Call to President Obama and Secretary Burwell to intervene on Detroit’s Water Public Health Crisis

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
Washington, DC  20500

Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC  20201

August 5, 2014

Dear President Obama and Secretary Burwell,


We, the undersigned organizations, call on you to take urgent action to stop the growing public health crisis in Detroit, Michigan. Right now, during the heat of summer, thousands of Detroit residents are living without running water in their homes; they do not have water to drink, cook food, bathe, wash their hands or flush their toilets. This could lead to disease outbreaks and pandemics. Based on statistics compiled by the CDC, more than 700,000 young children worldwide die each year from diarrheal diseases related to inadequate water for drinking, hygiene and sanitation. This preventable loss of life in underdeveloped countries is deplorable, and it is unconscionable that children in Detroit, who live in the wealthiest country in the world, should be placed at such risk. This is a public health emergency, and you have the power to stop it.

Secretary Burwell, we ask that you 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.

In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, 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. In Detroit, 38.1 percent of residents, including more than half of children, are living in poverty. Over the last decade, residential water charges have more than doubled. Many Detroit households simply cannot afford to pay their water bills.  This inhumane and unjust policy, which was adopted in the course of Orr’s and Governor Rick Snyder’s efforts to “restructure” Detroit, disproportionately affects African Americans and exposes issues of racial discrimination and the undemocratic suppression of local government accountability in Michigan.

By mid-July, the department had disconnected the water service of around 17,000 households, affecting more than 46,000 people. Only about 55 percent of households are reconnected within 24 hours. The remaining 21,000 or so people may still lack running water in their homes. On July 21, following large protests, widespread media scrutiny and a lawsuit challenging the shutoffs, the water department commenced a 15-day suspension on new service disconnections. Upon the expiration of this respite, the department will again shut off water service to as many as 3,000 households a week. About 90,000 customers are at risk of losing water service.

Now is the time to act to prevent a public health calamity. We urge you to declare a public health emergency to immediately stop the water shutoffs and restore water service to Detroit residents.




The Michigan and Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild


Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership

Capuchin Soup Kitchen

Center for Media and Democracy/The Progressive Inc.

CMU Student Environmental Alliance

CMU Take Back the Tap


Corporate Accountability International

Council of Canadians

Covenant 5 (Community of Diocesan Ministries Working for Justice & Peace), Episcopal Diocese of Michigan

Daily Kos

DARE-Detroit Active & Retired Employees

Democracy for America

Democratic Socialists of America

Detroit Center for Community Advancement

Detroit Green Party

Detroit Music Teachers Collective

Detroit People’s Platform

Detroit Youth Volume

Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management

Divest CMU

East Michigan Environmental Action Council

Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan (EJAM is a collaboration of Center for Progressive Leadership, Mothering Justice, Building Movement Project/Detroit People’s Platform, MOSES and ROC-MI)

Food & Water Watch

Free Clinics of Michigan

Free Detroit No Consent

Global Exchange

Gray Panthers of Metro Detroit


Learn With Detroit

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands

Michigan Coalition for Human Rights

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs

National Economic & Social Rights Initiative

National Nurses United

Netroots Nation

People’s Water Board

Progressive Democrats of America

Projects for Environmental Health, Knowledge, & Action, Inc.

Public Science Project

RH Reality Check

Sierra Club, Great Lakes Program

Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community Justice Team

Street Democracy

Strong&Beautiful Girls Group, Capuchin Soup Kitchen

Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice

Water Defense

Wayne Association for Collective Housing

We the People of Detroit

Working Families Organization