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  • Writer's pictureTommy Zurhellen

Get the lead out

Monday, July 17th

Dear Friends:

I was going to write my letter about an entirely different topic this week, but that will have to wait because frankly, I can’t think of a discussion more important than the health of our children.

By now, you have probably heard about the dangerous levels of lead discovered in Poughkeepsie’s water supply, due to old pipes that should have been replaced a long time ago. This is a serious public health crisis that primarily affects our children, and yet, our county leaders have been achingly slow to respond. Perhaps the most disturbing element of this crisis is the fact it could have been entirely prevented with better leadership. For me, it echoes a similar water crisis that I walked through, four years ago.

This might surprise you, but when I walked across America, the one place I always knew I would visit was the city of Flint, Michigan. It certainly wasn’t a tourist stop. No, I wanted to see first-hand the effects of the water crisis I had read so much about. I wanted to talk with the people in the community and listen to their stories. When I finally arrived in Flint on a very hot day, I met with about 100 veterans and their family members at a community center right in the heart of downtown. I’ll never forget listening to those stories of grief and hardship, but also of love and community, as folks described their own experiences during the crisis.

Four years later, I can tell you the story of Flint is eerily similar to our own story in Dutchess County. In both cases, years of bad decisions and neglect by local leaders created a public health crisis that primarily affects poor people and communities of color. The story of Flint is a warning that we must address this health crisis now. We can’t afford another day, let alone another year, of indifference and inaction by our local leaders. I live in the City of Poughkeepsie myself, but this isn’t just a Poughkeepsie problem. We are all in this together. Like Flint, we are now a community where the lives of our children are at stake – and if that doesn’t bring us together as a community, then nothing will.

According to the CDC, lead exposure in children can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems, as well as hearing and speech problems. Furthermore, there is no safe blood level of lead for children. But the CDC also reports that the harmful effects of childhood lead exposure can be prevented, by simply eliminating contact with lead. The solution seems simple, right? If we get the lead out of our pipes, we will improve the health of our kids.

Then why the heck haven’t we done it?

I believe access to clean water is a basic human right. I know you do, too. And yet we have county leaders who boast about giving $25 million to improve someone else’s baseball stadium while every day, thousands of our children are at risk of being poisoned by the water they drink. Sadly, this history of inaction has become “business as usual” in Dutchess County, where closed-door deals have replaced transparency, and the politics of fear have replaced old-fashioned kindness.

Thankfully, our Congressman Pat Ryan isn’t wasting any time bringing awareness and vital resources to combat this crisis. Just three days ago, Rep. Ryan asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their help. “For far too long, families in Poughkeepsie have worried that when they turn on the faucet or when their child uses the water fountain at school, they would be ingesting poisonous lead. This is a crisis that cannot continue,” Pat Ryan said in a statement. “We’re taking aggressive action, starting with getting EPA experts on the ground and working closely with city leaders to secure federal funding. I will not rest until every lead pipe is removed and every parent can rest assured that their kid is drinking clean water.”

We certainly need leadership like that in Dutchess County! But it’s sad to think we need the federal government to spark a response to this crisis when our local leaders should have done it years ago. We need a county government that will always prioritize the health of our children over the profits of outside corporations. We need leaders of action and compassion, not just lame excuses.

Can we all agree no parent should ever have to worry about poisoning their kids simply by giving them a drink of water?

As Dutchess County Executive, I will make clean water for all our residents my top priority. Why? Because every day a kid might drink poisoned water is a day we simply cannot accept as a community. And we will also work to make Dutchess a lead-free community as part of the CDC’s Lead-Free Community initiative, eliminating this health hazard once and for all.

The choice this November is very clear. If you believe every kid in Dutchess County should have clean drinking water, I hope you will join our fight to bring decency, transparency, and basic human kindness back to our county government. We can’t do it without your help! Please consider a donation in any amount to our campaign with the secure Act Blue link below. And please consider donating your talents and energy to help us share our message of hope and inclusion with every family in Dutchess County! Just email us at to take this journey with us.

By the way, if you ever want to learn more about what it was like to walk through Flint, Michigan, or countless other communities during my walk across America in 2019, I hope you will visit your library and pick up a copy of my book, The Low Road: Walking the Walk for Veterans. It’s an engaging read about the good, bad, and ugly (especially the ugly!) walking across America for a good cause. I know I learned a lot by writing it. Check it out!

Thank you to Pat Ryan for his amazing leadership in addressing the Poughkeepsie water crisis. And thank you, for listening! See you next week!

Respectfully, Tommy


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