If it can happen here...

Flint mayor urges fellow lawmakers to use her city as a cautionary tale

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“I don’t like to say, ‘Use me,'” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said at a recent panel on how to deal with aging water infrastructure. “But I’ll say, ‘If you don’t like to use Flint, if you don’t use us as a voice and a platform for what could happen to your city, then shame on you.’”

During Weaver’s election campaign last year, Flint became the poster child for failed policies across all levels of government after the public learned that lead had contaminated the Michigan city’s water supply. Images of brown water coming out of faucets were playing on a loop on cable news. Residents were concerned about the effects of lead poisoning, and asked each other, “Have you been tested?” Overnight, “Flint” became code for one of the worst public health crises in recent American history.

On Monday, Weaver spoke in front of a roomful of mayors, business leaders, and academics, who gathered in Miami for CityLab 2016, an annual conference that brings together municipal leaders from around the world to discuss pressing issues confronting our cities. During a panel alongside Syracuse, NY, Mayor Stephanie Miner, Weaver made the case that her city’s recent painful history should serve as a warning to others.

“There are other Flints waiting to happen if something’s not done, and that’s why somebody has to be a voice,” Weaver told me after the panel. “If I see something that’s happening in my city that has the potential of happening in yours, I feel like it’s my responsibility to warn you.”

“There are other Flints waiting to happen if something’s not done.”

- Flint Mayor Karen Weaver

Today, being the mayor of Flint consists of two jobs, she said: One is trying to revitalize the city’s infrastructure, and the other is sounding the alarm for other cities that might be ticking time bombs.

Water systems for major U.S. cities are aging, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “In some older urban areas, many water mains have been in the ground for a century or longer,” notes a 2010 report from the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit dedicated to managing and treating water across the country. In other words, a lot of this infrastructure is approaching “the end of its useful life,” the report says.

In Flint, the crisis arose when officials changed its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014, but failed to treat aging pipes with corrosion inhibitors that would’ve prevented lead from poisoning the water. Residents immediately started filing complaints with the EPA, but the agency should’ve done more to fix the problem before it reached crisis levels, according to a report published last week.

Ultimately, ensuring that another Flint never happens again comes down to pressing federal, state, and local governments to give the necessary funds and resources to address aging water infrastructure.

“It was a perfect storm,” Weaver told me. “We’ve got the Great Lakes, one of the cleanest water supplies on Earth, and we can’t get clean water.”

“My responsibility can’t stop at city limits.”