About 30,000 children in Flint, Michigan will finally have safe drinking water freely available, thanks to Elon Musk. The billionaire entrepreneur, along with the Musk Foundation donated a total $480,350 last year to add ultraviolet water filtration systems and water stations to all 12 area schools. Those water filtration systems are currently being tested and should soon be available for Flint schoolchildren to drink from.
Flint's water was discovered to be badly contaminated with lead in 2014 after the city switched water supplies to save money, and the new water began corroding its lead pipe system. Since then, Flint has some of the most tested water in the world and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, much of the drinking water there is now safe. However the city must inspect and in many cases replace all of its lead pipe system bit by bit and until that lengthy process is completed, the EPA suggests using government-provided filters. Many residents--understandably mistrustful after the city at first denied the problem and then manipulated test results to hide it--are sticking with bottled water for now, relying on donations since the state ended free bottled water distribution last year.
Just over a year ago, Musk pledged that he would help Flint residents out by paying to fix the water in any home with lead contamination above EPA action levels, currently set at 15 parts per billion.
Please consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels. No kidding.-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 11, 2018
Musk got things slightly wrong--it's the EPA, not the FDA that regulates contaminants in water, and by the time of his tweet, most households in Flint were already below that threshold. But children being particularly susceptible to lead's dangerous effects, schoolchildren in the city have not been using water fountains or drink from the tap the way children throughout the rest of the United States routinely do.
When Musk learned of this a year ago, he promised to provide filtration systems that would give the city's schoolchildren safe drinking water. The school system has thanked Elon Musk publicly in his favorite venue:
Thank you @elonmusk and @MuskFoundation for investing in the health/future well-being FCS Students! Your generous donation will help us replace ALL water fountains w/NEW WATER STATIONS & WATER FILTRATION at ALL SCHOOLS! Looking forward to our burgeoning partnership! More to come!-- Flint Schools (@FlintSchools) October 4, 2018
Like many Musk projects, the planned completion date slipped a little. He first said the new water stations would be in place in January 2019, then pushed it back to spring. But now, the water stations are being installed at three Flint schools. They won't be hooked up to the school's water system until after they've undergone testing, and during that testing phase, filtration stations will be installed in the city's remaining schools. The city has announced a November 12 community meeting to update residents on the project. In addition, Musk has donated $423,000 to provide Google Chromebook computers to all of the city's 7th and 8th graders.
Behind schedule, as usual.
This bit of philanthropy says a lot about Musk. Eager to solve the world's problems, he's quick to take on sweeping projects. As with Tesla production schedules, his plans for when exactly a project will be completed often go awry, perhaps because he sets himself some very challenging deadlines. For example, he only announced his gift to Flint schools last October, so his plan to get things in place by the following January was pretty ambitious, especially considering the slow-moving and bureaucratic nature of most school systems.
But I think deadlines don't mean that much to Musk because he thinks in the long term, and he sticks with the plans he starts. He takes a very long-term view, as he needs to if he's going to tackle problems like remaking the auto industry or colonizing Mars. Though he often seems to speak, and especially tweet, on impulse, he approaches his business ventures with a view to the future. That also means he has a longer attention span than most CEOs. This is a great example of that attention span: Musk's project to address Flint's water issues is finally getting underway five years after contamination was discovered, and long after it stopped being in the news.
In fact, the big news in Flint at the moment centers around General Motors' Flint Assembly Plant, where the United Auto Workers have been on strike for nearly a month. Musk is certainly well aware that part of the dispute arises from GM's plans to shift production toward electric cars, which require fewer employees to build. Among other issues, the UAW fears that workers building electric cars may be paid less than workers who build gas cars.
Tesla, too, has had its run-ins with the UAW, and if this were anyone but Elon Musk, I would suspect that the timing for new water station installations is intended to give the city's many UAW members a reason to like Musk just when they're locked in battle with one of his competitors. But from everything I've read, I simply can't believe Musk is that Machiavellian. I think he's just what he claims to be--someone with a lot of money and a lot of good ideas who simply wants to help.