Update on the Flint crisis

The city of Flint, Michigan has been all over the news.  I listened to the Congressional hearings, and the information brought out there was very interesting and disappointing. Some of the details that came out of the congressional hearings in early February revealed a series of failures, incompetence, loopholes in the testing, notification of the public and reporting requirements for EPA and MDEQ requirements.  

There are a lot of accusations being made and the investigations associated with recently filed litigation should sort out what happened.  Apparently the testing requirements for water utilities is so loose that it is easy for a water utility that has a bad test result to simply ignore that test result and go take another test in a more desirable location until they get the results they want. Testimony and recently released e-mails and correspondence from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) indicate that the water utility knew where they were going to be taking samples so they were flushing the water mains prior to taking their water samples in order to get desirable results with respect to lead and other contaminants in the water. 

Shortly after the changeover to Flint River Water, the low pH and high bacteria content of the Flint River water caused the water to become cloudy or turbid. The turbidity or cloudiness was caused by low pH water (which is acidic) dissolving the mineral deposits off of the pipe walls.  

The initial few days probably had very high bacteria levels as the biofilm sloughed off the walls of the pipe as the mineral deposits dissolved. The high bacteria content of the river (surface water) source combined with the breaking up of the biofilm required high levels of chlorine or water treatment chemicals. As bacteria reacts with chlorine, it produces Trihalomethane residuals which have EPA limits for safe drinking water.  Flint was in violation of these limits, but EPA Regulations allow up to two years before action must be taken. There is no requirement in the EPA guidelines for notifying the public. 

As a result of the Flint water crisis and the 10-month delay in notification, the U.S. House passed its first piece of legislation related to the Flint water crisis in February, approving a measure that will require the EPA to alert residents of high lead levels in circumstances where state officials or a local utility does not.  Lead is cumulative in the body and does not go away.  Lead exposure is especially problematic in small children during developmental years and can cause long term illness and effects.

The legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and pushed by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, was cosponsored by all the members of the state of Michigan's congressional delegation. 

One of the first residents of Flint to complain about the water quality after the changeover from Detroit water to Flint River water was Lee Anne Walters, a medical assistant with several small children.  Her children were tested and showed high lead levels in their blood.  She got in touch with an EPA official who came to her house to take water samples.  The early samples showed the lead levels in Ms. Walters drinking water was in excess of 300 parts per billion. The EPA official returned and took samples at Ms. Walters house and at surrounding houses. 

Later tests were as high as 13,300 parts per billion. The treatment technique for the EPA lead in water rule requires water utilities to monitor drinking water at customer taps. If lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 ppm or copper concentrations exceed an action level of 1.3 ppm in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion.

If the action level for lead is exceeded, the system must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control. The EPA official that took the water samples sent e-mails to various people notifying them of the high lead levels and his supervisor quickly silenced him and told him not to talk to Flint residents and not to discuss the Flint water quality issue with anyone. 

The science of it is that water utilities strive to provide clean water that has a neutral pH level. The pH scale goes from 1-14 and 7 is in the middle and is considered neutral. If the reading is lower than seven, the water is acidic or corrosive and when the ph is above 7 the water is caustic or contains excess minerals. The farther the number is from 7 the more acidic or caustic the water is. Ideally water should be just slightly above 7 on the pH scale so that it builds a slight mineral layer on the pipe. Phosphates and chemicals are added in a liquid or powder form to maintain a neutral pH or slightly positive pH level.  

Apparently Flint's water mains over the years had a build-up of scale and sediment and probably a biofilm which is common in many water utilities. It's likely that when they changed over to the Flint River source the water mains started to corrode. They went from a deep water intake in Lake Huron for the Detroit water supply to a shallow water intake in a river that had long been polluted by industry in the past.  

Rivers are known to have high bacteria levels because of rainwater runoff over the ground into the waterways. Pollutants in a river will increase as there are storm events. This allows dirt, sediment and biological contaminants in the river to be drawn into the water utility intake in high doses. The pH of the Flint River water is not known at this time, but records indicate the water utility should have been adding water treatment chemicals to adjust the water quality and a decision was made not to add phosphates or other chemicals in an effort to save money. Phosphates are generally used to raise the pH level and acids or other chemicals can be used to lower pH levels if needed.  

The cloudiness that Flint residents reported in their water was likely associated with the biofilm and minerals on the walls of the pipes dissolving after the acid source was introduced into the Flint water distribution piping. This would result in a light cream or yellow cloudy water as the scale and minerals dissolve into the water supply.  After the minerals dissolve away the scale on the pipe walls, the water would have turned more orange or red in color as iron oxides and lead from water main joints and lead building service pipes start to dissolve into the water.   

Municipal drinking water is typically disinfected with chlorine, or mono-chlorine to kill live bacteria in the water. The first water treatment in the U.S. was in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1908.  Prior to introducing chlorine into the water supplies, waterborne illness and deaths were common in the U.S. Chlorine disinfectants are now routinely added to drinking water to destroy the microbial pathogens such as E.coli, Coliform and bacteria like Legionella. 

Documents about the Flint crisis reveal the water utility knew there were significantly high bacteria levels so they added high levels of chlorine, which is also corrosive, or other water treatment chemicals which increased the total Trihalomethane  to levels that exceeded federal allowance levels.

Trihalomethanes are a group of chemical compounds that were first identified in drinking water in the 1970s after forming during drinking water treatment. The compounds are produced when organic matter in natural water reacts chemically with chlorine disinfectants, and are just one type of a larger family of chemicals known as Disinfection Byproducts. 

This can, and probably does happen in many other cities.  Facility owners and operators of hospitals and nursing homes where people that have a suppressed immune systems should not simply rely on the water utility to provide a clean water source.  Many facilities contract with water treatment companies to monitor their incoming water supply and add water treatment chemicals if necessary to address any water quality issues. Apparently there are loopholes in the regulations that allow water utilities to test quarterly for certain contaminants and they can have multiple tests that are non-compliant before something must be done. The number of tests samples that are drawn or taken from a water utility distribution system is a very small compared to the overall water distribution system.  

There are more congressional hearings scheduled pertaining to Flint that I will follow. We should all learn from this and try to prevent it from occurring again in the future. 


Ron George, CPD, is president of Plumb-Tech Design & Consulting Services LLC. He can be reached at: office 734-322-0225; cell phone 755-1908; and website www.Plumb-TechLLC.com. 

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