'Flint Water Plant Was Not Immune' Says Report

A task force report cites training issues and other problems at the Flint Water Treatment Plant and within the Department of Public Works.
'Flint Water Plant Was Not Immune' Says Report
Photo by Michigan Municipal League

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The Flint Water Advisory Task Force Report released on March 21 cited various issues related to the city’s responsibility for lead poisoning of the water supply.

The report looked in detail at the responsibilities and failures of the local, state and federal entities involved, including:

  • Michigan Department of Environmental Protection
  • Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
  • Michigan Governor’s Office
  • State-appointed emergency managers
  • City of Flint
  • Genesee County Health Department
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

At the city level, the report found fault with training of the water treatment plant staff to handle a switch to Flint River water, including the water chemistry issues involved in treating the new source water. The report also cited issues with the treatment technologies in place, failure to properly follow the U.S. EPA Lead and Copper Rule, and an emergency manager structure that made it difficult for city personnel to have their concerns heard and addressed.

The complete report can be viewed here. Shown here is a section of the report that deals specifically with the city’s role and the water treatment plant.

Taken from the Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report:

As the owner of its public water system, the City of Flint has responsibility for compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) under Act 399. These responsibilities include “ensuring proper design, construction, operations and maintenance, so that contaminants in tap water do not exceed the standards established by law. The city is “required to employ properly certified water operators that are trained and experienced to operate the treatment and distribution system.”

The city must “test its water routinely for specified contaminants and report the results to MDEQ.” If a water system is not meeting these standards, it is the water supplier’s responsibility to notify its customers when there is a problem with water quality. With a planned change in water source, it is the city’s responsibility to carefully plan and test water treatment techniques, ensure staff is knowledgeable about treatment protocols, and monitor distribution system water quality. We note that decisions affecting these responsibilities, particularly those that had financial implications, were ceded to Flint’s EMs throughout the course of the Flint water crisis.

City of Flint Public Works executive leadership and staff were immediately responsible for treating Flint River water and for monitoring water quality in the distribution system. SDWA compliance is the obligation of the public water supplier, and it is in their hands that public trust is placed. Flint was responsible for ensuring that its WTP was adequately upgraded and tested to perform full-time operations, that operations staff members were adequately trained and familiar with treatment processes, that the treatment technologies used were adequate to produce safe drinking water, and that the water quality throughout the distribution system (all the way to consumers’ taps, in the case of the LCR) was in compliance with regulatory requirements, as confirmed using appropriate sampling procedures. These standards of practice were not met in Flint.

The city relied on Flint Utilities Department staff’s limited experience, consultant advice, and most substantially MDEQ for technical support. In this respect, Flint was similar to many communities in Michigan that rely on MDEQ for technical assistance and advice on regulatory compliance requirements. However, in Flint, that reliance was tragically misplaced.

Our interviews underscored several troubling aspects of the inexorable drive to leave the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (WSD) system and use the Flint River as an interim supply source for drinking water. Most obviously, the parties simply failed to adequately appreciate — or signal — the complexities involved in treating Flint River water, or the potential implications of water chemistry changes to the city’s water distribution network.

We note that Flint endured a series of water quality threats — from E. coli contamination to high total trihalomethane (TTHM) levels — that could have been prevented. Increased lead exposure and increased incidences of Legionellosis likely are the most serious health consequences of a sustained period of water-quality problems that clearly overwhelmed Flint staff. At best, consultant support for Flint River water treatment, and later for redress of distribution system water-quality problems, focused on specific issues without adequate consideration for latent public health dangers.

The Flint Utilities Department personnel were under-trained, inexperienced with full-time plant operations, and ill-prepared to manage complex water chemistry issues. We note that selected staff members conveyed concerns as events unfolded, only to have those concerns discounted. Several aspects of the situation are particularly troubling.

Less than one month before startup of full-time Flint WTP operation, MDEQ was uncertain about its requirements for the transition. MDEQ staff noted internally that Flint would face complexities in treating Flint River water and challenges with full-time operation of the dated WTP. It is not clear that Flint’s resident consulting engineers, LAN, had adequate expertise and experience with river water treatment, yet the firm was engaged through a sole-source contract.

Flint WTP operators were hired too late in plant ramp-up efforts to enable full-time staffing, which precluded adequate training on plant operations. MDEQ misinterpreted the Lead and Copper Rule in determining that corrosion control treatment was not necessary with commencement of full-time WTP operation. Neither Flint Utilities Department staff nor their consulting engineers were given either to question this misinterpretation or to institute rigorous distribution system water-quality monitoring to safeguard against corrosion-causing water-quality issues.

