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EPA Knew, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a criminally inept government contaminated the drinking water with lead and spent months pretending the problem didn’t exist. Now, the other shoe has dropped:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwest official said her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply — a situation that likely put residents at risk for lead contamination — but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public.

Starting with inquiries made in February, the federal agency battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law.

Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.

The EPA’s point is that actual decision-making is made by the DEQ, a state-level agency. They mainly monitor and advise. But that doesn’t explain why they spent six months in bureaucratic tickle fight instead of, you know, telling a city of tens of thousands people that there water was poisonous.

This is the second time the EPA has stayed quiet on a massive ecological disaster as you may remember from last year’s mine blowout. Amazing, the EPA is standing by that decision.

The Democrats are in a huff to blame Snyder for this. And, to be fair, Snyder does deserve some blame. The decision to switch to river water was signed off on by the emergency manager and Snyder picked the emergency manager. Responsibility rolls upward.

But this is not exclusively or even mainly the fault of the governor or austerity or “free markets”. Snyder has released a trove of e-mails show that the DEQ concealed what was going on, from him and from the citizens of Flint. Dalmia walks us through how this was a failure at every level of government, not because of an emergency manager or austerity but because of incompetence, cover-up and malfeasance:

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency that is responsible for implementing federal EPA environmental standards and ensure water standards, ignored citizen concerns that there was something wrong with the water they were getting from the new Flint River water system.

The EPA required the DEQ to perform a faulty test to measure water quality that totally failed to catch the problem. That’s not all that the EPA did wrong, however. Even after it realized that the DEQ wasn’t taking a simple step necessary to prevent lead poisoning – namely adding phosphorous – it did absolutely nothing. It didn’t go public with this information; it didn’t warn residents that they should take steps to prevent themselves. It basically fiddled as Flint residents were getting poisoned. What’s even more infuriating? It would have cost less than $50,000 annually to add the phosphorous.

The local mayor was even worse than the EPA. If the EPA passively allowed residents to poison themselves, the mayor actively encouraged them to do so. He told them that there was nothing wrong with the water and they’d be wasting their “precious” money by buying bottled water. This, incidentally, was after GM stopped using this water because it was corroding auto parts.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services dismissed tests showing a spike in lead levels in blood tests of local residents after the switch to Flint River as a “seasonal anomaly.”

(The Mayor of Flint actually drank some of the water on TV to prove it was safe. Greg Branch has written another good explainer that breaks down what happened.)

You get it now, liberals? I know you hate Snyder. I know you hate Republicans. I know you hate the whole emergency manager thing. But this went a lot deeper than Snyder. He wasn’t the one who signed off on the switch and then spent months ignoring or deliberately covering up the problem. Quit using this an excuse to go after a governor you don’t like. Yes, he bears some responsibility. There may two people in this whole mess who don’t. But there are a lot of people who a lot more responsibility than Snyder. And most of them are Democrats.

The Deficit Bomb Looms Again

Over the last few years, flat spending has cut the deficit down from $1.4 trillion to $400 billion. That’s OK. But it’s not a permanent fix. And after the recent budget deal, the Committee for a Responsible Budget here to remind us that we are in temporary lull:

CBO now projects deficits more than tripling, from $439 billion in 2015 to $1.37 trillion by 2026, with trillion dollar deficits returning by 2022 – three years earlier than prior projections.

Debt held by the public, meanwhile, will grow by over $10 trillion from $13.1 trillion at the end of 2015 to $23.8 trillion by 2026. As a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), debt will grow from 74 percent of GDP in 2015 – already twice its pre-recession levels – to 86 percent of GDP in 2026. By comparison, August projections showed debt on track to reach roughly 77 percent of GDP, or $21 trillion, by 2025….

The largest driver of this difference is legislation changes, especially the $855 billion tax extenders and omnibus spending package. Total legislative changes appear somewhat lower, driven by gimmicks and baseline quirks surrounding the $70 billion highway bill and the Bipartisan Budget Act. The remaining difference is from a combination of economic and technical factors, especially driven by lower projected economic growth….

