How in the name of God, motherhood and Mother Earth could Flint residents’ water have been tainted with lead?
Editor's note: We invite water operators to share their perspectives on the lead contamination problem in Flint, Michigan. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish the commentary.
Readers of this magazine are surely appalled by the news of lead poisoning caused by the drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
We regularly profile excellent water treatment plants and operators, and I write some of the profiles myself. The common denominator among these operators is that they consider it their sacred duty – yes, sacred – to produce clean, safe water for customers.
Cost reduction, efficiency, plant uptime, staff teamwork, licenses and certifications – all this runs second to sending safe water into the distribution system. I have never met an operator who would sleep soundly for so much as one night if not certain the water was safe. In fact, operators even care passionately about the aesthetics of their product – color, scent, taste.
That is what makes the Flint situation so baffling. Leave aside the political component – that the poisoning is rooted in a cost-cutting measure imposed by a state-appointed manager whose authority superseded that of local officials. Leave aside the social and racial component – that Flint is a desperately poor community whose population is heavily African-American. The lead poisoning in Flint is, at the end of the day, a failure of water treatment.
Lead poisoning? Seriously?
This emphatically cannot be blamed simply on aging infrastructure. This has the earmarks of a shocking level of incompetence, or negligence, or both. I don’t have enough facts to say with whom or what the responsibility lies. An investigation is sure to bring that out. But how in the name of God, motherhood and Mother Earth could Flint residents’ water have been tainted with lead for an extended time without anyone noticing and calling a halt?
More to the point, how was lead allowed into the water in the first place? How was it decided to distribute water at a pH such that it would leach lead (and other metals) out of old residential service piping and plumbing?
Of all the contaminants to allow into people’s water – lead? It would be hard to name a substance better known as a severe health hazard, especially for children. Knowing its pernicious effects – anemia, kidney and brain damage, miscarriage and stillbirths, nervous system disorders, developmental disabilities, heart disease and others – we long ago removed lead from gasoline. We removed it from paint.
The hazards of lead in the pipes of old homes are also clear – lead is no longer used in plumbing systems. Flint is not the only city with an older housing stock where lead-containing piping and lead-based solder are present. Many communities are required under U.S. EPA regulations to undertake lead abatement programs. No matter the source water – Flint River or Lake Huron – Flint residents should not have been exposed to lead in the finished product. Period. Full stop. No excuses.
Duty end to end
This was not a sudden and unforeseeable weather-related event like the 1993 Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee. It was not connected to a chemical spill as in the incident in West Virginia two years ago. No, Flint experienced a systemic breakdown in the treatment system and in regulatory oversight at all levels.
There is no reason a change in source water should have translated to long-term lead exposure for Flint residents. Treatment technology today can transform almost any source of water – up to and including municipal wastewater – into safe drinking water.
Professional water operators know their responsibility begins before water enters the plant and doesn’t end when it leaves. The responsibility starts at the source and ends at the tap. Surely the switch from Lake Huron water to more corrosive Flint River water began with a careful analysis of the new source. Someone had to know the characteristics of the water and the steps that would be required to treat it.
Water treatment is complex, of course. Every source water is different. But in the end treatment comes down to some mixture of physical processes (coagulation, settling, filtration) and chemical reactions (formation of precipitates, disinfection, pH adjustment).
Who slept through chemistry class?
I have spoken to operators from communities that, like Flint, must be concerned about metals leaching out of old residential service lines and household piping. The most basic remedy is to adjust the pH of the finished water upward before it enters the distribution network.
I can’t do what water operators do. I don’t know what operators know. One thing I do know, that I learned in high school chemistry class, is that most metal compounds are more soluble in acidic solutions and less soluble in alkaline solutions. Did this simple fact escape certain responsible parties in Flint? Shouldn’t someone have known that in the city’s older homes there would be a real risk of metals leaching into the water if measures were not taken to make the water less corrosive?
That aside, where was the vigilance on the back end? How could tap water testing after the source water change have failed to raise alarm? What did the tests show? What was done with the information?
Furthermore, residents were complaining for months about discolored water from their taps. The utilities we profile in TPO would jump on such issues and resolve them without delay. Why didn’t that happen in Flint?
Getting the truth
These are questions an investigation in Flint must answer. We can hope that responsible parties eventually come forward and explain in full how it happened that lead-poisoned drinking water was dispensed into people’s homes.
Are there lessons to be learned from Flint’s troubles? I actually hope the answer is no. I say that because I would hope a failure like this is so grotesque that it is truly a one-off – that there is no possibility of something similar ever happening anywhere else. I can’t imagine any water operator I’ve ever met or spoken to allowing such a thing to occur.