The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Rural Towns Have Polluted Water. Will Trump’s Plan Fix It?

The Daily Escape:

Valley of Desolation, Eastern Cape, South Africa – 2018 photo by Ottho Heldring

The Trump infrastructure plan asks states and cities to partner with private equity to build their roads, bridges and water treatment plants. As the WSJ explains, private equity says they are not interested. Apparently, they don’t want to build things; they prefer to purchase existing assets: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Fund managers say they are mainly looking for assets that are already privately owned—such as renewable energy, railroads, utilities and pipelines—and not the deteriorating government-owned infrastructure like roads and bridges that helped attract the capital in the first place. To the extent they are interested in public assets, the focus is more likely to be on privatizing existing infrastructure than on new development—the heart of Mr. Trump’s push.

One area where private equity may think they have a role to play is with America’s threatened water systems, which are existing assets. When people think of water crises, they think of places like Flint, Michigan, because a failed urban water system affects huge numbers of people.

But most health-based violations of drinking-water standards occur in small towns. Of the 5,000 US drinking-water systems that racked up health-based violations in 2015, more than 50% were systems that served 500 people or fewer.

But when we add up the total number of people affected, rural America’s drinking-water situation is an order of magnitude greater than Flint’s. Millions of rural Americans are subject to unhealthy levels of contaminants in their drinking water, largely from agriculture and coal mining.

And as the rural/urban economic gap grows, this basic inequality won’t get fixed unless something radical is done to improve water quality in rural America.

Agriculture is the culprit in many rural towns, and unhealthy levels of nitrates is the primary cause. Nitrogen-based fertilizer runs off of farmlands and into the nation’s fresh water. The health impact of ingesting nitrates is serious:

  • Two-thirds of communities with nitrate levels at or above 5 ppm are in 10 states where agriculture is big business.
  • Almost three-fourths of communities whose drinking water is at or above the legal limit are found in just five states – Arizona, California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Remediation costs vary, but a 2012 report from the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis gives a yardstick. They say that a community of just under 5,000 people could incur annual costs ranging from $195,000 to $1.1 million to build and operate an ion exchange system, while a reverse osmosis system would cost from $1.1 million to $4 million a year. A $4 million system would cost $800 per citizen.

These costs may be far beyond the ability of small towns to finance. What is really going on here is another case of “socializing losses”. Farms are polluting the water, and the town is left to pay for remediation. And the big agriculture lobbies are making sure that their members avoid any liability for poisoning their towns.

We know that we haven’t been able to fund Flint’s water remediation with public funds. How will we deal with the rest of America’s polluted drinking water?  It isn’t likely that towns and cities can do much more. Some cities have debt capacity, the capital markets may be willing to lend to them. However, hostility to new taxes on the local level means that issuing new debt is difficult politically for mayors and town councils.

Trump’s infrastructure plan opens up the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). This federal financial assistance program for water infrastructure projects would allow private firms to both manage and repair water infrastructure at taxpayer’s expense. Previously, only states and municipalities could access the fund.

Funneling CWSRF funds to private water system providers means our most vulnerable towns will have to turn over basic infrastructure to for-profit companies. And those companies will charge for the privilege. On average, private for-profit water utilities charge households 59% more than local governments charge for drinking water, an extra $185 a year.

When your water is poisoning you, should you agree to raise water rates to fix it, or do you expect to get pure water for the money you are already paying?

What if you are unable to move to a place where the water is safe?

If your water system will cost $ millions for a town of 500, how can it possibly be paid for, except by public funding?


Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 23, 2017

Sorry for the lack of columns; Wrongo has an acute case of Trump Fatigue. It is difficult to: a) think of anyone or anything else, and b) when writing a column, everything seems linked to every other thing, and none of you want to read a thousand-word rant. On to the rich harvest of cartoons.

Le Pen’s ballots in today’s election in France may be enough to force the big box to open:

The March for Science, unsurprisingly, has opposition:


It isn’t enough to just think about the planet on Earth Day:

Fox replaces O’Reilly with another loser:

Why do we still call it the Presidency when the differences are so stark?

Why would millions of people willingly watch a real-time murder?



