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El-Sayed: Michigan's water problems epitomize "political dysfunction;" shutoffs causing "crisis"

water going into cup from faucet
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

One candidate for governor says Michigan’s failure to provide clean, affordable water to all epitomizes its “political dysfunction.”

Abdul El-Sayed said this applies to the Flint water crisis, and to ongoing mass water shutoffs in Detroit--and there’s “pretty good evidence” the latter is also causing a “public health crisis” in Detroit.

El-Sayed is a Democrat, and a medical doctor. He was also the city of Detroit’s health department director.

There, he was an advisor to a study conducted by Henry Ford Health System's Global Health Initiative that strongly linked water shutoffs and certain waterborne illnesses in the city.

Henry Ford has since backed away from those conclusions, with a spokeswoman calling it “an extremely limited study” that “can’t definitively conclude anything.”

El-Sayed said little when the study was initially released earlier this year.

But he now says: “It should be obvious to anybody that not having access to the basic amount of water that you need is going to be hazardous to your health.”

El-Sayed says he “lobbied city government hard on this issue.” But ultimately, “It was clear to me that [city leaders] were not big enough to solve it. And it was clear that in Lansing, they just didn’t care.”

El-Sayed’s campaign released comprehensive, statewide water policy statementslast week.

Among them: a possible moratorium on water shutoffs for non-payment, while the state health director conducts “comprehensive review” of public health impacts.

El-Sayed calls mass water shutoffs at the rate Detroit has undertaken them in the past four years a “blatant disregard for human right to water,” but said city leaders “kept pointing to technicalities in the law” that prevented them from implementing an income-based water affordability plan.

So, “What we’re proposing is a plan where we would provide basic access to the amount of water a family of four would need to drink, to cook, to clean, to bathe, for free,” he said. “And then what we would do is institute a block pricing structure that would then increase the cost of water for additional use from there.”

“We’re not charging anyone different amounts. We’re not charging a different schedule for the cost of water, depending on who you are. The [pricing] schedule itself will shift depending on consumption, and that’s the same for everybody.”

El-Sayed says that would sidestep potential legal concerns raised by some Detroit city leaders and lawyers.

They’ve pointed to a Michigan Supreme Court caseand the state’s Headlee Amendment to say income-based water affordability plans are illegal under state law, because they would charge different user groups different amounts, and amount to a tax, rather than a user fee.

Besides water affordability, El-Sayed’s water policy also includes plans to upgrade the state’s water infrastructure; to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species, potential oil spills and other environmental threats; and to preserve the state’s groundwater.

El-Sayed is one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. He faces former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, and businessman Shri Thanedar.

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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