Rebecca Cook / Reuters

West Virginians drive water to thirsty Detroit to ease shutoff pain

In an act of solidarity with others who’ve lost access to water, group takes 1,000 gallons north

Environmental activists from West Virginia on Wednesday delivered more than 1,000 gallons of bottled water to residents of Detroit, where more than 15,000 of the city’s poorest people have had their water shut off — often for being unable to pay their bill — part of austerity measures imposed on the bankrupt city.

Bill DePaulo, with Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, drove a U-Haul truck to carry 1,080 gallons of water paid for by donations from West Virginians. He arrived on Wednesday morning at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, one of four water distribution centers in the city, giving out about 300 gallons in just a few hours.

“I just thought there’s something we can do here, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it,” DePaulo told Al Jazeera as he was traveling Tuesday, along with the president of the group, Paul Brown.

DePaulo said the water would be enough to meet the needs of 200 people for about two days. Each bottle cost about 75 cents. 

West Virginia recently suffered its own water woes, with 300,000 people in its capital, Charleston, and surrounding areas told not to drink their water for several days after a January coal processing chemical spill. Months after the ban was lifted, many still don’t drink from their taps. DePaulo said he takes showers and washes clothes and dishes with the water but won't drink it. 

During the height of that water crisis, Keeper of the Mountains brought water to people in remote areas around Charleston, often deep in valleys where coal mining pollution had already ruined ground water. 

Motor City locals welcomed DePaulo's delivery.

“To come from West Virginia and to drive a truck with tons of water in it and to come up here and help folks is a pure act of love and solidarity,” said Detroit community activist Maureen Taylor. “This is what America is. This is what we are.”

The Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman of St. Peter’s Episcopal said people who stopped by the church to pick up bottles were also grateful, though he declined to refer Al Jazeera to the people receiving free water, saying protecting their privacy is important.

The donation this week is not the first time activists have shown up in Detroit bearing water. A Canadian group arrived in early July with 750 gallons, according to USA Today

In Detroit, water shutoffs are one element of a push to balance the books of the city’s water company, part of Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The bankruptcy, announced last year, was a long time coming. The struggling auto industry has left Detroit with grinding poverty and crumbling infrastructure. 

DePaulo’s trip comes just a day after the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr handed over control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the mayor, Mike Duggan. Orr is responsible for restructuring how the city operates to put it back in the black.

The DWSD, which services Detroit and large swaths of southeastern Michigan, is about $6 billion in debt.

In Detroit, there are about 92,000 past-due bills, amounting to $89 million. The water shutoffs started in March, and by mid-June more than 7,200 customers had been cut off by the DWSD. Fearing the loss of access to water, many customers scrambled to pay their bills, pushing the department's revenue to $800,000 last month, up from $150,000 at the same time in 2013.

In July, following vocal public criticism — including from the United Nations — and a scolding by a federal judge overseeing the city’s bankruptcy, Duggan promised to scale back the shutoffs, imposing a moratorium set to expire Aug. 6. Saying Detroiters must pay their water bills, the mayor has also promised to make setting up a payment plan easier.

To Wylie-Kellerman, the transfer to Duggan is simply cosmetic, as Orr, appointed by Michigan’s governor in 2013, still wields the real power. Wylie-Kellerman says the mayor has done nothing to make sure water is more affordable.

“The emergency manager and the mayor have been working hand in glove all along. The mayor doesn’t have any power that the emergency manager doesn’t grant him. It’s a fake appearance of a fresh start.”

DePaulo says he sees his venture not just as an opportunity for solidarity but also as a way to deal with what he says is "political incompetence." 

“Somebody made the decision here that ‘We’re going to cut off water to tens of thousands of people in the summer,’” he said of Detroit. In West Virginia, DePaulo said the spill was the result of decades of neglect on the part of state regulators.

Brown echoed DePaulo’s sentiment in a news release.

“West Virginians know what it means to lose access to clean water, and we want to show our solidarity with the citizens of Detroit who have lost access to any water,” he said.

“This may be literally a drop in a very empty bucket. But if it encourages others — particularly those in the better-off suburbs of Detroit — to do the same thing, those drops can turn into a river of desperately needed help.”

Wylie-Kellerman said that cooperation between neighbors is the only way some people are getting by without water. Detroiters, he said, have gotten creative, finding ways to let others in their communities have access to the life-sustaining liquid.

“I hear instances where people have been without water for weeks, and their neighbors are running hoses into the window of a next-door neighbor,” Wylie-Kellerman said.

The water shutoffs pose a severe health risk to the most vulnerable, the very young and very old, he said. Without water, people can’t flush their toilets, for example, creating sanitation and public health issues.

“If you have an infant and no running water, it’s extremely grave,” he said. “For folks with disabilities, there’s innumerable health consequences.”

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