Monday Wake Up Call – June 6, 2016

We know that D-Day was June 6, 1944, but what does the “D” in D-Day, stand for?

Apparently, this is a frequently asked question by visitors to The National WWII Museum. But the answer isn’t simple. Disagreements between military historians and etymologists about the meaning of D-Day abound. Here are two explanations:

In Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Ambrose writes:

Time Magazine reported on June 12 1944 that ‘as far as the U.S. Army can determine, the first use of D for Day, H for Hour was in Field Order No. 8, of the First Army, A.E.F., issued on Sept. 20, 1918, which read, ‘The First Army will attack at H-Hour on D-Day with the object of forcing the evacuation of the St. Mihiel salient.’ (p. 491)

In other words, Ambrose reports the D in D-Day stands for “Day.” But In Paul Dickson’s War Slang, he quotes General Eisenhower:

When someone wrote to General Eisenhower in 1964 asking for an explanation, his executive assistant Brigadier General Robert Schultz answered: ‘General Eisenhower asked me to respond to your letter. Be advised that any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date’; therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.’ (p.146)

It’s an enigma wrapped inside of a mystery. A continuing enigma is the lack of accountability by both our elected officials and our state and national bureaucrats. Today’s travesty was reported in the UK’s Guardian:

Despite warnings of regulators and experts, water departments in at least 33 cities used testing methods over the past decade that could underestimate lead found in drinking water.

These tests are taken annually and sent to the EPA in Washington. The 33 offending cities were in 17 different states. Of the cities, 21 used the same failed water testing methods that were used in Flint MI. Additional findings:

  • Michigan and New Hampshire advised water departments to give themselves extra time to complete tests so that if lead contamination exceeded federal limits, officials could re-sample and remove results with high lead levels.
  • Some cities denied knowledge of the locations of lead pipes, failed to sample the required number of homes with lead plumbing or refused to release lead pipe maps, claiming that would be a security risk.

Since the Flint water crisis erupted last year, school districts from coast to coast have stepped up testing of fountains and sinks. From Newark to Boston to Detroit, city after city has reported elevated levels of lead in the water of some educational buildings. The Portland OR schools have the problem and the school district has been aware of it for years. But the federal government doesn’t actually require most schools to test, so few do.

Apparently, the federal EPA has known since 2001 that its testing guidelines were weak. They are working on “long-term revisions” to its lead and copper rule, which are expected in 2017. Or sometime.

From Ian Welsh:

No regulator worth its salt, who is doing their job, could have missed entire States and large cities cheating, because any regulator worth its salt does its own audits and testing.

Republicans do not see this as a problem. Yes, there have been apologies, but no federal funding to remediate the problem. In fact, Fitch Rating Service estimates that capital costs to replace the nation’s lead water service lines could exceed $275 billion.

Republicans expect Mr. Market to take care of issues like this, once we privatize our water supply.

After all, aren’t invisible hands already cleaning the lead from the brains of America’s children?

It’s the miracle of market self-regulation.

Time for a wake-up call for all who think that business as usual is acceptable for our aging infrastructure, and in the case of our water supply, our poisonous infrastructure. Let’s look back to a time when America could do great things, even if it cost real dough. In 1977, we sent the Voyager I and II interstellar satellites off into space with a record of the things we thought made Earth unique. The music we sent was picked by Carl Sagan. This link lists all of the music we sent into the cosmos. One of his picks was by Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark Was the Night”, which has no lyrics, but creates a mood of loneliness. Here is “Dark Was the Night”:

This song will likely last longer than the human race. It’s doubtful that Blind Willie ever thought THAT was gonna happen.

What isn’t gonna happen is that our politicians decide on their own to be accountable to the rest of us.


Sunday Cartoon Blogging – May 29, 2016

Californians will be pleased to know that when Donald Trump becomes president, he can stop their drought overnight. California just went through the driest four-year period on record.

But Trump isn’t sold. He told supporters in Fresno, CA that the dry spell is bogus. Trump said the state was denying water to Central Valley farmers to prioritize the Delta smelt, a native California fish nearing extinction — or as Trump called it: “a certain kind of three-inch fish.” He told the crowd:

We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea…

At least we know where Trump stands on the issue:

If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.

