This week, a resolution “recognizing magic as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure” was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—the same group holding hearings on Flint.  Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) said he did this as a matter of constituent services. Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) tweeted, “The House GOP believes in magic but not climate change.” Evidently representatives don’t believe in constituent service for Flint. Instead of helping Flint and other communities with lead pipes, the U.S. is scheduled to give Israel $30 billion in the next ten years—and Israel wants that increased to $50 billion. House Democrats are pushing a bill to block the appointment of emergency managers instead of elected officials, but it’s an uphill battle.

Michigan’s governor is a Republican dream: Snyder is anti-government and anti-regulation while strongly states’ rights. He firmly believes that government should be run like a business. At least that’s his belief until he wants to blame all his problems on someone else and complain that the federal government didn’t solve his problems years ago so that he wouldn’t be sitting in a House committee hearing. In reality it’s a  nightmare–what happens when GOP leadership is allowed to run rampant over people’s rights.

This week’s test of water shows higher levels than earlier ones. Snyder refuses to replace the pipes until he does extensive studies. People are still without usable running water. That’s Flint under a small government, business plan.

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January 20, 2016

Michigan Governor Poisons Flint Residents, Wants Federal Money

“If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water, we would have done something about it.” That was Hillary Clinton’s comment about the poisoned water in Flint (MI) thanks to the man assigned by Gov. Rick Snyder to run the city.

The horror in Flint started six years ago when businessman Rick Snyder was elected governor because he claimed to create jobs and run the government like a business—similar to what Donald Trump promises in his current presidential campaign.

The purpose of business is to make money for the owners and cut costs by eliminating jobs; the purpose of government in a democracy is to make people’s lives better, not to profit off them. Business and government require different skills and philosophies, and Snyder is an example of this difference. When he was on the board of the computer company Gateway, it went from 21,000 U.S. workers to 7,400 in about a decade. Gateway no longer exists.

Under Snyder, GOP legislators passed a law allowing the government to replace elected officials with an “emergency manager” picked by the governor. The manager makes all the decisions—just like in a business. The law was repealed by referendum in 2012 but replaced with a new law in a GOP-controlled legislative session that prevented it from being subject to a voter referendum.

The first time that Snyder used his dictatorial powers was in Benton Harbor where a park had been deeded to the city in 1917 “in perpetuity.” The new emergency manager in 2011 took over part of waterfront park for a luxury golf resort, with the help of a development group. It’s board included the sponsor of the new law. That success of stripping elected officials of any powers for the benefit of private business moved on to Detroit, Flint, Highland Park, and other Michigan municipalities.

Michigan residents couldn’t successfully protest the new dictator approach in its state, and the rest of the United States pretty much ignored the problem until MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow began to show the way that the new “business-like” system allowed massive amounts of lead in the city water that Flint residents pay to receive.

flint-waterFlint’s problem started almost two years ago when its manager “saved” $8.5 million over five years by switching the water source from Detroit through a pipeline to drawing water from the polluted Flint River. The acidic water that leaches lead and other metals from pipes could have been chemically treated to control corrosion, but the manager chose not to spend the $100 a day for that safety.

For 18 months people complained about the taste and smell of the brown water piped into their homes while they got rashes and their hair fell out from showering in it. As any good businessman, the manager denied any problems and said that the water was fine.

Not until Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha compared blood test results for 1,746 Flint children before and after the change in water was any whiff of concern evidenced. Even then, Michigan politicians called her an “irresponsible researcher” who caused “near hysteria.” Not until a September 2015 study from Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards did city officials admit there was something wrong with the water and told people not to drink it.

The manager did try to minimize the problem by testing water in a way designed to minimize lead readings by flushing the water several minutes before taking a sample and using very low flow rates. Edwards, however, found readings as high as 13,000 ppb (parts per billion of lead); 5,000 ppb is considered to be “toxic waste.” The EPA set 15 ppb has a point where steps should be taken to reduce the level although levels as low as 5 ppb can be concerning. A few miles away, Troy (MI)’s lead in the water measures 1.1 ppb.  [Pipes from a Flint water study]

flint-water-study-photos

Everyone suffers for exposure to lead, but children are particularly susceptible. Symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Pain and tingling in hands and/or feet
  • Weakness

Exposure while a woman is pregnant damages the nervous system of the developing fetus. It can also cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility in both men and women. Children suffer from lasting neurological and behavioral damage, intellectual disabilities, serious difficulty controlling impulses, retaining information, and learning in school. It is difficult or impossible for them to later have thought-intensive jobs. Lead keeps the body from absorbing nutrients for cell development and the growth of strong teeth and bones. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) stated:

“The lead builds up in soft tissue — kidneys, bone marrow, liver, and brain — as well as bones and teeth. … Some scientists believe that low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood can alter secretion of the human growth hormone, stunting growth and promoting obesity.”

