Monday, February 01, 2016

Dereliction of Duty: The Flint Water Crisis

When a city operates a public water-supply system, it enters into an implied agreement with its customers, most of whom have no realistic second choice as to where to get domestic water.  Customers buy water from the city, and the city guarantees that the water is safe to drink. 

Starting in April of 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan began to violate its part of the bargain.  In 2011, the impoverished tax base of Flint, long past its glory days when the U. S. automotive industry was king, forced the city into receivership.  A dispute with the city of Detroit, from which Flint had purchased its water for the past several years, led to an attempt by the state-appointed emergency manager of Flint to save money by switching to a backup source of water, the Flint River.

The Flint River's water itself was safe to drink, but it was more acidic and had more salinity than the treated Detroit water did.  During the spring and summer of 2014, residents of Flint, especially those in older homes, began to notice that the water had an odd taste.  Up to about 1920, most service connections to the water mains were made with lead pipes.  While lead is a well-known toxin that is especially hazardous to pregnant women's babies and children under 6, the Detroit water previously supplied by Flint before April 2014 had coated the inside of the pipes with an inert phosphate or oxide layer that usually kept the levels of lead small enough not to cause problems.

However, the acidic and saline Flint water began etching away the mineral coating in the lead pipes to expose bare lead to the water going through the pipes, and levels of lead in water supplied to Flint homes began to rise.  In March of 2015, a private water-infrastructure firm called Veolia issued a report saying that lead in Flint water was in violation of EPA regulations.  While it was tragic that increased levels of lead got to Flint's citizens at all, something worse was about to happen.

In response to the Veolia report, the state-appointed financial manager of Flint, Jerry Ambrose, said that the city water was in compliance with all EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality standards, and "the city is working daily to improve its quality."  This statement may have been technically true in the sense that the water Flint was putting into the mains was safe by itself.  But once it passed through resident-owned lead pipes, the combination was dangerous.  In September of 2015, a study by a Virginia Tech professor revealed that the levels of lead in tap water was higher than federal regulations allowed in about a quarter of Flint's households, and was up to 800 times the limit in some locations. 

Finally, in October of 2015, under pressure from state and local groups, Flint switched back to buying water from Detroit.  But the damage had already been done:  the mineral coatings that had built up over many decades in lead pipes was now mostly gone, and just going back to water with less acidity and salinity wasn't going to fix the problem. 

The story since then has been one of complex political wrangling that has tainted Michigan Governor Richard Snyder, who has approved over $30 million of state aid for the crisis, and is still ongoing in the form of lawsuits, emergency orders, water testing, and questions from residents about what harm has befallen their children and what they should do next.

As so often happens, the people most affected by this crisis are the ones least able to do something about it:  babies of pregnant women who drank lead-laced water and children who may still be ingesting lead from a place that ought to be safe to drink from, namely, the water faucets in your own house. 

When lawsuits come into play it isn't always easy to get to the bottom of a situation and find out exactly who knew what when.  To my knowledge, regular tap-water tests inside resident's homes are not routinely done by municipal water departments, but testing for lead in one's drinking water is not something that it is reasonable to expect private individuals to do—especially not those below the poverty line, which describes many of Flint's residents.  Engineers in the Flint water department should have known (and may well have known) that the combination of acidic Flint River water and lead pipes in old infrastructure was going to lead to problems.  But even after the trouble was widely known by the public and verified by independent tests, the financial manager of Flint apparently remained in denial.  Admittedly, being in bankruptcy makes things more complicated for a municipality, but the physical safety of citizens should override fiscal considerations. 

The Flint water crisis is an object lesson in how not to handle a public-health problem, especially one that was caused, at least indirectly, by actions of the city itself.  Despite abundant evidence that there was a problem, city officials delayed remedial action for another six to nine months.  This will probably dig the city even deeper into its financial hole after lawsuit judgments come due, and shows how important prompt, definitive action can be, and how much trouble can result if it is delayed.

Ideally, every bit of lead pipe in the city of Flint should be dug up and replaced with non-toxic service pipes.  But that would cost several thousand dollars per household in a city that is already reeling from decades of economic decline.  The United Way and other charitable organizations have gotten involved, but their efforts are limited to checking on current lead levels and alleviating possible medical consequences of ingesting lead during the worst of the crisis.  The fallout from this incident will haunt Flint for years, and I can only hope that the awareness of lead-contaminated drinking water brought into prominence by this situation will lead other cities with similar problems to get their own lead-in-water issues in order.  Sometimes a blunt colloquialism is the best way to express things:  "Get the lead out!"

Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article "Flint water crisis," an article in the Detroit Free Press online edition of Jan. 30, 2016 at entitled, "EPA:  High lead levels in Flint exceed filters' rating," and a Massachusetts Water Resources Authority online report's executive summary about the effects of acidic water on lead pipes at  I also referred to an Associated Press article, "$28 million added to address water crisis in Flint," by Jeff Karoub and David Eggert carried in the Austin American-Statesman print edition of Jan. 30, 2016.

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