CBO shows a worse debt picture than before both because of lawmakers’ own doing and other factors. It is clear now that deficits will no longer be in decline as they have been for the past five years, and debt will continue to increase from near-record high levels. The complacency that lawmakers have shown about debt over the past few years must end so they can address the troublesome trajectory of deficits and debt.

Now, to be fair, the CBO projects from baseline budgeting. And the worsening of the debt picture is mainly because the budget deal made tax breaks permanent rather than pretend they would expire every year. Still, that’s a grim picture.

The good news is that it is not an unsolvable problem. Returning to the flat spending levels we had for five years would dramatically cut into that debt — each new dollar spent is compounded by baseline budgeting that grows that dollar into two within a decade. A 1986-style tax overhaul that increased revenue will cutting the deadweight loss of the tax system would also help. Obamacare is driving some of the deficit — the system was designed to “balance” over the first ten years but start steering into a ditch very soon (a really a very big ditch). The main priority, of course, has to be entitlement reform.

So surely our two parties are addressing this problem, right?

Well …

Party A is now experiencing a huge surge at the polls from a man who wants to add trillions in new healthcare spending, hundreds of billions in “free” college and hundreds of billions in “jobs spending”. His opponent, now panicking because her second inevitable coronation is threatened, is rapidly moving left, promising even MORE spending. The debate among the Democrats is not about whether the federal government should provide “free” college. It’s about whether rich kids should or should not be included in that largesse.

Party B, however, is not much better. They are talking about big tax cuts combined with huge increases in military spending. Rand Paul, at one of the debates, called the other Republican candidates out on their deficit-busting tax-cut-and-spend plans. He’s now polling too low to even be invited to the debates. Their frontrunner … well, who knows what the hell Trump is saying this week.

This is one of the biggest reasons to be dubious of electing a Republican President while the GOP has Congress. Or, contrarily, the biggest reason to maintain a Republican Congress if a Democrat takes the White House*. Historically, the only way we’ve kept spending under control is to have the first two branches of government in different hands. With another budget apocalypse looming, can we trust the GOP with total control of the pursestrings again?**

(*There are other reasons to want a Republican in the White House: foreign policy, SCOTUS appointments etc.)

(**And before we get into “BUT DEMOCRATS!”, here are the annual budget increases for the last five combinations of President and Congress:

Clinton and Republicans (1995-2001): 3% per year
Bush and Republicans (2002-2007): 7% per year
Bush and Democrats (2008-2009): 9% per year
Obama and Democrats (2010-2011): 5% per year
Obama and Republicans (2011-present) : 0% per year

That last one will go up with the 2016 budget. But not by much.)

Democrat Debate

The Democrats debated last night. Or maybe I should say that Clinton and Sanders debated last night since the only other person on the stage, Martin O’Malley, seemed to disappear at times. For the most part, it was what you’d expect: more spending, less freedom, more power. But there was one particular bit that infuriated me. It was from that canker sore, O’Malley:

The things that we need to do in our country, like debt-free college in the next five years, like making universal — like making national service a universal option in order to cut youth unemployment in half in the next three years, all these things can be done if we eliminate one entitlement we can no longer afford as a nation.

And that is the wealthy among us, those making more than a million dollars, feel that they are entitled to paying a much lower marginal tax rate than was usual for the better part of these 80 years.

You read that? You see what O’Malley did there? He claimed that paying a marginal tax rate less than 90% is an entitlement. That wanting to pay less in taxes isn’t a political disagreement or even greed. It’s entitlement.

As a matter of mathematics, O’Malley is full of it. The higher marginal rates of the 20th century came with numerous loopholes so that no one really paid the 90% top rate except maybe John Rockefeller. When Reagan cut tax rates in the 1980’s, he also eliminated most of those tax shelters so that the proportion of taxes by the rich was either steady or went up. In fact, the rich are currently paying half the income taxes in this country.

