Flint’s Water Supply Disaster… Who Is To Blame?

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“Hello. This is Miguel Del Toral from EPA Region 5, and I’d like to speak with you about problems with drinking water in Flint Michigan.”

(EPA Region 5 lead-in-water expert Miguel Del Toral)

As most are well aware, the city of Flint, Michigan is in the midst of a very serious problem with its water supply, caused by lead that seeped out of old plumbing and poisoning the community. The city had switched to a new water supply a couple of years ago, from the Detroit water system to using water from the Flint River. The new water supply was harder water than the Detroit supply, and that inadvertently caused the very old pipes to leach lead into the drinking water, poisoning the community.  Up to today, I was certain that it was strictly due to a cost-cutting move, and nothing else, and the Governor is, rightly or wrongly, being vilified for not acting sooner to stop Flint from using the water. That is the way the New York Times spelled it out:

In a cost-cutting move in 2014, the struggling city switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. Residents began to complain, and elevated levels of lead were found in some children.

Here is how The Atlantic portrayed the switch:

“To save money, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River, rather than from Detroit’s system, which was deemed too costly. But the river’s water was high in salt, which helped corrode Flint’s aging pipes, leaching lead into the water supply.”

CNN:

“Flint, Michigan, lies about 70 miles from the shores of the largest group of fresh water bodies in the world: the Great Lakes. Yet its residents can’t get clean water from their taps.

Nearly two years ago, the state decided to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron (which they were paying the city of Detroit for), to the Flint River, a notorious tributary that runs through town known to locals for its filth.”

The story of how this happened is murky though and not just as a cost-cutting move as is presented in some articles. As CNN notes, the plan was to build a new water supply from another water distric, which would draw from the same source as the Detroit system, Lake Huron. It would be as safe as the Detroit system. The plumbing will  be newer, and when completed, it will indeed save money. Seems like a win-win. The plan seemed sound from what I can tell.  Note too that the community at large supported the move:

“Flint and Genesee County voted in 2013 to form a new water authority to draw their own water from Lake Huron and treat it. Flint had long complained about the price Detroit charged for water.

When Detroit calculates a water rate for a community, it factors in how far the water must be pumped. Elevation increases pumping costs.”

So the switch was not just an arbitrary thing as some are making it out to be. It was discussed at length. When it became clear that Flint was going to move into a new water delivery arrangement with another supplier, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department threw a fit! They complained to the state that Detriot, which is already in bankruptcy, would be further hurt financially from the lost sale of water, and when the state declined to get involved, Detroit gave it’s one year notice of the cancellation of water delivery to Flint, so Flint could not keep buying water from Detroit until they new system was on line. Detroit does offer to renegotiate a new water contract, but Flint declines. That is why the city ended up using water from the Flint river as a temporary water source before the new water delivery system was in place.

Note, the river had long been considered an alternate source of water in the city plans, and was thought to be safe. The lead that has caused the problems is NOT from the river itself, but from the pipes delivering the water to the community.

Governments, like people, make many decisions over time that seem fine at first. But it’s only when the results of that decision plays out that the downsides of that decision become obvious.

Fast forward to now… And the obvious. The handling and delivery of the new source of water was a disaster. The blame for this falls squarely on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the states equivalent of the EPA. They did not apply adequate anti-corrosion procedures to ensure the water would be delivered to the Flint residence safely. Here is a summary of the timeline of events that lead to the present situation:

* Water was switched over in April of 2014. By June, residents are complaining about the smell, color, and taste of the water coming from the tap.

* In August, the Flint water supply tests positive for E. Coli, and residents are urged to boil their water.

* By October, GM has switched to a different water supply for its Flint factories because there are too many contaminants in the water, which interferes with the manufacturing process of engines and other parts.

* In January of 2015, after apparently getting rid of the E. Coli problem, Flint officials are telling residence that the water is safe to drink.

* Around the same time, the Univ. Of Michigan tests high lead levels in the water supplies on campus. They think it is a problem with the old water pipes on campus.

According to the Detroit Metro Times, the first indication that something was very VERY wrong surfaced in February, shortly after the UoM detected high levels of lead:

“On Feb. 26, Jennifer Crooks, Michigan program officer for the EPA’s Region 5, sent MDEQ staff an urgent message regarding high levels of lead in the water at the home of Flint resident LeeAnne Walters and her family, according to documents obtained by the ACLU of Michigan through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Crooks reported to MDEQ that Flint’s utilities manager, Mike Glasgow, had tested Walters’ home for lead.

“WOW!!!! Did he find LEAD!” Crooks exclaimed.

Lead levels of 104 parts per billion were detected — seven times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

“She has two children under the age of 3,” Crooks wrote. “Big worries here.””

At that point, because lead poisoning is so serious, there should have been immediate action. Instead, the response was this:

“The next day, the MDEQ’s Stephen Busch, district supervisor for the Flint region, replied with an email assuring the EPA that the city of Flint did indeed have an optimized corrosion control program. But he offered no specifics.”

The city brushed off the high levels of lead in Mrs. Walters house as a problem with the house itself and not from the city water. It was, they explained, the pipes in her house that were shedding the enormous amounts of lead. The problem with that explanation is that her pipes were newer plastic PVC, which does not even contain lead. And the college would have filed a report on their finding of high lead in the water system at the college.

When asked about the extent of their anti-corrosion procedures to treat the Flint river water, the MQED says:

“The City of Flint…Has an Optimized Corrosion Control Program Conducts quarterly Water Quality Parameter monitoring at 25 sites and has not had any unusual results.”

Which, as it turns out, is a complete lie. They didn’t have an anti-corrosion system at all.

The Flint Water Supply Updates blog takes the story from there. At one point, the local EPA region 5 water expert Miguel Del Toral starts to get involved, and examines the situation at Walters’ home. He does confirm that her pipes are new PVC and could not have contaminated her water. But instead of taking immediate and urgent action to protect the citizens of Flint, which is their job, they side with the MQED, and go after Del Toral for leaking a document spelling out the dire situation that was unfolding in Flint.

But that, for now, is something to be dealt with later. Here is a superb article laying out just how horrific and criminal the MQED was in dealing with this very serious public health crisis in Flint, including “revising” reports and tampering with test parameters and results to try and cover the problems, and their serious mistakes.

Someone needs to go to jail over this.

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