April 25, 2014: Switch to Flint River Water Supply, Flint, MI. An article published online memorialized the change earlier that day from treated water from Detroit, Michigan, to the raw water supply of the Flint River and the activation of the Flint Water Plant. The photo from that article reproduced above shows local and state officials toasting each other with water from the Flint plant. I am certain that most of them would be happy to have their images removed from that and similar photographs.
About a month after the change, residents of Flint began to complain about discolored water and odors from the new water supply. The water coming out of city taps was orange, red, yellow and brown. City and State officials tried to assure Flint citizens that the water was safe to drink even after repeated failures of primary drinking water regulations: Total Coliform Rule and the trihalomethane regulation. But the worst was yet to come.
Once the water from the Flint River was demonstrated to be more corrosive to iron and steel than water from Detroit, someone in the water department, treatment plant staff, City administration or Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ, drinking water regulatory agency) should have asked the question, “What about corrosion of the 15,000 lead service lines serving water to homes in the City?”
Some stories about what happened in Flint state that the USEPA asked MDEQ if optimized treatment was being applied to prevent corrosion of lead service lines (LSLs). The MDEQ representative assured the USEPA that everything was just fine.
What we now know is that the treated Flint River water was highly corrosive to lead and levels greater than 10,000 ug/L have been found in some home samples. Hundreds of samples have been found to contain lead above the 15 ug/L State and federal action level. Young children who are most susceptible to the toxic effects of lead were exposed at high concentrations, which ultimately showed up as elevated blood lead levels in thousands of children.
It took the persistence of one mother in town, a smart, courageous doctor and an activist engineering professor to blow the whistle and get everyone to start paying attention to a public health emergency. Citizens of Flint owe a great deal to LeeAnne Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Marc Edwards. Miguel Del Toral of the USEPA did everything that he could to ring alarm bells once he understood what was happening. Later reporting by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC brought the crisis to national attention and helped start a national discussion of the solutions needed.
Extremely high lead levels are being reported in some Flint homes many months after the shift back to Detroit water with phosphate treatment. Why is that happening? The interior surfaces of lead pipe in the Flint service area have been badly disrupted and phosphate treatment is not fixing the problem. Flint citizens should also be highly suspicious of lead results from first flush samples, which are mandated by the Lead and Copper Rule. Research has now shown that spikes of extremely high lead concentrations do not occur until more water is flushed through the system and the water that has been stagnating in lead pipes overnight is sampled and analyzed.
Here are a few questions with my best efforts to answer them.
Where did the LSLs in Flint come from and why were they installed? I found an 1897 City of Flint Ordinance that required the use of lead pipe to connect water mains to homes. I have found dozens and there must be hundreds of ordinances for other cities like this in the literature. Lead was the preferred material because other materials such as iron and steel pipes corroded away. Ironically, lead was considered a more durable material for service lines. Copper and plastic pipes were not commercially available until much later.
Why do local officials claim that water is safe to drink when it looks like orange Kool-Aid, smells like rotten eggs and tastes like sucking on a rusty nail? I have seen statements like this from city and water utility officials across the U.S. They should know by now that stating something that is clearly false to the people experiencing the delivery of bad water destroys the utility’s credibility and makes everyone angry. The only possible response is: “The water is disgusting, and even though it meets all health standards, it does not meet our standards. We are sorry. We are going to find out why this is happening and we are going to fix it.”
How in the world could this have happened? Who is responsible? Governor Rick Snyder likes to say that it happened because of a failure of government at all levels. For once, I agree with him. However, it appears to me that he says this as a way to dilute the responsibility of his administration, his state-appointed emergency manager and the state regulatory agency, the MDEQ. If the state agencies had been focused on protecting public health and not saving a few dollars, the lead poisoning disaster in Flint would never have happened. But City officials, water department personnel and the consultant who made recommendations for treatment plant upgrades also deserve some of the blame. If one person or a group of these people had stood up and raised holy hell and demanded corrosion testing of the new water supply, the crisis would have been avoided. There are lessons to learn from this disaster for everyone who is involved in serving drinking water in this country.
What about LSLs? Should they be replaced? Yes. NOW. A big mistake was made in 1991 with the adoption of the Lead and Copper Rule that did not require the replacement of all LSLs in the U.S. Also, the allowance of partial replacement of LSLs made lead exposure of the public far worse. Everyone involved in drinking water and public health should demand that the federal Lead and Copper Rule Long-Term Revisions include an accelerated schedule for replacing LSLs. Also, we should not get confused about who foots the bill. Society made the decision in the 19th and 20th centuries to use lead pipe. The homeowners and utility personnel who installed lead pipes are long dead. The total cost for LSL replacement should be paid for by utilities (with cost recovery from increased water rates) with some help from state and federal governments to seed the process and get it done. Society caused the problem and it is up to all of us to fix it. There are 6.1 million LSLs in this country and they need to be ripped out and completely replaced without delay.
Adams, D. 2014. Closing the Valve on History: Flint Cuts Water Flow From Detroit after nearly 50 years. Michigan Live. (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2014/04/closing_the_valve_on_history_f.html Accessed April 24, 2016).
Cornwell, D.A., R.A. Brown and S.H. Via. 2016. National Survey of LSL Occurrence. Jour. AWWA. April. http://dx.doi.org/10.5942/jawwa.2016.108.0086
McGuire, M.J. 2016. Flint, Michigan: Lessons to Live By. Keynote address presented at the California Nevada Section Spring Conference, Sacramento, California. March 22.
Ordinances of the City of Flint, Michegan. Rules of the Common Council. 1897. page 142-3. (http://bit.ly/1UEq1BG Accessed March 21, 2016).
Update: In 2017, Flint was allocated about $100 million of public money to replace their lead service lines. Society has solved one city’s problem but there are many more cities that need a total replacement of their LSLs.
April 25, 1926: New York Times headline—Harbor Sewage Called a Menace to Health. “State Legislature Urged to Take Action to Halt Pollution of New York Waters — Many Cities Pour Their Raw Waste Into the Bay. A report just submitted to the Legislature of New York urges drastic action to protect the City of New York against the menace to health arising from the pollution of the harbor and near-by bathing beaches, not only by New York but by other cities and States. Dr. George W. Soper who was Director of the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission stated that every day, 940 million gallons of sewage per day were poured into the harbor every day. He called the situation a ‘direct offense upon the sense of decency…a constant menace to health.’”