Flint Water Crisis: A $300 Billion Legacy

The fallout from the Flint water crisis seems set to continue indefinitely into the future as the embattled city tries to grapple with the consequences. As concern over lead poisoning in the water spreads from Flint across the U.S., experts are estimating that the final bill could add up to over $300 billion.

The long-term effects could extend well beyond the borders of Flint or even Michigan state if the Flint water crisis prompts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to tighten regulations at the federal level. Fitch Ratings service, a global credit ratings and research agency, has put together some numbers in a press release that illustrate the breadth of the issue at the heart of the Flint water crisis: the aging water infrastructure throughout the United States.

There are several lawsuits in place that could set the stage for a large-scale overhaul of water systems throughout the United States. The Flint water crisis has spawned multiple lawsuits against the city of Flint based on the widely accepted premise that the direct cause of the lead poisoning crisis is the city’s decision to change water service to a new and more corrosive source. The more corrosive water caused the erosion of lead soldering on old pipes, thereby raising the levels of lead in drinking water. In Chicago, residents have filed another flurry of lawsuits against the city that also revolve around elevated levels of lead in the water. The Chicago suits allege that the city’s repairs to its water system released the poisonous heavy metal into the water system.

Current EPA regulations require municipalities and water suppliers to control levels of lead by controlling erosion, however, the federal agency had been considering a revision to the current rule even before the Flint water crisis came to light. Tightened regulation may require water suppliers to monitor water quality, actively treat the water for control of corrosive properties, provide public education, and to physically remove all lead lines.

According to the Fitch Ratings press release, which deals with the pressures on the water industry in light of the Flint water crisis and current lawsuits, there are currently over six million lead service lines in use across the United States, with older urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest largely affected. They estimate the capital costs of replacement alone at over $275 billion. The EPA recently estimated that the water sector as an industry requires an overhaul to the tune of about $385 billion — that’s calculated without complete removal of all lead piping and with the work spread over a period of about 15 years. If the timetable is accelerated, those costs will spiral upwards. Fitch Ratings warns such a development may interfere with other infrastructure projects.

Named in some of the Flint water crisis lawsuits, Governor Rick Snyder has hired a criminal defense attorney even as presidential candidate Marco Rubio came out in his defense during Thursday’s Republican televised debate, which was held in Detroit – some 70 miles from Flint. He made the remarks as demonstrators outside protested about the Flint water crisis among other issues.

Rubio was quoted in a Time Magazine piece.

“The politicizing of it, I think, is unfair, because I don’t think someone woke up one morning and said ‘let’s figure out how to poison the water system to hurt someone,’ but accountability is important. I will say I give the Governor credit. He took responsibility for what happened and he’s talked about people being held accountable and the need to change.”

In Flint, the first lead pipe was replaced earlier this week with new copper piping in a home occupied by a pregnant woman and her 8-year-old girl. It’s the first of some 8,000 homes that require new piping, and the city currently has funding for only about 30 of such replacements, according to a CBS News report.

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Tonight’s Democratic debate take place right in Flint, where Hillary Clinton has already gone on record on Super Tuesday (March 2, 2016) with choice remarks aimed at Governor Snyder. Clinton was quoted by the Washington Post leading up to tonight’s debate.

“Our city’s children were poisoned by toxic water because their governor wanted to save a little money.”

While it began as a local issue, it seems clear that the Flint water crisis will continue to claim a spot on the national stage.

[Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images]