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Nurses rally against water shutoffs, declare "public health emergency" in Detroit

Kenny Karpov

Hundreds of protesters gathered near city hall in downtown Detroit Friday, to demand the city stop ongoing water shutoffs.

More than 17,000 Detroit households have had their water shut off for non-payment since March, though many have since had service restored.

City officials say the shutoffs are a necessary measure, because too many people simply don’t pay their bills--starving the water system of up to $100 million in revenues.

Nonetheless, the shutoff campaign has raised a national and international outcry. 

Now, National Nurses United--the nation’s largest nurse’s union and professional association--has joined the fight. The group organized Friday’s protest.

“We, National Nurses United on behalf of the nurses of America, declare a public health emergency in Detroit!” said co-President Jean Ross, reading from a proclamation that called on emergency manager Kevyn Orr to end the “immoral and unconscionable” shutoffs immediately.

Nurses said some Detroiters now genuinely lack access to clean water. And they warned that could have severe consequences, especially for vulnerable populations like young children and the homebound elderly.

“A person can become dehydrated very quickly,” said Julia Morrissey, a nurse with the University of Michigan hospital. “And then we start to have concerns about infection. If they don’t have water, their kidneys are going to be compromised.”

And it’s not just drinking water. Nurses said that if enough people lack clean water for cooking, bathing and other sanitation purposes, there’s a real—if slight—risk of an infectious disease outbreak.

Last month, a United Nations panel declared cutting off water service for non-payment to be a human rights violation--if the customer is truly unable to pay.

City and department officials insist that most people can pay, and the vast majority do almost immediately after being shut off. For the genuinely needy, there are payment plans and assistance funds.

But activists counter the mass shutoffs could have been handled with much more sensitivity and caution, with special consideration for vulnerable populations. 

Many accuse Orr of trying to clean up the department’s books after decades of corruption, incompetence and deferred maintenance during a quick trip through bankruptcy. And some fear this is setting the stage for water privatization.

UAW President Dennis Wilson told the crowd that shouldn’t be an option.

“Water is a natural resource. It is a people’s resources,” Wilson said. “It is not owned by corporations or city hall.”

Earlier in the day, some activists also tried to block trucks from entering and leaving the offices of Homrich, the contractor Detroit has retained to do most of the shutoffs.

9 people were arrested.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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