You could confiscate all the income of this country’s millionaires and it still wouldn’t pay for the kind of spending these bozos want. In the end, they will have to tax the middle class because that’s where the money is. Sanders is at least semi-honest in this. His socialized medicine plan includes heavy payroll taxes because the math won’t work otherwise.

But that’s details. The important paint here is how O’Malley thinks. All your money belongs to government. Your income is whatever they allow you to keep. And if you want to keep more of it, you are acting entitled.

I’m willing to debate whether the rich should pay more in taxes. But I’m not willing to countenance that kind of mentality. O’Malley is gunning for Vice President this time around. With two candidates who will be in their 70’s next year, that means he could end up a heartbeat away from the Presidency. His horrifying record in Baltimore and Maryland is reason enough to vote against that. But the revelation of how he thinks closes the deal.

Libya vs. Iran

We’ve been discussing the Iran nuclear deal in the Seized Sailors thread but I wanted to put this particular point above the fold. Because I’m asking a serious question for the field:

What is the substantive difference between the WMD deal we made with Libya in 2004 and the WMD deal we just made with Iran?

As you may remember, in December 2003, Libya agreed to end their WMD program and destroy their stockpiles in exchange for lifting the sanctions. By September, most of their stockpile had been destroyed (although some remained and wasn’t destroyed until a decade later) and Bush signed orders doing away with all of the sanctions. Like the Iran deal, it was not a formal treaty.

Gaddafi was more of a traditional dictator and less of an Islamic fundamentalist. Their nuclear ambitions were more aspirational than real. But, like Iran, Libya was a state sponsor of terrorism. Like Iran, Libya had engaged in direct military conflict with the United States. Like Iran, Libya had a hideous record on human rights. Like Iran, Libya was dedicated to the destruction of Israel. And unlike Iran, Libyan citizens did not hold a vigil to honor the fallen of 9/11.

I don’t remember anyone screaming blue murder when we reached the deal with Libya. On the contrary, many credited Bush’s manly vigor in invading Iraq for having induced Libya to cooperate. And the deal with Iran has produced more compliance already than the deal with Libya did (although Libya never did get their WMD program going again).

So … why was the Libya deal good and the Iran deal is bad? What is the difference between the two? Is it just that you don’t trust Obama and Kerry to implement it (a not illegitimate concern)? Is it that Iran’s program is more advanced? Or did you oppose the Libya deal as well?

I’m not being snide here. I honestly want to know what the difference between those two deals is.

Feeling the Burn

Whoa:

While Clinton remains ahead of Sanders in national polling, a New York Times/CBS poll this week showed her lead shrinking significantly. In the survey, 48 percent of Democratic primary voters supported Clinton compared with 41 percent for Sanders. Just a few months ago, Clinton was often leading Sanders by double digits.

The Washington Post’s analysis shows at this time in 2008, when Clinton was still up against two strong opponents, she was doing much better nationally than she is now. In Iowa, Clinton is doing a bit better than she was in 2008. But in New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys an almost-home turf advantage from the state’s proximity to Vermont, Clinton is doing much worse than she was during her last bid.

There’s a nice graph showing how fast Clinton’s lead is collapsing compared to 2008.

Do I think the Democrats are going to elect Sanders? No, I really can’t believe that they will. The Democratic Party, for all its pretensions, is controlled by special interests. Sanders is too much of an idealist. In the end, I expect them to go with someone they can rely on to hold down the American public for them.

However, I do love seeing him surging at the polls. Sanders is a flake but he’s better than Clinton on civil liberties and gun control. He was recently criticized for making the very reasonable suggestion that campus sexual violence should be handled by … the police. Even if he were elected, his more crackpot ideas would be easily blocked by a Republican Congress (and probably even a Democratic one — that’s how far Left he is).

