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Crisis in Flint sparks fury over toxic drinking water

Flint River in Downtown Flint, circa 1979. Water from Flint River was found to leach far more lead from pipes compared to water from Lake Huron. CC Public Domain.

By ES&E Staff

The water emergency in Flint, Michigan has started a firestorm over the danger posed by lead in drinking water, and the failure of officials to protect public health. Social media and mainstream news channels are filled with images of Flint residents showing rust coloured bottles of water. Parents are worried about what effect the high levels of lead in the City’s drinking water will have on their children’s health and development. Families have launched federal lawsuits against Michigan and Flint.

In April 2014, the City switched its water supply to the Flint River in an effort to save money, according to Michigan Radio. Following the switch, the City’s water supply was plagued with problems and complaints from residents. In October 2014, General Motors stopped accepting treated Flint River water for its engine plant over corrosion concerns due to the high chloride content.

Flint switched its water source again, connecting back to Detroit on October 16, 2015, but the damage had been done.

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Virginia Tech researchers compared Detroit water with Flint River water and found on average, that “Flint River water leaches 19x more lead to the water than Detroit water.” Furthermore, the study found that the use of orthophosphate didn’t seem to reduce lead leaching due to the high levels of chloride.

In October 2015, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found the number of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels had jumped from 2.1% to 4% in the period following the switch to Flint River water. In certain areas, Dr. Hanna-Attisha told the Detroit Free Press the numbers were worse, going from 2.5% to 6.3%.

On December 14, 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency and requested federal assistance to deal with the “manmade disaster” from switching to the Flint River.

On December 29, 2015, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Synder, found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was responsible for the tragedy in Flint.

In a letter to Governor Synder, the task force found the MDEQ “failed in three fundamental ways:”

  1. Regulatory failure: “In which technical compliance is considered sufficient to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan.
  2. Failure in substance and tone of MDEQ response to the public: In response to independent studies and test, “The agency’s response was often one of  aggressive  dismissal, belittlement,  and attempts  to  discredit  these  efforts  and the  individuals involved.”
  3. Failure in MDEQ interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule: “The  federal Lead and Copper Rule calls  for ‘optimized  corrosion  control  treatment,’  which the MDEQ did not require in the switch to the  Flint River.”

The Flint water crisis has prompted the resignation of a number of public officials including, Howard Croft, Flint’s Director of Public Works on November 16, 2015; Dan Wyant, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director on December 29, 2015; and Susan Hedman, head of the Midwest region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on January 21, 2016.

American Water Works Association CEO David LaFrance said in a statement on January 19 that, “AWWA is committed to helping water utilities, elected leaders and customers in applying these and other lessons from the crisis in Flint.” LeFrance also said that the talked about $1 trillion cost to repair and expand drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. over the next 25-years, “does not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property.”

Aid has poured into Flint as concerned citizens, politicians and even celebrities try to help. President Barack Obama pledged $80 million in infrastructure aid, largely aimed at repairing the damage done to Flint.

“[Flint] is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we together provide as a government to make sure that public health and safety is preserved,” said President Obama.

For more information about the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, visit: flintwaterstudy.org

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