Never mind that this is a state, not a federal issue, because Trump will win on the environment too.

In other news, Hill’s email problem gives her a few hurdles:

COW Hillarys Hurdles

So far, we’ve heard what we already knew, she broke a rule that others had broken before her. Of course, to Republicans, breaking an agency rule is proof she’s broken the law. Maybe, but rules ain’t the same as the law. She needs to put this behind her, or face death by a thousand cuts.

We got our first look at Hill’s emails:

COW Hills Emoticon

Bill & Hill feel the Bern in CA:

COW kids in car

Trump and Bernie wanted to debate. You know who the target was:

COW Trump Bernie

Apparently, we have no antibiotic for the Superbug:

COW Superbug












The GOP plans to make the transgender toilet rule a centerpiece in the campaign:

COW Toilet


Can You Trust Your Local Government?

Citizens are supposed to be able to trust their elected governments, local, state and national. But, surveys show that Americans have very little trust in government. In fact, an October 2015 Pew Study shows that only 19% trust the federal government “all or most” of the time.

This brings us to Flint Michigan. Flint’s citizens have been drinking, cooking and bathing in poisonous water.

The decision to expose Flint residents to known risks of lead poisoning were made by an unaccountable “emergency manager” who was installed by the governor, Republican Rick Snyder, in order to solve the fiscal problems created by the city’s declining tax base.

In April 2014, Flint’s emergency manager, in order to save money, directed the water company to begin drawing water from the Flint River rather than from Detroit’s water system, which was deemed too costly ($1.5 million/month). But the river’s water was high in salt, which helped corrode Flint’s aging lead water pipes, leaching lead into the water supply.

Problems were apparent almost immediately: The water started to smell like rotten eggs. Engineers responded to that problem by increasing the chlorine level. GM discovered that city water was corroding engines at their Flint factory and switched sources.

Then children and others started getting rashes and falling sick. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental-engineering professor, found that the water had nearly 900 times the recommend EPA limit for lead particles. Yet as late as February 2015, even after tests showed dangerous lead levels, officials were telling residents there was no threat.

But in September 2015, two independent studies found that the lead levels in Flint’s water were absurdly high, and in October, 2015, Flint once again began buying water from Detroit.

On January 5th, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency due to lead in the water supply. The same day, the US Department of Justice announced that it is investigating what went wrong in the city. Several top officials have resigned, and Snyder apologized. But that’s cold comfort for Flint residents, particularly children, who are being poisoned by lead, which can cause irreversible brain damage and affect physical health.

And it could cost $1.5 billion to fix the problem, a staggering sum for a city struggling financially like Flint. Worse, six months ago, Rick Snyder’s Chief of Staff knew about it and expressed concern:

These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).

So, the Flint story is hands down one of the worst abuses of government power in a long time. Money took precedence over people’s health. An unaccountable emergency manager who in a possibly well-intended effort to save the city $1.5 million a month in water fees, changes the source to the Flint River. In December 2014, a city employee tested the water of a woman whose son had gotten a rash after swimming in a pool.

He found that the lead level in her water was 104 parts per billion, about seven times greater than the lead level the EPA deems “actionable.”

BTW, Michigan voters repealed the Emergency Manager Law in 2012, but the Republican-controlled state legislature then passed a more far-reaching, emergency-manager law, one that could not be repealed.

So, what conclusions can we draw? Could the failure in Flint be used by conservatives to say?

See? You can’t even trust government to provide you with clean water anymore. We need to privatize the water company right now!

Or, the really damning take away is the emergency manager tried to save some money in a way that actually requires more money be spent, but did it anyway, apparently after being told about the problem, which poisoned people!.

OTOH, the fine citizens of Michigan re-elected Mr. Snyder, who took away the democratically elected team in Flint, and granted power to his appointed Publican. But the voters are not to blame. It is one thing to accept some right-wing economic BS, or to be too lazy to vote.

The penalty for either of those shouldn’t be that your government poisons you and your children.

St. Ronnie told us government was the problem, not the solution. And Rick Snyder’s cost-cutting steps seem to prove Ronnie was right (at least if government is run by the GOP).

