Four years after the dawn of a crisis, the city’s water woes remain a work in progress
In April 2014, the city of Flint, Mich., in order to cut costs, switched its water supply sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River via the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a supply sourced from the Flint River. This alteration began an unprecedented water crisis and highlighted the convergence and health necessities of water with government, race and social issues. The situation remains unresolved and saw approximately 100,000 city residents potentially exposed to dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water, which in turn prompted lawsuits running the gamut from pipe replacement to Legionnaires’ disease scares.
What proved to be a drastic error was a result of infrastructure failures. Following the switch, the city’s water treatment plant did not add corrosion inhibitors to the new supply of water. In turn, the corrosive nature of the Flint River water caused substantial levels of lead to leach out from aging pipes, infiltrating thousands of homes throughout the city. Estimates of those affected by the heightened lead levels are greater than 100,000 citizens, including roughly 9,000 children, who are more susceptible to negative effects of lead than adults.
The media frenzy that followed highlighted timely issues beyond health, such as race and social disparity. Additionally, high-profile lawsuits resulted from the mismanagement as the story mounted, even spawning a case in which the state of Michigan itself sued the city of Flint. The most pressing development following the onset of the crisis involved an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease that caused 12 deaths in the city. It was widely assumed the outbreak was due to consumption of the tainted water and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually confirmed this assumed link in February 2017.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5, 2016, and instructed all Flint residents to use bottled or filtered water for drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning. This initial declaration was then escalated to a federal state of emergency by former President Barack Obama less than two weeks later. This declaration prompted additional aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, which involved a welcome injection of $5 million.
The city has received an influx of funding from several sources, but the management of these various streams remains a matter of concern among residents, indicative of a sense of distrust and skepticism from Flint citizens towards the local government.
Several government officials remain embroiled in long-running court cases for decisions that either led to or intensified the crisis. Four officials resigned in total, including one from the city of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and one from the U.S. EPA.
Michael Glasgow, former water utilities administrator for Flint, has been a mainstay throughout several court proceedings, including his own criminal defense as well as testimony in peripheral cases. He struck a deal with prosecutors in May 2016, leading to the dismissal of his felony charge for tampering with evidence. Glasgow was accused of altering water quality reports and failing to perform his duties as a treatment plant operator. He claims he was instructed by MDEQ employees Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby to remove the highest lead results from water quality reports sourced from Flint’s treatment plant. Busch and Prysby also have been charged in relation to the crisis, and Glasgow is now providing testimony in the cases against them as part of his plea bargain.
Despite further drama on several fronts, the past two years have also produced some of the most positive developments to come out of Flint since the onset of the issue.
Pipe Replacement & Recent Developments
The situation in Flint has been stubborn in its persistence. The past year, including April 2018 alone, has been rife with further developments in the saga.
Unsurprisingly, the case of Flint has led to significant infighting between various agencies and governments regarding who should foot the bill for the projects necessary to solve a crisis separating health and infrastructure. Of the most recent decisions to be reached, perhaps the most significant is a March 2017 settlement that will see the city of Flint receive roughly $97 million over three years to replace lead service lines and to provide tap water testing and filtration.
The joint case was brought about in January 2016 by Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Flint resident Melissa Mays, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), together sued the Flint and Michigan state officials under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“We were contacted by the community groups there and the ACLU of Michigan with questions and concerns and a request to see whether there might be some help that we would could bring to bear with our expertise in public health and environmental issues,” said Dimple Chaudhary, NRDC’s lead attorney for the Flint case
NRDC originally was contacted in the summer of 2015 and worked with the various parties until bringing the case forward at the beginning of 2016. Although the settlement marks a significant positive development for the city, Chaudhary understands the pipes are only part of the problem.
“Our case was a case under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so it really only dealt with what I think is a small part of the overall crisis in Flint,” Chaudhary said. “There are these massive ongoing health concerns and health issues. There are lots of questions about compensation that are due to residents for what they’ve gone through and for the mental and physical effects of the crisis. A Safe Drinking Water Act case can’t really get at those, and so I do think there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in Flint, for sure.”
The agreement determined that the city must replace all 18,000 service lines made of lead or galvanized steel by 2020. The city is on pace to reach that goal, having successfully replaced approximately 6,000 service lines throughout 2017.
As recent as the first week of April 2018, Flint made waves in the news once again. On April 6, 2018, because the city’s water had been testing below federal limits for lead content since 2017, Snyder announced the end of free bottled water for Flint residents. The state had been footing the bill for such services as part of roughly $450 million in funding jointly provided by the state and federal government.