People in Flint started in April 2014 to persuade the city to take action about the poisonous water. In May 2014, the city learned that trihalomethanes ( TTHMs) were above levels allowed in the Clean Water Act but didn’t tell residents for another eight months and didn’t change to safe water. In October 2014, GM noticed that the water was corroding engines and started trucking in water from outside the city. While Flint continued to deny any problems with the water, the governor’s office secretly ordered that Flint be supplied filters. The discrepancies between reports of toxicity in the water from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Flint during last year indicate a cover-up by the governor’s appointed manager.

Snyder’s business-like approach became such a PR disaster that he started reluctantly thinking about a solution. Although he switched back to Detroit water last October, the damage to the pipes was most likely done by then. Snyder waited until Jan. 5, 2016 to declare a state of emergency and another week to mobilize the National Guard to distribute bottled water and water filters–starting with seven guardspersons—one per 14,285.7 people.

Finally Snyder asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency. Through FEMA, taxpayers will pay up to $5 million for water, filters and cartridges and other items, but Snyder has been refused an additional $96 million because the Flint water crisis is not a natural disaster. Snyder, his emergency manager, and the GOP legislators who voted for a dictatorship caused the entire calamity, and Snyder finally admitted that he knew about the problems with water for several months, perhaps as much as a year.

Yet in his State of the State speech this week, Snyder blamed the problem on “entrenched bureaucrats.” He also said, “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level.” The problems came entirely from a state decision to create a legislatively created dictatorship in Flint. Michigan residents elected their representatives who allow travesties such as the poisoning of water in one of its cities.

As if the lead in the water wasn’t enough, an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint, seemingly a consequence of Flint’s water, has hit 87 people. Ten of these people are dead. Yet Flint is still charging customers for the poisoned water and sending shut-off notices threatening to cut off their water if they don’t pay for it.

In a peculiar coincidence, the office of the public works director who resigned last November during the developing crisis was broken into in late December. No one knows what was taken, and surveillance videos didn’t show anyone breaking into the office.

Distressed by Clinton’s call to do something about Flint’s water, Snyder tweeted, “Political statements and finger pointing from political candidates only distract from solving the Flint water crisis.” He forgets that the problem was caused by politics and that without the growing transparency surrounding the “Flint water crisis,” people would still be receiving the brown, nasty water.

Asked about the problem in Flint,” GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio hemmed and hawed before he talked about not having an opinion because he hadn’t been briefed on it. At the same time, federal GOP legislators voted to overturn provisions of the Clean Water Act—the same provisions that they voted to repeal last June.

As President Obama said about Flint while he was visiting Michigan, “It is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we together provide as a government to make sure that public health and safety is preserved.” Flint is also a reminder of why people can’t run government like a business.

Reversing the damage to the pipes will cost $1.5 billion. Reversing the brain damage and other health issues is impossible.

Heckofajob, Snyder. And same to all your cohorts.

Snyder has moved Darnell Farley, the emergency manager who switched Flint’s water from the Detroit system to the Flint River, to the new emergency manager of Detroit’s public schools. Here are a few photos of the Detroit schools. (More disgusting ones here.) We’ll see what Farley makes of this.

flint stairway

flint urinals

May 13, 2015

GOP Chips Away at Infrastructure

At least seven people were killed and over 200 people were injured last night when Amtrak Regional 188 derailed in Philadelphia on its way to New York City. Today the GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce the Amtrak budget to $252 million, a 15-percent reduction from last year, despite the increase in Amtrak riders. Democrats on the panel lost the battle to boost Amtrak funding by $1 billion, to $2.4 billion.

ridershipWhile Congress demands that Amtrak make a profit, highways and airports receive 45 times the subsidies for Amtrak. The GOP consistently reduces Amtrak subsidies to achieve privatization of the Northeast Corridor, which guts the company’s primary revenue and kills Amtrak. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) pointed out that every other country in the world subsidizes its trains:

“It just points out again how terrible our nation’s infrastructure is…. If you went to Asia, Europe, and saw the high-speed trains, they’re all on a dedicated line. They’re all straight as an arrow. It’s just embarrassing what we do with our infrastructure.”

Former Obama administration Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said, “America is in a crisis when it comes to infrastructure.”

The wreck has shut down Amtrak’s route between Boston and Washington, its busiest and most profitable, for an indefinite time. Every year for a decade, the route has broken ridership records. The workforce on these trains contribute $50 billion each year to the U.S. GDP. Yet, starved of funds to keep up with the increased demand, the Northeast Corridor has a backlog of repairs requiring $4.3 billion in 2019 while it expects $872 million because of dwindling federal funding. In this area Amtrak suffers with unrepaired bridges and tunnels dating over a century, “functionally obsolete” rail interlockings, and trains relying on 1930s-era components.

