Flint: As an Operator, What Would You Have Done?

How was the lead contamination of tap water allowed to happen? And as an operator, what would you have done if forced to deal with a similar situation?

The fallout from water contamination in Flint will persist for years — in politics, in lawsuits, in monitoring of children’s health, in construction work to fix lead-bearing service lines and household plumbing, and more.

Questions will linger at least as long, chiefly: How was this allowed to happen?

As I write these words, around April 1, I’m guessing that by the time this July edition is printed, Flint will have faded from the headlines while corrective construction and court cases play out in the background. But Flint should never fade from the consciousness of water treatment professionals.

Puzzling silence

I wrote in an article for the online edition of TPO — “The (So Far) Untold Story of Flint Lead Pollution,” Jan. 21 — that Flint was not so much a case of aging infrastructure as of failure in water treatment. Yes, the decades-old services and household pipe connections contained lead. But the remedy — treatment of the water with anti-corrosives — was simple, well known, effective, widely used and fairly inexpensive.

What baffled me then and still does today is why (as best I know) no one in an operations role in Flint screamed bloody murder in public about the bad water. It baffles me because I talk to water operators often and find they take the quality of their end product personally — they would not sleep well at night if the water were stained brown or tasted or smelled bad, to say nothing of being tainted with a toxin.

Millions of words about Flint have been written. Millions more will be written before the incident is consigned to the history books. Lessons abound and surely have been well learned. For one thing, the events in Flint are all but certain to accelerate some utilities’ actions to mitigate or eliminate lead in piping.

Soul searching

Perhaps the most important takeaway, from an operator’s perspective, is to ask oneself: If I had been an operator in the Flint water plant, and knew that rusty, bad-tasting, likely poisoned water was being sent to people’s homes, what would I have done about it?

When faced with hypotheticals like this, most of us tend to assume we would have been on the side of the angels — that we would have done the moral and ethical thing, no matter the consequences. But would we really?

Suppose we worked for a car company that we knew was manipulating software to cheat tailpipe emissions tests. Would we have complained to a supervisor and run the risk of getting demoted, disciplined or fired? Or would we have felt safer just going along, rationalizing that we didn’t authorize the cheating, and anyway it’s happening in a different department?

What if we worked for a large medical practice where we knew some physicians were defrauding Medicare by submitting claims for services never performed? Would we resign and go work for someone else? Report the fraud to government authorities? Or turn a blind eye and continue to do a day’s work and collect a weekly check?

A toxic environment

Now imagine you worked for Flint. Bad water is going out of the plant. You know it. But city government is controlled by an emergency manager. State regulators aren’t taking action.

Neither is the U.S. EPA. The entire atmosphere is charged with politics. You fear that if you spoke up you would suffer negative consequences, up to and including getting fired.

Flint is economically devastated. If you were fired from or resigned from your government job with decent pay and benefits, you might not find anything equivalent unless you picked up your family and moved — and maybe not even then. And after all, you are only a couple of years from retirement with a full pension.

I’m not saying these were in fact the kinds of choices the Flint operators were facing — this is after all a hypothetical. But try and put yourself in the Flint operators’ shoes. What might your decision factors have been? What would you have done?

Then try to imagine something bad happening at your workplace — not on the scale of Flint, perhaps, but with possibly serious impacts on the public you’re sworn to serve and protect.

Under your current set of circumstances, what would you do?

You are welcome to share your thoughts on this topic. Send them to me in an email to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will publish the comments as space permits.  


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