But really, I just like this because it will drive the Clintons absolutely bonkers. They’re already starting to lose it, accusing Sanders of sexism and criticizing his healthcare plan for “destroying” Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, etc. (by, um, replacing them with socialized medicine?) If Clinton actually starts losing primaries again, we could witness a total Clintonite meltdown.

Debate Number … Uh … 85?

So we had another Republican debate last night. As before, it went on way too long and involved way too many, “say something nasty about the other candidates” crap. But one thing became apparent very quickly: this is now a three-man race between Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Other candidates got their moments — especially Christie. But it really came down to those three. Cruz absolutely buried Trump on the ridiculous “birther” question, landing the first real blows anyone has landed on the Donald. Rubio hit Cruz on flip-flopping. And Trump responded well to Cruz’s “New York values” nonsense. I don’t think any of them did anything to massively change the polls. But I did get a sense that Trump has peaked.

Of course, people have been pronouncing Trump’s campaign dead since the day it began so ….

Some of the other candidates are lingering around and I expect Paul, as the only non-hawk, to stick around as long as he can. Christie remains tenacious but can’t seem to get any traction. But it’s really down to those three.

At this point, it really is time for the GOP and the debate committees to narrow the field some more. Fiorina, Kasich, Huckabee and Santorum are no longer serious candidates and shouldn’t even be at the “kid’s table” debate. They should also consider winnowing Bush, Christie and Carson (as I said on Twitter, every time Bush spoke I got that feeling that a guest had stayed in my house way too long). The longer this drags out, the more garbage we’re going to get instead of substantive debate and the more likely it is that Hillary (or Sanders) will have an easy ride to the White House.

With the Iowa Caucuses bearing down on us, I’ll refrain from making any predictions. It’s going to be an interesting few months, though.

(In other news, the President gave his last State of the Union address. I’d write a post but … it was just such a pointless exercise. It was an hour of him pretending he hadn’t been President for seven years. Sitting here, two days later, I can’t think of any proposals he had other than less partisanship (from Republicans … he couldn’t resist taking his own cheapshots at the GOP). I thought Haley did OK with the GOP response, but again … not a lot of substance there.)

Sailors Seized

I see our detente with Iran is going just swimmingly.

Look, I think it is important that we move toward more normalized relations with Iran. The cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been heating up rapidly in recent weeks after the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric, the Iranians condemned the act and sent protesters against the embassy and Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE broken off diplomatic relations. We can’t take a side in this.

But it’s increasingly clear that the Obama Administration can not carry out this difficult feat of diplomatic jujitsu.

At this point, the sailors need to be returned immediately. Iran is testing us.

El Spicoli

Good grief:

When El Chapo was arrested (again) I didn’t pay all that much attention to the story. That’s not to say that it wasn’t important or that both Mexico and the DEA didn’t have a good reason to hunt him down, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to change the world in a substantive, positive way. When you take out a cartel kingpin like that there are plenty more ready and eager to take his place. Even if you could identify, locate and take out his entire army, all you’d manage to do would be to cause some momentary confusion and turmoil in the market and a new group would rise up to fill the demand. That’s just the dark side of capitalism on the black market.

But now we’ve seen another low point in “journalism” which popped up in relation to the story and it will come as no surprise that it once again features Rolling Stone magazine. In case you missed it, actor Sean Penn managed to arrange a day long meeting with the drug lord back in October and it turned into a feature “scoop” for Rolling Stone. The real question here is, if you knew where a mass murdering drug lord was when the entire civilized world was hunting for him, wouldn’t you call the DEA instead of your editor? That clearly wasn’t the route that RS and Penn chose, instead preferring to help Guzman fluff up his reputation.

The Rolling Stone article is pretty jaw-dropping, giving lip service to the suffering El Chapo has caused but mainly talking about how charming he is and how he built himself up from nothing. Really, I can distill it for you in one fact: they gave El Chapo final edit of the article. It’s also poorly written, with a very turgid “style”.

