Water, a wonderful substance, sustains all life on earth. The UN recently codified clean water as a Universal Human Right. Many citizens of developed countries are used to the security and convenience of clean, potable tap water. In the US, many citizens have little or no worry about contaminates in their water. This is not so for the citizens of Flint, Michigan.
Flint Michigan and other municipalities announced a plant to develop a water system taking water directly from Lake Huron. Upon gaining knowledge of the plan, Detroit initiated a cease order. With no other source of water, impoverished, under state control, and citing cost savings, the water source switched to the Flint River, on April 24th, 2014. The water originally was purchased from Detroit’s water treatment plants. Detroit intakes water from Lake Huron, which is the 3rd largest fresh water body in the world, treats and distributes the water. During the summer of 2014, the City of Flint issues a boil warning after finding bacteria in the water. When any municipality changes the source of the water supply, a comprehensive study and test of contaminates present in the water is required. The study by the State Government of Michigan determined the water was safe; however, the study failed to respond to the widespread reports of dirty, rusty water. In October 2014, GM (still manufacturing in Flint) stops using municipal water, citing corrosion of car parts, due to high concentrations of chloride. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determined the current plant, built with water from Lake Huron, did not require any anti-corrosive additives; however the Flint River has a corrosive potential 9 times greater Lake Huron.
In January of 2015, Detroit offers to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water supply waiving a $4 million reconnection fee. The offer was declined by Jerry Ambrose, the state-appointed emergency manager. On February 18th, 2015 a sample of residential water showed 104 parts per billion of lead in the water. A retest of the same household’s water without flushing produced a result of 397 ppb. It isn’t until July 22nd that a government official, Dennis Muchmore, in Michigan expresses concern over the lead levels in water. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center in Flint, on September 24th, urged the cessation of using flint water after finding high levels of lead in children’s blood. October 1st, 2015, 18 months after the switch, the state government of Michigan advised the citizens to stop drinking tap water. Two weeks later, Flint reconnects to Detroit water, and citizens are still advised to not use unfiltered tap water for cooking, bathing or drinking. October 19th, Dan Wyant, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality, states his staff used inappropriate Federal protocol for corrosive testing methods. Four days later, Governor Snyder announced plans for an independent task force to review water use and testing in Flint. On December 14th, Flint declares a State of Emergency. The task force found the Department of Environmental Quality chiefly responsible, and Mr. Wyant resigns. On January 5th, Governor Snyder declares a State of Emergency for Flint. In response, President Obama declares a State of Emergency for the city allowing up to $5 million in Federal Aid. Shortly after on January 22nd, 2016 the Michigan House of Assembly approved $28 million requested by the Governor for Aid.
Impact and Lessons
Lead poisoning brings a host of medical and developmental maladies. The most damages occur in children as their brains are still developing. Over 8,000 children under the age of 6 have elevated levels of lead in their blood stream. Elevated lead levels in the blood stream can lead to decreased mental and physical development. With this tragedy in mind, it would greatly benefit every builder and designer to use waterlines and water systems keeping water chemistry neutral. The US water infrastructure needs repairs and replacements desperately.
A major lesson from this crisis pertains to the devastating impact of ineptitude. Flint, Michigan did not have the staff to provide clean, safe water. The review of water contamination needs reworking. There was not any oversite of the DEQ decision. In March 2015, the city council and mayor voted to reconnect to Detroit water; unfortunately they were overruled. Clearly, incompetent people in charge of water supply can wreck devastation on a community. Magnifying the tragedy is the cost of prevention, balancing the water chemistry only required $150 per day. Now millions of dollars instead of other public works are earmarked for lawsuits, health studies and replacing water pipes.
A concerned citizen suspecting toxic water can contact the EPA and many local water testing services. The water in Flint is treated to balance the corrosiveness currently, yet it still is not ready for consumption. The process could take months and in fact years before citizens trust the water of their tap.