According to MDEQ records from October 2017 through February 2018, the state was spending $22,000 daily to issue bottled water at sites throughout the community. The decision to halt the supply resulted in public outcry from citizens and public officials. This came in contrast to the decision made by MDEQ April 3, 2018, allowing Nestlé to increase the amount of water it takes from the state. That decision prompted 81,020 public comments, of which 80,945 were against the state’s choice.
The Flint water crisis has brought increased attention to the country’s aging infrastructure, specifically piping and water treatment. Pipe replacement is the greatest undertaking being executed to improve the city’s situation, and many are hoping preventive measures will be taken nationwide to stop other water crises from occurring.
March and April 2018 saw a substantial wave of infrastructure funding. On March 29, 2018, President Donald J. Trump passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill, of which $21.2 billion will be allocated towards national infrastructure, including $1.4 billion put toward water infrastructure projects.
Lynn Watson, communications director for the Ductile Iron Pipe Research Assn., is encouraged by the recent spending announcements, but emphasized the importance of not creating further “red tape” or “top-down mandates.”
“The reason to emphasize legislation free of red tape is to enable local officials to make decisions that best serve their communities’ interests quickly, efficiently and soundly,” Watson said. “This specifically affects water infrastructure, as efforts have been made in a number of states, including Michigan, to restrict local control over water infrastructure decisions.”
Despite the new influx of water infrastructure funding, research sponsored by the American Concrete Pressure Pipe Assn. (ACCPA) and conducted at the College of William & Mary’s Public Policy Program in the fall of 2017 estimated that $1 trillion toward water infrastructure is necessary to properly keep pace with a growing society and to repair the failing systems currently in place. That study declared a much higher price tag than funds currently set aside for such projects, even with consideration of funding expected to come in following years.
“Their approach was different from most analyses I have seen in the past, where public health concerns are not considered as part of the payback on the investment,” said Richard Mueller, P.E., president of ACCPA. “When those public health concerns are included, the analysis finds that investment in water infrastructure generates between $142 and $1,438 in public health benefits per dollar spent.”
The aforementioned influx of spending approved by Congress is only a fraction of the amount Trump has promised to invest in infrastructure. However, due to several political shakeups including Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement he will retire in November and looming midterm elections, it is likely legislation regarding infrastructure will be on the backburner until after November 2018.
Treatment Plant Upgrades
A series of upgrades that are potentially more politically charged, but equally overdue, also will be implemented at Flint’s water treatment facility in the near future. This process has also been fraught with its own roadblocks, including budget hikes and timetable shifts.
The price tag for the plant’s upgrades has ballooned from a modest price point all the way to a final estimate of $108 million. All planned upgrades to the plant are not likely to be completed until October 2020.
This figure and estimate is according to the final report administered by engineering and construction company CDM Smith. The report cites several expensive projects to be undertaken to improve the plant’s operations, including $37 million spent on two 21-million-gal concrete water storage tanks, $5.8 million towards demolition to create new storage space, $34 million for various pump and transfer station upgrades, and more than $15 million for other miscellaneous improvements identified by condition assessments.
One of the cash windfalls the city has received includes $100 million in federal funding. Flint will use $58 million of that sum to execute the treatment plant upgrades. Flint should have a modern treatment plant and a heavily-overhauled pipe infrastructure for potable water purposes by 2020.
Yin & Yang
While the city’s lead levels have been below federal standards for some time, a report released on April 13, 2018, by NRDC found that such levels had improved even further.
Based on a sample of 92 homes, a Michigan State University researcher found that the homes tested demonstrated a lead level of 4 parts per billion (ppb), well below the federal action level of 15 ppb.
With such a mix of positive and negative developments, it is unlikely the vigor and ambivalence felt behind this years-long story will subside any time soon.
Chaudhary believes the feeling among Flint residents—whether optimistic or skeptical—boils down to a complicated blend of emotions.
“I think it’s a mix. I think many of our community clients and community contacts, the folks who, beyond our group of plaintiffs, beyond who worked with us in building and bringing this case, are encouraged by the progress on the infrastructure side,” Chaudhary said. “I think folks are happy the city is hitting its targets and is moving at a relatively rapid pace to get these lines out of the ground, but I think there is still a lot of work to be done. So, I think given what the community has been through, there is always going to be that concern and that skepticism, and I think there are some questions about other pieces of it.”