One crisis is in the air, the other in the water. One is in affluent Porter Ranch, Calif., the other in poverty-stricken Flint, Mich. And yet, in both the Aliso Canyon gas leak and the Flint water contamination crisis, the official responses were doomed to be inadequate due to lack of preparation and proactivity, and the long-term effects on the public of both disasters are similarly predictable.
The inability of authorities to respond adequately to both crises suggests that the United States does not know how to deal with infrastructure damage of this scale, leading to the inevitable question: will this happen again? Examining the state of American infrastructure, the answer may very well be yes.
Both disasters were made more likely to occur by the use of outdated, faulty infrastructure. The facility at Aliso Canyon was 61 years old, and had never been updated. Similarly, lead would not be contaminating Flint’s water supply if the city had not continued to use decades-old lead pipes, in spite of the fact that lead was barred from being used in future pipe systems in the 1930s. These two events may be just a drop in the ocean, however, they seem to shine a light on the United States’ wider infrastructure problem. According to CBS News, one out of every nine bridges in the U.S. is structurally deficient, and the American Society of Civil Engineers reports that 32 percent of major American roads are in bad condition and are in need of serious repairs.
Both Porter Ranch and Flint exhibit an inadequate response by those charged with addressing the problem. In Porter Ranch, while the leak was brought under control on Feb. 11, after almost four months, the protracted endeavor could have been avoided with greater preparation. It is quickly becoming apparent that the company had no standard protocol to deal with a situation of this magnitude. In the ongoing debate about whether individual aspects of the response by SoCal Gas and the government were adequate and timely, one should judge the decisions based on the information known at the time (regardless of results), and it is difficult for someone who is not an expert to draw conclusions. However, it is very clear that the response was fundamentally inadequate in that there was no backup plan, and no preparation for the coming storm. As a result, the information needed to make a decision at a given time was not available, so the process was not as successful or efficient as it could have been. The lack of a plan of action seems even more shocking when one considers that the facility’s technology had been in use for decades, and the chances of a leak increased with each passing year.
As bad as the Porter Ranch situation may be, the water crisis in Flint shows an entirely new level of official mismanagement. In Flint’s case, the crisis was the result of the city government’s decision to redirect Flint’s water supply, and officials refused to deal with the situation for more than a year and ignored evidence of the effects of the contaminated water on citizens. The water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014, and, after the more corrosive Flint River water had caused the city’s old lead pipes to leach lead into the water supply (the fact that this was not anticipated is yet another scandal), the supply was not changed back to the previous source until October 2015. As late as September 2015, members of Flint’s government told an examiner that the water supply was safe, despite compelling evidence to the contrary— a delay that all can agree is an abuse of power, far less ambiguously than the Porter Ranch situation. Because Flint’s water supply is under the direct control of the government, which is supposed to regulate businesses to prevent an abuse of power just like this, this delay and lack of preparation in taking the first step is made more serious. Clearly, the government of Flint did not even try to follow its most basic purpose, of providing fundamental and reliable services for its citizens.
Many conclusions can be drawn from the crises in Porter Ranch and Flint, but the one that almost all will agree on is that the ineffective responses will affect citizens in more ways than in physical health. Feeling let down by those who promised to protect them, many citizens of Porter Ranch and Flint will lose trust in and feel alienated from the authorities, and believe (to some extent, rightly) that those in power are working against them rather than for them. As residents at Sierra Canyon can see in neighboring Porter Ranch the atmosphere of ongoing lawsuits and concerns among departed residents regarding safety, the problem did not go away with the plugging of the leak. Authorities in these cities may soon find that if all official statements should be taken with a grain of salt, Porter Ranch and Flint citizens will take their statements with an entire handful.