NE ridership

The last time Congress managed to pass an Amtrak bill was in 2008 when a derailed commuter train killed 25 people and the GOP helped to fast-track the bill to George W. Bush. The GOP in this Congress argued that there was no reason to take the accident into consideration. Much has been said about the speed of the train and how money could not have stopped this possible reason for the wreck. Little has been said about how an advanced safety technology can prevent high-speed derailments. The “positive train control” (PTC) automatically slows or even halts trains that are moving too fast or heading into a danger zone. Under current law, the rail industry must adopt the technology by the end of this year. With the PTC, Amtrak 188 could not have reached the speed of 106 mph while approached the curve with a 50 mph speed limit. The current deadline for PTC installation is the end of 2015, but lawmakers are calling for long extensions. Last March, the Senate Commerce voted to extend the deadline to 2020.

Passenger trains are not the only ones that are causing property destruction and the loss of human lives. Across the country, trains hauling oil, nicknamed “bomb trains,” derail, blow up into huge fires, and pollute the environment. Just weeks ago, the Department of Transportation released new rules designed to protect the country from exploding trains. Guidelines include sturdier new tank cars and retrofitted older cars that carry crude oil and ethanol, a better braking standard, and improved protocols on routing, speed, and information for local government agencies.

A radical shift in the new standards is that they actually rescind a requirement that the DOT issued last year in which railroads were to notify states about bomb trains’ volume and frequency. The new rules require only providing states with contact information for officials with access to this information. Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden stated, “Instead of providing first responders more details about oil shipments, railroads will simply be required to give our firefighters a phone number.” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) commented that the new rule is the equivalent of saying “let the oil trains roll.”

Although the new bomb train rules might be well intentioned, a train using the new, so-called safer, tank cars exploded in North Dakota the week after the announcement of the guidelines. That explosion followed four others in the first three months of 2015 that spilled crude oil into drinking water supplies and blasted fireballs in the sky. Companies can also continue to use the older tank cars forever if trains have fewer than 35 or fewer than 20 in a row. The new mandated electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are good news, but trains don’t have to use them until 2021.

The new speed guidelines would also not have prevented these train explosions. Mile-long bomb trains carrying three million gallons of explosive crude can continue to travel at more than twice the rated “puncture velocity” of even the new tank cars–50 mph except for “high threat” urban areas when they should drop their speed to 40 mph. Three of the first four explosive accidents in 2015 occurred at speeds below 35 mph, and the fourth was at 43 mph, only three miles over the new speed limit.

While oil companies are responsible for the trains themselves, other companies are responsible for the railroads. Before 2009, fewer than 10,000 tank cars of oil were transported by rail each year in the United States. In 2012, that number increased to 230,000 cars and escalated to 430,000in 2013.  CSX is a major company that owns 21,000 of railway in eastern U.S. Because fines are cheaper than maintenance, CSX fails to repair tracks and bridges. The 2014 derailment of 20 oil tankers, three of them going into the James River, cost CSX under $400,000.

train missileWhile bomb trains killing people, burning towns, and polluting the environment is horrible, the country has bigger problems. Of the 7,500+ nuclear weapons stored in the United States, many of them are located in North Dakota. A 15-minute segment on The Rachel Maddow Show describes the deadly connection between missiles and the bomb trains. This website provides a map for bomb trains in the United States and shows the huge number of miles in North Dakota.

One-third of the 150 loaded, primed and ready to fire missiles are in the Bakken oil field, that ships out millions of gallons of highly volatile crude oil on bomb trains. One of these missile bases is the site of a 2007 incident when six nuclear-tipped AGM-29 Advanced Cruise missiles were accidentally loaded on a B-52 headed for Barksdale AFB, the main staging base for B-52s flown to the Middle East. They were missing for 36 hours.

This is Infrastructure Week, and the GOP ignores the problems of not moving forward on the country’s infrastructure. Beyond the train disasters, the lack of funding for infrastructure is horrific. From the Harvard Business Review:

“Goods are delayed at clogged ports. Delayed or cancelled flights cost the U.S. economy an estimated $30-40 billion per year – not to mention ill will of disgruntled passengers. The average American wastes 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. This amounts to 5.5 billion hours in lost U.S. productivity annually, 2.9 gallons of wasted fuel, and a public health cost of pollution of about $15 billion per year, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. The average family of four spends as much as 19% of its household budget on transportation. But inequality also kicks in: the poor can’t afford cars, yet are concentrated in places without access to public transportation. To top it all, federal funding for highways, with a portion for mass transit, is about to run out.”

infrastructure costs

Happy Infrastructure Week!

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