We note that Flint WTP supervisory personnel expressed concerns regarding readiness to begin full-time operations — including appropriate LCR-mandated sampling — and these concerns went unheeded. However, it seems clear that these concerns were voiced in an environment that was unreceptive to reconsideration of the city’s chosen course, mandated by its EMs. We are also dismayed by the inadequate and technically flawed efforts Flint Utilities Department personnel undertook, based on MDEQ’s instructions, to assess distribution system water quality.

As a result, Flint’s water-quality sampling was fundamentally flawed, giving false assurances and an untenable basis for MDEQ’s claims that Flint’s system was delivering safe water. The series of missteps and outright errors is well documented, including sampling of pre-flushed lines, use of narrow-mouthed bottles, and perhaps most egregiously failure to select high-risk homes for testing as required by the LCR. It is hard not to attribute this conduct to a misguided objective of securing nominal LCR compliance irrespective of what conditions might actually exist in the homes of Flint residents.

Also troubling, though not altogether uncommon among U.S. water systems, is Flint’s admission that it had not conducted a census of lead service lines as required by the LCR. Without this information, Flint was not in a position to identify high-risk homes to properly monitor lead levels and comply with the LCR.

In summary, while we cannot begin to explain or excuse MDEQ’s transgressions in its oversight of the conversion to the Flint River water supply, the Flint Public Works role in the crisis appears attributable to an inexperienced and poorly resourced organization struggling to take on enormous, untenable responsibilities. Flint’s EM, relying on sole-sourced consultant support, held responsibility for ensuring adequate staffing, training and preparation for conversion of Flint’s drinking water source. Those responsibilities were not met.

Flint Public Works personnel were ill-prepared to assume responsibility for full-time operation of the Flint WTP and distribution system. The Flint WTP and installed treatment technologies were not adequate to produce safe, clean drinking water at startup of full-time operations. Flint’s lack of reinvestment in its water distribution system contributed to the drinking water crisis and ability to respond to water-quality problems.

Flint Public Works personnel failed to comply with LCR requirements, including the use of optimized corrosion-control treatment and lead monitoring. Flint personnel did not identify residences with lead service lines, secure an adequate number of tap water samples from high-risk homes, or use prescribed sampling practices (for example, line and tap flushing methods and sample bottle sizes). 

Flint Public Works acted on inaccurate and improper guidance from MDEQ. Many communities similarly rely on MDEQ to provide technical assistance and guidance on how to meet regulatory requirements. In the case of Flint, MDEQ assistance was deeply flawed and lax, which led to myopic enforcement of regulations designed to protect public health.

The EM structure made it extremely difficult for Flint citizens to alter or check decision-making on preparations for use of Flint River water, or to receive responses to concerns about subsequent water-quality issues.


  • Establish and fund a team of subject matter experts in water system operations (treatment and distribution system management) to support and train water system personnel, guide safe system operation under current conditions, and prepare for successful conversion to Karegnondi Water Authority. In addition to creating water-quality problems, the switch to the Flint River may have precipitated conditions in Flint’s water system that increased the potential for Legionella to occur. With warmer temperatures in 2016, there is a heightened need for multi-agency coordination on testing of the Flint water system for the presence of Legionella, and on public health monitoring for the incidence of Legionellosis and determinations of sources.
  • Implement a programmatic approach to Flint WTP and distribution system operations, maintenance, asset management, water quality, capital improvements and public engagement (including risk communication) to ensure the disparate ongoing efforts to address Flint water system infrastructure needs are coordinated, fully documented and structured to sustain high-quality potable water service over the long term. Though not the subject of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s review, it is apparent the Flint water utility faces acute financial challenges due to earlier financial management practices, as well as successful challenges to EM-ordered rate increases. These circumstances impose an unprecedented context for establishing defensible water rates and collection practices in a community that was already facing difficult water affordability challenges. Careful financial planning and management will be required to secure and effectively deploy external funding assistance, and to gradually stabilize water system revenues to sustain water utility operations over the long term. This must be complemented by an effective public education and engagement program, and innovative water affordability strategies to advance universal access to potable water service.
  • Implement a robust public engagement and involvement program in conjunction with the anticipated conversion to KWA-delivered water and provide for regular reporting to the Flint Water Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee.


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