The one good thing to come out of it is that Mexican authorities are saying that Penn covered his tracks so badly that they were able to find and arrest El Chapo.

I don’t know who comes off worse: Rolling Stone or Penn. Combine this with last year’s UVa rape fraud, and I’d say Rolling Stones’ reputation is rolling around the rim of the toilet bowl right about now.

As for Penn, it does give me an excuse to link to one of my favorite Best of Lee posts, about Penn covering a rally in Iran:

Check out the picture of this wormy fuck. He’s crouching in that position so you can’t see the erection he got when he heard thousands of Muslims chanting “Death to America.”

I think the greatest way to finish this post is to refer to Team America. In that film, Trey Parker and Matt Stone had Sean Penn say: “Last year, I went to Iraq. Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows, and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles.” Penn angrily shot back by inviting Parker and Stone to take a trip to Iraq with him. Their response?

“I went to the Grand Canyon once, but that doesn’t make me an expert.”

Poisoning the Well

This story has been building up in my timeline for a while. But today, Orac has a thorough post on how the Flint, Michigan government poisoned children with lead in their water. You really should read the whole thing. It all started when Flint changed from using water from Lake Huron to using water from the Flint River.

What happened? There were higher concentrations of salt in Flint River water, which led to corrosion of the lead welds in the copper pipes that carried the water to the city. Detroit’s less corrosive water had flowed through the pipes for decades without a problem, but it didn’t take long after the switch was made in April 2014 for elevated lead content to be noticed. Why was the switch made? Here the story gets a bit complicated. In 2010, the Flint City Council voted to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint was begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. In April 2014, the emergency manager switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to getting water from the Flint River as a temporary measure until the pipeline was completed. The reason? When Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated its 35-year contract with the city. To continue to purchase Detroit water, Flint would have to renegotiate a short-term contract, at a higher cost. Basically, switching to river water saved Flint between $5 million and $7 million a year. That’s why the emergency manager did it.

Residents started complaining immediately about the quality of the water and health effects from using it. Tests started showing levels of lead in the water way beyond anything safe and doctors reported a doubling of children with lead poisoning. And the city and the state … buried the story.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality manipulated the samples tested for lead to eliminate the samples with the highest concentration and thereby produce the result that it wanted: The appearance that the water was safe. It’s true that Flint was in bad financial shape. It’s debatable that its financial situation was helped by Governor Snyder appointing a series of his cronies to run the city, one of whom caused this catastrophe in his desire to save money. His successors perpetuated the damage.

Here’s the even bigger kicker. Even using the Flint River water, the City of Flint could have prevented the corrosion of its copper and lead pipes relatively inexpensively:

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who has been testing Flint water, says treatment could have corrected much of the problem early on — for as little as $100 a day — but officials in the city of 100,000 people didn’t take action.

“There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened,” said Edwards, who obtained the Muchmore email through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request.

Lead is a big reason I favor environmental regulation. For decades, the lead industry insisted that lead in our water, our air and our homes was not harmful. They didn’t do this because they were cackling evil monsters. They did this because they were human. And humans find it very easy to persuade themselves that the wrong thing is the right thing when there’s money or pride at stake.

But this — and the massive mine blowout last year — are an important reminder that government can’t be trusted either. It will happily hide environmental damage to save money, to save pride or to advance an agenda. It will happily tell people befouled land is safe to build on, as they did at Love Canal. it will happily pretend an environmental disasters isn’t happening, as it did with the Gold King Mine. It will happily grant environmental regulation exemptions to business buddies if they “bring jobs” to a state.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question we must all answer. The answer in Flint should be a thorough independent investigation, the unelection of everyone even remotely connected with this, and criminal prosecution of those who covered it up. I’m sick and tired of politicians and their cronies being able to literally poison children and get away with it. If someone were dumping lead into Flint’s drinking water, we’d prosecute them. I won’t believe that this problem is being taken seriously until people end up in jail.