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Flint failures may Cost $1.5B in emergency water System repairs

Flint Failures May Cost $1.5B in Emergency Water System Repairs

by ROB McMANAMY | Jan 25, 2016

"Pure Michigan?"

You know a crisis is bad when the local branch of the state university is already teaching a course about it before the full extent of the damage is even known. Another bad sign is making the cover of TIME magazine with a headline like the one at right. Even in a digital age of multimedia saturation, no municipality, in any state, on any planet, wants this kind of international publicity. 

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Welcome to Flint, Michigan, pop. 99,000, the seventh largest city in the state, birthplace of both General Motors and the UAW, and now the national poster child for mismanaged government and short-sighted infrastructure corner cutting. Already one of the poorest cities in the U.S. and a perennial contender for "most dangerous", Flint is now also the most toxic.

This month, after several weeks of increasingly disturbing revelations about dangerously high lead content in the city's drinking water supply, the public outcry and political finger-pointing finally came to a boil. In a span of 10 days, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder used his annual "State of the State" address to announce $28 million in emergency relief funds and to launch a public apology campaign via social media; the regional US EPA Administrator submitted her resignation (just a month after the director of Michigan's Dept. of Environmental Quality [DEQ] had done the same)President Obama signed an emergency declaration, authorizing up to $80 million in federal aid for Flint, and directing the Dept. of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in as needed; and the federal EPA issued its own emergency order, taking over testing for water quality and demanding that the city and state must provide test samples within 10 days. 

"Our children should not have to be worried about the water that they’re drinking in American cities," said President Obama, addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Jan. 21. The situation in Flint is "inexcusable", he added. "That’s not something that we should accept."

@OneToughNerd: Amid mounting calls for his resignation, Gov. Snyder has launched an aggressive PR campaign.  

@OneToughNerd: Amid mounting calls for his resignation, Gov. Snyder has launched an aggressive PR campaign.  

Below, right: At top, local officials toast the switch to Flint River water in April 2014. Within weeks, residents started seeing a toxic rainbow in sinks and tubs. On Jan. 15, the Michigan National Guard was activated to hand out water.  

Below, right: At top, local officials toast the switch to Flint River water in April 2014. Within weeks, residents started seeing a toxic rainbow in sinks and tubs. On Jan. 15, the Michigan National Guard was activated to hand out water.  

This week, Michigan AG Bill Schuette announced that he had appointed a former prosecutor and retired head of the Detroit FBI to lead a special investigation into Flint's lead-tainted water, in search of accountability and potential criminal culpability. As it is, health officials already fear that hundreds, if not thousands of Flint children may have suffered brain damage caused by lead poisoning. The state also is investigating a potential ink to 10 area deaths since the summer of 2014 that were attributed to the Legionella antigen, a water-borne disease. 

What the heck happened? Volumes have been and will be written on this subject, but here is the abbreviated version:

In November 2011, Gov. Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager to oversee Flint, which was operating at annual deficit in excess of $25 million. The city then was drawing its water from Lake Huron, treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. Unhappy with the rates being charged by DWSD, Flint and neighboring towns decided that they could save money in the long run by building their own water plant. Planning moved forward on a 67-mile pipeline that would bring Lake Huron water to plants in three communities. Construction started in early 2014 on a $275-million pipeline, which is still on track to open in mid-2016.

The most fateful decision came next.

While waiting for Flint's new treatment plant to be built, its emergency manager decided not to wait for the savings. Instead, the city gave 12 months notice in spring 2013 that it would terminate its contract with DWSD in 2014 and switch to water drawn from the Flint River, an alternative that had long been the emergency backup plan. When the temporary switch finally happened, city officials toasted the move with clear glasses of the new product. Soon, however, area residents began reporting tap water that tasted and smelled different and even appeared cloudy, orange and red. Confronted at public meetings, state and local officials brushed off complaints and continued to reassure residents that problems were isolated and likely caused by old pipes within individual homes.

In late 2014, however, one large resident had had enough. General Motors announced that its local plant was opting out of the Flint River option because its water was harming instrumentation in its processes. When asked how water that was too corrosive for auto manufacturing could still be safe for human consumption, Michigan's Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) insisted that GM's standards were higher than what was required by public health recommendations. 

Light saber? No, but Edwards does wield real clout among experts. 

Light saber? No, but Edwards does wield real clout among experts. 

Frustrated residents contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, CEE, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and a recognized expert on municipal water systems. He soon assembled an independent research team made up of students and colleagues from Virginia Tech and undertook the Flint Water Study. Last fall, the National Science Foundation awarded Edwards and his team a $50,000 grant to help fund the study of Synergistic Impacts of Corrosive Water and Interrupted Corrosion Control on Chemical/Microbiological Water Quality in Flint. Funding for the team tentatively expires this August.

Prof. Edwards' arrival on the scene was a game-changer, lending instant credibility to both citizen critics and mid-level researchers within the EPA and at the state DEQ whose concerns about Flint's water quality had fallen on deaf ears and been dismissed multiple times. So far, Edwards' team has found that lead content in local water is now at least 19 times higher than EPA-recommended levels. Why? Because the local plant did not use the proper chemicals for removing the sediment in the water that has since caused massive and widespread corrosion in the city pipes. DEQ even admitted its mistake in October. According to local news reports, the city could have headed off the problem with a chemical treatment that would have cost roughly $100 per day. Now, it faces remediation charges that Flint's new Mayor Karen Weaver estimates at $1.5 billion. For his part, Gov. Snyder's office disputes that figure, but even it says at least $700 million worth of work may be needed.

As it is, in October, the city switched back to paying DWSD to filter its drinking water drawn from Lake Huron. But the extensive damage to Flint's pipes, which suffered corrosion that leached lead for several months, is still being fully assessed. Most, if not all, will likely have to be replaced. Phosphates have recently been added to the water in hopes of relining pipes with a protective coating, but all agree that the measure is not a long-term solution. For the time being, bottled water is still recommended.

urgent needs, bipartisan pleas

Looking ahead, many hope Flint will be a wake-up call for addressing national infrastructure concerns much more wisely, quickly and collectively. "Without a sincere bipartisan effort to get true climate change with our badly broken public health and science agencies, expect more Flints in our future—completely undetected, but no less devastating in harm to our most vulnerable," says Prof. Edwards. 

There are no short-cuts, and the sooner the people running our governments and businesses figure that out, the sooner we can proceed with the real work of growing our economy without destroying our home planet.
— Steven Cohen, Columbia University
flint_bath_water poster 315.png

"Whenever I hear that environmental protection is a partisan issue, I'm reminded of NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's famous statement that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage," writes Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University in The Huffington Post. "All over the world, from China to India and from West Virginia to the city of Flint, Michigan, poor management is harming the environment, public health, and everyone's pocketbook. There are no short-cuts, and the sooner the people running our governments and businesses figure that out, the sooner we can proceed with the real work of growing our economy without destroying our home planet." 

At left, officials sent residents this reassuring PSA about water quality as recently as December. On Jan. 5, the Gov. declared a state of emergency, followed a week later by the federal declaration.

SmartWorlds > Future Water: Join this urgent conversation March 10 at a BuiltWorlds special event

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