It is hard to care about “Islamic terrorism” when your government knowingly poisons your city’s water supply in order to save money (in the short term).

And what is the criminal penalty for 10,000 cases of child endangerment?


Are the Bundys America’s Y’all Qaeda?

Off Topic: Here is your last Santa photo of the season. Santa dodges tear gas in Bethlehem, 2015:

Santa in Bethlehem



Source: The Economist

Everyone is following the story of the standoff in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, waiting for the next ugly shoe to drop: Will the authorities shut down the Ammon Bundy crew? Will bullets fly? Will they wait them out? As Josh Marshall said: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

…we just confirmed from Oregon State police the Ammon Bundy and his crew, who appear to be running low on supplies (Fritos, beef jerky, pizza, etc.) are actually free to come and go as they please. So if they need more food they can just leave the standoff, drive off to the nearest grocery store on a food run and come back and keep up the historic siege.

More from Marshall:

We look at the ridiculously inconsistent way law enforcement handles white right-wing freaks as opposed to other people who break the law or threaten violence…the import should not be that federal law enforcement should just rush in and kill everyone. Using force should be a last resort. And, within reason, if you can just wait people out and then charge them with whatever crimes they committed, great.

Seems like some liberals are willing to work really hard not to create an incident with the Bundy crew, or as Tengrain calls them, Y’all Qaeda. Here’s Booman, commenting on Marshall:

The double standard in how these white men are treated and how, say, Tamir Rice was treated couldn’t be more glaring. However, delivering Ruby Ridge Part Deux just to be consistent is maybe the dumbest idea ever written down by a liberal. The easiest way to end a siege is simply to refuse to besiege them.

Wrongo gets that the Feds and the local authorities don’t want another Waco or Ruby Ridge, but if we had nipped the Bundy problem in the bud when it arose in Nevada, this subsequent event might not have happened.

The Malheur was poorly managed before and after the government took over. Nancy Langston, professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University wrote about Malheur in the NYT:

By the 1930s, after four decades of overgrazing, irrigation withdrawals, grain agriculture, dredging and channelization, followed by several years of drought, Malheur had become a dust bowl.

The Bundys and fellow travelers refuse to accept that We, the People, already own and run the land. That we determine how to use it. The protesters might not like this, but even if it went back into private hands, it would be a matter of little time before overgrazing brings back dust bowl conditions to the area, and these free marketers ask for federal disaster assistance.

The common thread is the continuing story of corporate welfare in the American West: under-market grazing fees, under-market water rights, under-priced mineral rights, crop subsidies, ad nauseam. And the cry is always the same: “the government is ruining our way of life” (by interrupting the flow of subsidies). The question is whether this “way of life” is sustainable if it’s not supported by the American taxpayer.

Back to the occupation of the Wildlife Refuge:

• We can ignore them until they get bored and go home, but what if they don’t go home?
• OTOH, we can say it’s an armed standoff with the federal government. The very opposite of legitimate protest.

We need to remember that this has its genesis with Cliven Bundy in Utah. There, the Feds backed down to avoid an armed incident, and Cliven Bundy still has not paid his grazing fees. It’s as if threatened violence caused the US government back down. We acted moderately, and now 21 months later, another Bundy is edging up to another armed standoff about other federal land in Oregon.

When we are moderate in the Middle East, the neo-cons say we are emboldening the bad guys. If we move on these guys with guns, the neo-cons will say we are stopping a legitimate protest.

Let’s ask the Y’all Qaeda to leave, letting them know the legal penalties for staying.

Finally, if all else fails, send in unarmed officers to arrest them. The feds should ask for volunteer officers to go in 100% unarmed to arrest these people.

They should tell the media exactly what’s happening. Let every cable and network television channel go live as the federal officers go in, armed only with handcuffs.

Don’t shoot our way in, making them martyrs or giving them a defense of armed self-protection.

If the situation gets adversarial, then of course arrest them, by any means necessary.

See you on Sunday.


