It’s the same kind of story in every major industry across the country: profits come first, and everything else comes last. This economic system is based on ruining people’s lives in order to make a profit. Banks will throw millions of people into the streets. Corporations will throw people out of work. Governments will make budget cuts on the backs of millions of people while giving hand outs to banks and corporations. Whenever money is to be made or spending to be held back, it is always done by attacking ordinary working people. This couldn’t be any clearer than in the recent disasters in Southern California and Flint, Michigan.
California Gas Leak – Not a Natural Disaster
On October 23, a massive natural gas leak erupted underground at a Southern California Gas Company gas storage facility in the town of Porter Ranch, CA – about 25 miles outside Downtown Los Angeles. This has become the largest leak of natural gas in U.S. history and one of the worst environmental disasters in the last few years.
Over 100,000 pounds of methane mixed with other toxic chemicals have been leaking into the air every single hour. After the leak, residents began complaining of dizziness, nausea, nose bleeds, infection in their eyes, ears and throat, and severe headaches. Many of the chemicals resulting from the leak are known to cause cancer and brain damage: benzene, radon, xylene, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide. The health impact alone from this leak will be felt for years.
Despite the widespread accounts of damaged health, the gas company keeps releasing statements saying that health officials have said the air quality in the area will not cause a “significant increase in overall risk of health effects” and the amount of pollutants is no different than what is “typically found in outdoor air in Southern California.” As if the huge increase in health complaints is coincidental.
So far, thousands of residents living in the community have had to be evacuated. Two schools have closed indefinitely, and over 2,000 families have been forced into temporary housing. But still, over 2,700 families are on waitlists with no housing relief in sight.
Hundreds of businesses have had to close, causing the workers’ jobs to be put on hold.
At the same time, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change more than carbon dioxide. The amount of methane leaked from this well has been so massive that in the first month it released the equivalent of 25 percent of the entire state of California’s yearly methane emissions. This amount of emissions is estimated to be equal to about 2.3 million cars.
SoCal Gas has said repeatedly that it has no idea what caused the leak and will only know after a thorough investigation. But most analysts suspect the leak was caused by old and corroded pipes that make up the underground well. The well was installed in 1953 and the company removed a safety shut-off valve from the base of the well in 1979 because it was leaking. Under many circumstances a safety valve is required. But since this well wasn’t close enough to a neighborhood or a park, it was optional.
Safety valves exist to stop exactly this kind of a disaster. Natural gas wells are metal pipes encased in concrete, drilled thousands of feet underground, with gas and liquid constantly flowing through them. Over time, no matter what, these pipes become corroded. Instead of spending the money to refurbish pipes and install safety valves, it’s cheaper to wait it out and fix it when a leak becomes obvious. And in this case, if SoCal Gas would have spent the money to replace the safety valve, the leak could have likely been stopped immediately.
This leak has happened five years after SoCal Gas received permission from the county regulators to increase gas rates in order to fund repairs on dozens of leaking wells all over their facilities. But for each of these wells, none of the so-called repairs included a safety shut-off valve. The cost to install a safety valve is estimated around $200,000. Meanwhile Sempra Energy, which owns SoCal Gas, made over $15 billion dollars in 2015, and SoCal Gas makes an average yearly profit of one hundred million dollars. They have no concern for the safety of the workers at these facilities or the communities they operate in. Their only concern is to make as much profit from their operations as possible.
The gas leak in Southern California was not caused by a simple corroded pipe – it was caused by a corrosive system that puts profit above all else.
Since April 2014, Flint Michigan has suffered a crisis in its water supply. The city’s water was switched from existing water systems to the Flint River. Water that once flowed clear and clean all of a sudden was coming out of the tap brown and polluted. The water that pumped into people’s homes was discolored, foul-smelling and caused skin rashes for people who bathed in it. As one resident put it, “there were some days it would smell like a sewer, some days it would smell like an old pond, and some days your tap water smelled like a swimming pool.” The amount of lead in the blood of children doubled after the switch to the Flint River. Flint residents protested the poisonous water but city officials did absolutely nothing until finally the scandal broke out in the national news.
Who decided to poison Flint’s water? In the midst of financial crisis, the Michigan state government passed a law allowing the governor to appoint city managers to run any city that faced financial difficulties. The Flint city manager calling the shots was Darnell Earley, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder. City managers like Early, unelected by the population, force extreme cost-cutting measures on cities like Flint. For 50 years, Flint’s water was piped in from the general Detroit area water system based on water from Lake Huron. Not only did officials switch the water supply to Flint river water, they failed to install corrosion controls that would protect the water from being polluted by lead from the pipes it was pumping through. Overnight, Flint residents found their water filled with lead and bacteria. The situation has been declared a state emergency, and now with the water turned off, Flint residents are relying on bottled water for daily use. To add insult to injury, many Flint residents are being asked to pay hundreds of dollars in water bills for the dirty water that was pumped into their homes during the last year.
Flint wasn’t always like this. It was once the home of the largest General Motors factory complex in the world. Forty years ago, Flint had a population of 190,000 people with 80,000 of them working in GM auto plants. Over the last thirty years, GM has laid off 70,000 of those people, and nearly half of the city’s population has moved out. Today the average income of a Flint family is less than half the national average. In Flint, 42 percent of people live below the poverty line. Due to the racism of this society, the worst of this economic catastrophe has been felt by black people who make up 84 percent of Flint’s population. More than half of Michigan’s black population today lives under a state-installed manager.
This is a familiar story across the country, but people have only taken notice of Flint because of the polluted water. States across the country have imposed massive cuts to the budgets on every level, from utilities to safety, to education. Politicians continue to pay for the financial crisis on the backs of ordinary people. But the poisoning of the water was so scandalous that it even became a talking point for Clinton and Sanders in the presidential primaries.
Flint isn’t an isolated case caused by a single bad government official. What happened in Flint is the result of a conscious policy of dismantling public services, resources, and infrastructure in order to pay for the economic crisis so that the rich can keep making billions. The poisoning of Flint’s water is a battle in a class war waged by the rich against poor and working people. The ruling class sees our health and our children’s lives as expendable in their search for profit. Flint is a vision of a possible future, if we don’t begin to fight back and say that water, health, education, housing, and all the necessities of life should be the right of every human being.
Disaster in Detroit Schools
After poisoning the water of Flint, Darnell Earley was rewarded by being appointed emergency manager of the Detroit Public School system. Detroit teachers and school employees now face a ten percent pay cut on April 15 in order to make up for over 53 million dollars in budget deficits. In addition to pay cuts, schools have been allowed to go without heat, books, and proper sanitation. In response, over half of Detroit’s teachers have responded with “sick-outs” because they are legally barred from striking. Of course, a strike by any other name is still a strike. One thing’s for certain, after seeing what he did to Flint’s water, Earley can only bring another disaster to Detroit schools.