On Friday, a coalition of more than 50 social justice organizations urged President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to declare the ongoing water crisis in Detroit a public health emergency.
In an open letter, the groups ask the Obama administration to make money available from the Public Health Emergency Fund to restore water service to residents affected by the shutoffs.
“Thousands of Detroit families do not have running water in their homes for drinking, hygiene and sanitation,” Wenonah Haute , executive director of coalition member Food & Water Watch said in a statement. “This is a growing public health crisis that the Obama administration has the power to stop. It is completely unconscionable that anyone would be forced to endure these conditions.”
The coalition’s letter urges Burwell “to use your authority under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act to declare that a public health emergency exists as a consequence of widespread water service disconnections in Detroit, Michigan.”
Upon such declaration, we implore you to make funding available from the Public Health Emergency Fund to provide economic relief to restore water service to Detroit residents. We further request that your department investigate the circumstances and policies leading to the crisis; hold public hearings to provide a venue for Detroiters to speak to the causes, consequences and solutions to the crisis; and identify changes necessary to prevent such a crisis from occurring again.
The letter also calls for “the full implementation of the 2005 Water Affordability Program previously adopted by the Detroit City Council. A description of that plan is posted on the website of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which is part of the coalition asking for federal help.
In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, then under the direction of state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, announced an aggressive campaign to disconnect the water service of thousands of households that are either $150 or 60 days behind on their water bills. By mid-July, the department had disconnected the water service of some 17,000 households, according to media reports.
On July 21, following large protests, widespread media scrutiny and a lawsuit challenging the shutoffs, the water department announced a 15-day suspension on new service disconnections. That moratorium was later extended until Aug. 25 by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Duggan announced the extension after Orr put control of the water department in the mayor’s hands.
Earlier this month, Duggan announced a new plan to collect the estimated $40 million the water department is owed still owed. The plan, among other things, waives certain fees, allows for easier repayment schedules than had previously been offed and provides financial assistance through a new Detroit Water Fund.