Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid (or the Water)

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Erie algae crisis a long time growing (Journal Gazette)
Toxic algae crisis isn’t over for Lake Erie or the nation (Globe Newswire via Yahoo! Finance)

For all that this past weekend’s water emergency in the Toledo area made international news, for all that a couple of our local television stations spent most of the weekend in live non-stop news coverage, this “crisis” didn’t wind up being much more than a very big, very widespread inconvenience while it was going on. There haven’t been any reports of major illness stemming from the problems with the water system, and there weren’t any significant criminal problems either. There will be a significant financial hit from a lost weekend for many businesses, of course, but that’s the kind of thing we can start sorting out now that we’ve got drinkable water again. It was significant, yes, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

That said, it shouldn’t have happened at all, and now that a reasonable period of time has passed since we got the all-clear to drink the water again, I have a lot to get off of my chest. I don’t often write about environmental issues here, but they are of deep concern to me, not just as a nature photographer and a hippie but as a resident of this planet who has kind of a vested interest in seeing the planet, you know, survive.

Let me start with a couple of local gripes. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Marcy Kaptur, but she was spot-on during the crisis when she said that the city needed to release the testing results for the mitocystin toxin. All we were told at first was that the water had tested at 2.1 parts per billion of microcystin (and that 1 ppb is the limit for safe drinking water), and then we never got more numbers, even as we were told that the numbers were “improving” in later tests. This is information that should be, if it already isn’t, readily accessible to the public (especially water customers like us, and let me point out that the city forced my neighbourhood to switch from well water to city water several years ago, despite the flooding problems we’ve had since), and the need for that information has not diminished now that we’re “out of the woods.” The city should be testing for microcystin for as long as this algae bloom lasts, and publishing the results online each and every day, so those of us who have to use the water system know just what we’re putting into our bodies.

Secondly, I’ve yet to hear a good reason why EAS wasn’t activated during the water crisis. I’ve lost count of the number of times my cable box has cut away from something I’m trying to watch, and my cell phone has screeched at me, just to let me know an AMBER Alert has been issued all the way across the state, but that’s an inconvenience I’m more than willing to accept provided that the system is activated and works properly during a crisis like this. Yes, we live in a constantly-connected world of social media and such these days, but if the city had sent out an EAS bulletin when the do-not-drink order was first issued then I wouldn’t have brushed my teeth with the contaminated water about an hour later. The only reason I found out about the alert that night was because I got out of bed to pee right when my housemate read a story about it online. About forty-eight hours later, as another press conference kept getting pushed further and further back into the night, I had to keep insipid celebrity gossip shows on my television while I waited to hear if we were going to get the all-clear before sunrise. I can’t think of a good reason to explain why EAS never broadcast a single bulletin during the crisis.

Now for the larger concerns. Here’s an informative video report about the Lake Erie algae problem from Al-Jazeera America:

If anything in this video captures your attention (which I hope it does), consider this: That video was filmed last year. The algae problem was already that bad a year ago, and the irony is that this year’s algae bloom is actually smaller than last year’s; we just had the lousy luck of other environmental conditions causing more algae to go through the intake valve of one of the region’s biggest water treatment plants. In fact, last year’s algae bloom caused Carroll Township here in Ohio to institute a similar drinking water ban. What happened this past weekend happened here in this state less than a year ago, albeit on a smaller scale. These blooms have been happening every summer for a decade now, and all those images from space of neon green swirls in Lake Erie are nothing new.

I own up to not paying enough attention to local environmental news lately, but there have certainly been enough environmental disasters so far this year to keep me occupied. In January a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River left about 300,000 residents without potable water for over a week. The following month North Carolina’s Dan River was polluted with toxic coal ash that remained in the water until cleanup efforts ended just a few weeks ago. In April several train cars containing crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia and caught fire; this happened after a similar incident in North Dakota on New Year’s Eve last year, and a much more tragic oil train explosion in Quebec that killed forty-seven people earlier that year. This doesn’t even get into any ongoing issues caused by fracking or GMO farming, among other environmental issues.

