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Beyond the Governor's glass of Flint water

Apr 19, 2016

I have to confess I rolled my eyes when I heard yesterday that Governor Rick Snyder went to a Flint resident’s home and drank their filtered tap water in front of two reporters.

Publicity pictures were taken, and the governor, who left with several gallons of the stuff, pledged to drink Flint water for the next 30 days.

Several nasty thoughts entered my head. One was to wonder if this was one of the houses that didn’t have lead pipes.

Those were the kind of homes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was testing last year, when it was pretending there were no problems.

I also had the same reaction as an elderly Flint resident with the enchanting name of Elizabeth Taylor. Symbolically drinking the water wasn’t enough, she told the Detroit Free Press:

“His whole family has to drink it. They have to cook with it and bathe with it.”

Well, they may not be doing that, but the governor said his wife Sue was on board with drinking Flint water too. The governor has been delinquent in visiting Flint during this crisis.

But what he did yesterday was exactly right.

One of his most ham-handed moments was signing a bill aiding the city in front of a whole group of white Republicans in, of all places, Grand Rapids.

But what he did yesterday was exactly right.

The city is now doing what should have been done all along – adding an anti-corrosive solution to the water, which is designed to help build up a protective coating on the pipes.

The more people use the water, the faster it is supposed to take effect. Not surprisingly, water usage hasn’t returned to anything like normal.

People don’t trust it, or the government.

So what the governor did was symbolically important. And the water he drank yesterday did in fact come from a home that had elevated lead levels. Ideally, for maximum effect, the governor would have drunk the water together with a prominent figure Flint citizens do trust, like Congressman Dan Kildee or better yet, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

But in any event, Snyder deserves credit for doing the right thing, even if it was overdue.

Something else yesterday gave me even more hope, however: Michigan State University’s annual state of the state survey, led by Professor Charles Ballard, an expert on the state’s economy.

Not surprisingly, a substantial majority blamed Snyder and his administration for the Flint water crisis. But what was surprising and encouraging is that those surveyed cited the “infrastructure of cities” as the state’s most important problem.

Flint is the canary on the coal mine, and ignoring its real meaning would be to put us all in great peril.

Significantly more people picked that than the next biggest item, jobs and the economy.

For years, it’s been clear the state and nation’s crumbling infrastructure is our biggest ticking time bomb. Now, we’ve had the first explosion.

Before he was elected president, I had a chance to interview Barack Obama, who asked me my first priority would be. I said it would be to establish a National Infrastructure Corps to rebuild America’s foundations.

He chose to spend his political capital on health care instead. I don’t fault him for that, but even if it isn’t very sexy, infrastructure now has to be our first priority. Flint is the canary on the coal mine, and ignoring its real meaning would be to put us all in great peril.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.