Monday Wake Up Call – August 31, 2015

Today’s wake up is for Turkey. In addition to our geopolitical issues with them, they are waging a sub-rosa battle for water with Syria and Iraq. The Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which feeds Syria and Iraq, is rapidly drying up. It is drying up due to overuse, and because Turkey has dammed both rivers for its own use, both for agricultural irrigation and in some cases, for hydropower. For the geography-impaired, here is a view of the rivers and the countries:

Tigris and Euphrates

The water that now goes to farmers in Turkey used to flow down the Euphrates and Tigris to Syria and Iraq. In Syria, three drought years forced many farmers to leave the land. From Foreign Affairs:

By 2011, drought-related crop failure had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and al Qaeda.

A 2010 study showed that today’s Syrian rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure. In Iraq, the story is the same:

In Karbala, farmers are in despair and are reportedly considering abandoning their land. In Baghdad, the poorest neighborhoods rely on the Red Cross for drinking water. At times, the Red Cross has had to supply over 150,000 liters a day. Further south, Iraq’s central marshes, the Middle East’s largest wetlands, are disappearing again after being re-flooded after Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Syria and Iraq cannot solve the problem on their own. While there are agreements about minimum water flows between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, they are honored in the breach. Between 1975 and 1991, on three occasions, Syria and Iraq threatened Turkey with military action over reduced river flows due to Turkey damming the rivers.

Saudi Arabia and Russia mediated tensions among the three countries in the 1970s, but the challenge today is that no international or regional powers have been willing to force the countries to work together. Foreign Affairs says that 40 memoranda of understanding struck between Iraq and Turkey over water sharing at the height of the drought in 2009 have led to almost no concrete progress. More from Foreign Affairs: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Although current agreements between Syria and Turkey provide for 500 cubic meters per second, 46% of which goes to Iraq…According to Jasim al Asadi, a hydrologist with Nature Iraq, by the time the Euphrates reaches Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, a minimum of 90 cubic meters per second is required for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use. Sometimes, the flow can be as low as 18 cubic meters per second…Before major dam construction in the 1970s, [in Turkey] the average flow in the Euphrates was about 720 cubic meters per second. Now it is about 260 as it enters Iraq.

Nearly two-third of the water flow Iraq used to get is gone, and there is no way to replace it. Moreover what little water is currently still flowing may soon be gone as well: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

Full implementation of [Turkey’s water plans]…could reduce the Euphrates’ flows to Iraq by 80%. Now, consider that Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for over 90% of its freshwater, and you can imagine the potential fallout of the [Turkish] plan on Iraq’s agricultural production.

Turkey has had its own issues with drought, but Turkey is not facing a national-level water emergency like Syria and Iraq. So is there a solution? Not today. Turkey won’t help Syria. There is some hope in Iraq, since relations between the countries is better now than at any point in the past 10 years.

But Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris-Euphrates river system. To ignore the imminent water crisis is to ignore another major fault line in the Middle East. Turkey needs to wake up and deal with the countries downstream who desperately need a larger share of water. To help them wake up, here is Jimmy Cliff doing “By the Rivers of Babylon” live in NYC in 2013:

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can see the video here.

Monday’s Hot Links:

NRA radio host says calling for new gun laws right after the VA shooting is gross. IT’S TOO SOON!!! Besides, as ANY red-blooded White Christian patriot will tell you, MOR GUNZ!!! The NRA has a radio station?

The Beatles 10 greatest guitar moments. Includes Wrongo’s favorite, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Abbey Road (1969).

The Onion reports that a gay teen is worried that he might be Christian. His father says, “No son of mine is going to try to get intelligent design into school textbooks.” He added, “I just want my normal gay son back.”

Alabama is trying to make it even harder to get a voter ID. As a budget cutting measure, they are shutting down the vast majority of DMV offices. The proposal to close dozens of DMVs across the state, starting in rural areas, could hurt voters who need an ID to vote.

Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, says the devil overplayed his hand with the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage. Pappy Cruz: “The basis for their decision was the 14th Amendment. That means they’re calling homosexuality a civil right…If they’re calling homosexuality a civil right, that means that the next obvious step is a homosexual may come to your church and demand to be hired.” Sadly, pappy Cruz and his hate-addled, homophobic son line their pockets as a result of this spew.

Quote for the week:
You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”− (attributed to Albert Einstein)