The decreased visibility of the environmental movement over the past fifteen years can be attributed to a number of factors, but one of the most pernicious is the ridiculous conservative stereotype of environmentalists as “tree huggers” overly concerned with saving Brazilian rain forests or endangered species half a world away, advancing the notion — certainly proven false by the water emergency and all the crises mentioned above — that environmental problems are not American problems. This stereotype persists to the point where even when environmentalists are proven right, such as the many who predicted that the overuse of chemical fertilizers would cause the excessive nitrogen runoff into Lake Erie that feeds the algae blooms, they’re still marginalized at best, and usually completely ignored except for the same conservative lampooning that they’ve endured since before I was born.

When conservatives aren’t trying to ludicrously game the system — insisting on 50/50 debates about the reality of man-made climate change despite the wealth of evidence against them, all the while demanding that the suppositions underpinning their core beliefs (tax cuts for the rich benefit everyone, life begins at conception) never be challenged — they’re trying to pretend that so many of these problems affecting America don’t even exist. Republicans in Washington, and in states coast to coast, continue to slash funding for environmental studies in order to make it harder to even study the short- and long-term harm caused by all these environmental problems. After all, it isn’t really a problem if no one can name it as a problem, right?

This doesn’t even touch on the right-wing media bubble so many Americans live in, where these stories never get talked about except in wildly distorted versions to provide a break between the “Hillary Clinton laughed as Americans died in Benghazi” and “liberals want to put Christians in concentration camps” stories. Denialism has been elevated to a whole new level in the lands of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Rupert Murdoch, where anything that doesn’t fit in with these archconservatives’ predetermined conclusions — whether we’re talking about President Obama’s birth certificate or dead Sandy Hook Elementary School students — is dismissed as unreal and evidence of a “left-wing conspiracy” against the “real” Americans. I am honestly surprised that I haven’t been able to find some online community somewhere claiming that the algae in Lake Erie is some kind of liberal trickery, that our drinking water was just fine and that this weekend’s crisis was really a secret plot to brainwash Americans. Then again, given how much money right-wingers are making from all these conspiracy theories (gold investments, survival food, stockpiling weapons), it’s probably only a matter of time before the “algae truthers” start making the talk radio circuit.

Speaking of money, I’m guessing it won’t be long before local media is inundated with advertisements for home microcystin testing kits, most of which will probably be the 21st century equivalent of snake oil. The worst part is that this is completely emblematic of one of the largest problems with modern conservative ideology: If you can make money off a problem, it’s not really a problem at all. Any discussion of regulating farming practices to stop the overuse of chemical fertilizers, which would starve these algae blooms of the nitrogen they need to grow as big as they have, will be killed by Congressional Republicans in a heartbeat because they’ll claim that no matter what harm these blooms cause the general public, we can’t possibly impinge on the “freedom” of these big corporate farms to make as much money as possible. If the same companies feeding off conservative fearmongering can make some extra bucks by selling home microcystin testing kits to Toledoans, well, that’s just more proof that “the system is working.”

I don’t think living with your head continuously buried in the sand is any way to go about life, but that’s just my opinion. What these conservatives are trying to do, though, is force all of us to bury our heads in the sand with them, and I’m completely fed up with it. What happened here in Toledo last weekend could have been avoided, and now it’s going to take years, at best, to get the algae problem back under control. There will surely be more do-not-drink advisories coming in the years ahead, if not later this summer, and now we all have to stock up on bottled water and paper plates. Just like oil train crashes, just like increased seismic activity and flammable tap water in fracking zones, we are all being expected to accept this as “the new normal,” and I categorically refuse to do that.

If Republicans are going to keep destroying the environment despite the very real and immediate damage they’re causing, and if Democrats are too timid to go after conservatives on this issue (among others), then it is up to the rest of us to organize and educate and do everything else in our legal power to prevent more of America from going through what Toledo went through this past weekend, or worse. No matter how much money conservatives pump into their media bubble, we have to be louder than they are. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

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