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.
Covenant 5 (Community of Diocesan Ministries Working for Justice & Peace), Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
DARE-Detroit Active & Retired Employees
Detroit Center for Community Advancement
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)
Learn With Detroit
Strong&Beautiful Girls Group, Capuchin Soup Kitchen