The Flint, Michigan Water Crisis: Seven Years Later

By: Steven Lambert | Jun 02, 2021

The Flint water crisis began with an overzealous emphasis on the economy. In 2014, declaring a financial emergency, Flint, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a state of emergency manager to take control of Flint’s finances. The emergency manager was given authority for all things financial.  Those outside the water industry may be ignorant to the ramifications of prioritizing the economy over water quality. However, failure to take the necessary actions to ensure acceptable water quality and safety is indefensible.  

Beginning on April 25, 2014, a water crisis, or a group of crises, were imminent when Flint officials and the emergency manager moved to temporarily use the Flint River, a notoriously polluted water source, as a raw water supply for the City of Flint. This followed the termination of a contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for its delivery of fully treated water to Flint. Decisions made about water source and treatment made lead contamination, disease outbreaks, and Safe Drinking Water Act violations inevitable. Detroit water was routinely treated to prevent lead contamination. Similar necessary and simple solutions were not implemented in Flint. 

Corrosion control is used to prevent harmful metals, such as lead, from leaching into the water supply.  The “bean counters” opted not to begin a treatment regimen, to save roughly eighty dollars per day! A very simple regimen would have been to elevate the finished water pH to an alkaline level and feed a small amount of a corrosion inhibiter. Since corrosion causes leaching, it makes sense to stop it. Through most of this crisis, this most basic measure was not taken. Other issues also arose early in the debacle, such as an outbreak of legionella disease and a fecal coliform bacteria violation. The legionella outbreak left illness and death, and the fecal coliform discovery prompted a boil water advisory. Chlorination was increased and water mains were flushed to address the situation. 

Boiling water will increase concentrations of substances, such as lead, due to a loss of water as steam. There were also Total Trihalomethane (TTHM) (cancer-causing agent) violations. The TTHM problem continued for nine months, with elevated risks of organ damage and cancer. 

Proper Public Notifications were illegally withheld for long periods of time for these violations. State officials failed to act, and possibly were in collusion with others, while withholding the required notifications. 

Lead proved to be a very dangerous problem. Many older water systems had lead service lines.  Eventually, Flint was ordered by the court to remove all lead service lines. Other requirements included distributing tap water filters and bottled water to consumers. High levels of lead were detected during water analysis and dangerous increases of lead concentrations were evident in the most vulnerable population, children. Higher fetal mortality rates and female infertility were also experienced. 

City and state officials were insisting that the Flint water supply was safe. Improper sampling methods were used to reduce the detectable levels of lead and state officials allowed water to run for several minutes before taking the sample. Allowing the water to run before taking a sample is a violation of the “first draw” collection rule requiring immediate collection upon opening the tap. The result of this sampling method rendered false, low results in the lead analysis. Patently illegal. 

Residents continually complained about the poor quality of the water and the revelation of the lead problem. Most of the corrective actions, such as filters and bottled water, were forced on officials by court order. Citizen complaints, 79 lawsuits, charges of environmental racism (the city being majority black), and the outrage over the endangerment of the child population rocked the city. 

Governor Snyder had declared a state of emergency and asked President Barack Obama to comply. The President agreed and funds were released to help finance a solution. The EPA was finally involved and one of its professionals criticized the lack of corrosion control treatment and insisted that basic methods of prevention were not utilized. He was castigated for this truthful statement and called a rogue employee. He was later vindicated. 

Other mandates included finding, removing, and replacing lead and galvanized service piping.  Most of this was completed in 2020. 

The State of Michigan indicted a total of 15 officials for various water quality and public health crimes, and one official was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Ex-Governor Snyder did not escape charges, either. 

Approximately 6,000 to 12,000 children were exposed and had elevated lead levels in their blood.  Learning and behavioral problems will plague these victims for a lifetime. 

Now, since returning to Detroit water and replacing most of the offending pipes, the drinking water is safe. However, public trust in the system is still marred by deep suspicion. Bottled water remains in high demand. It will likely take generations to reverse these effects.   

It can only be said that properly trained professionals should make treatment decisions and follow safe drinking water regulations. Funding cannot be considered a waste in achieving this end. 

Shannon Nobles, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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