When President Obama declared that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan with the water supply of Flint he stated that safe affordable water was a right. However, trying to keep the cost of water as low as possible in Flint, Michigan a city with a population of about 100,000 plagued in recent decades by poverty, aging infrastructure and a declining population and budget shortfalls, is the underlying cause of the current tragedy. This is a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it.
Flint, Michigan is a city that in the late 19th century was a hub for the manufacture of carriages, by 1900 Flint was producing more than 100,000 horse-drawn carriages each year. The body, spring, and wheel companies for the carriage industry became suppliers for the Buick Motor Company, which moved to Flint in 1903. In 1908 William Durant consolidated the major manufacturing units in Flint into the General Motors Company. For the next half a century the city’s growth paralleled the success of the automotive industry. In 1950 Flint was the site of the largest single General Motors manufacturing complex. However, the closing or relocation elsewhere of various General Motors plants in Flint in the 1980s and early ’90s left the city with a shrinking economy and dwindling population.
During the early development of the automotive industry, Flint built out its water and sewage infrastructure. More than a hundred years ago and into the early part of the 20th century, it was common practice to use lead pipes to connect homes and businesses to the water mains under the street, despite the fact that the toxic nature of lead was already known. If the pipes had been replaced over the past 100 years there would have been not lead piping to leach lead into the system and poison the residents, especially children. .
The current crisis began when the city of Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept growing in an attempt to support rising maintenance, repair and operating costs in that system. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.
Here is where the problems began. Though the Flint Water Treatment staff, LAN engineering consultants and the DEQ understood that the Flint River would be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and would have higher organic carbon levels than Lake Huron water and would be more difficulty to treat, they thought that Flint had the equipment (after a Water Treatment Plant upgrade) and the capacity to meet the demands of treating river water. They were wrong.
First, Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. Then residents noticed changes in the smell, color, and taste of the water coming out of their taps. Tests showed high levels of bacteria that forced the city to issue boil advisories. In response, the city upped its chlorine levels to kill the pathogens. This created too many disinfectant byproducts, which are carcinogens. Then the corrosive water began leaching lead, other metals and whatever else was in the biofilm on the old pipes into the water in the homes. Flint’s water department could have averted disaster by having a corrosion management plan and using additives to diminish the corrosiveness of the water at negligible cost. They did not have a corrosion management plan and did not think it was necessary.
For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies (especially in poor cities) have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply. Many at the American Water Works Association and other trade groups have questioned the wisdom of this strategy, there is always some lead leaching and many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Most existing lead pipes are over 100 years old, are in the older cities of the east coast and mid-west and should have been replaced in the normal course of preventive maintenance program. Unfortunately, that is not how we operate in the United States. A few cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have taken steps to remove all of their lead pipes. Such projects can cost tens of millions of dollars and have to paid for by including an increase in water bills and also paid by property owners. It was estimated by the American Water Association that there are 6.5 million lead pipes still in service in the United States- most more than 100 years old.
The last U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment was done in 2011 and released in 2013. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe unlimited drinking water 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week to the 297 million Americans who depend on them.
The lion’s share of the costs estimated by the EPA is for treatment ($72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination) and distribution ($247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains). This estimate may not even include the cost of replacing lead connector pipes because in many locations the piping from the home or building to the water main is the responsibility of the home/building owner. In Michigan the responsibility is shared with the city.
The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and essential repairs for all those water main failures. There seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water in a safe and sanitary way. As a matter of fact there were public protests over having to pay delinquent water bills in Detroit in 2014. Protesters claimed clean water as a right that should be free. No one maintains a system that is “free” and few value what is free.
Last August, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council created by the Environmental Protection Agency recommended changes to the almost quarter century old Lead and Copper Rule that would accelerate the replacement of lead service lines (those that run from the mains to consumers’ properties) nationwide. “There is no safe level of lead,” the council’s working group wrote in its report. The lead pipes need to be removed from our cities and our homes.(When was the last time you thought about replacing your water connection line?) Safe drinking water regulations need to address, management, maintenance and replacement of water infrastructure.