The Future of Water Safety in Flint

By Javed Basu-Kesselman
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Executive Editor, Vol. 22

Many important pieces have documented what went wrong in Flint, Michigan and who should be held responsible for the water crisis. This post seeks to answer a related question: what steps need to be taken before Flint’s water is safe to drink in the long term?

As noted in a recent FiveThirtyEight report, Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014, presumably to cut costs, without appropriate measures taken to control corrosion of the city’s pipes. Although the water source has been switched back to Lake Huron, the pipe damage remains. Extensive tests are being conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, on homes that are at high risk for lead exposure in Flint. Yet Flint residents are likely to feel unsafe drinking the water regardless of what lead tests reveal. The reason is that the 15,000 pipes suspected of containing lead have not been replaced. According to Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, as pipes throughout the United States have started to deteriorate, it creates a risk of lead pieces breaking into the water. The problem is especially pronounced in Flint, according to Edwards, due to the significant damage the city’s pipes have experienced from exposure to corrosive water over the past year and a half. As a result, it becomes difficult to definitively determine when the risk is gone. “What do you tell people? Test 10 times? Twenty times? A hundred times? That doesn’t mean if you test 101 times you won’t find a chunk of lead in your water,” said Edwards.

On-scene coordinator Mark Durno says that the EPA will not pay to substitute the city’s lead pipes despite recognizing the benefits of a replacement strategy. “The more that happens across the U.S., the less we have to worry about these types of situations. But it’s a tall order, and it’s an expensive order.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver have recently offered competing ideas over how quickly to replace Flint’s pipes. Governor Snyder has requested a supplemental budget to the Legislature, including $25 million for water infrastructure, including pipe replacement in Flint. The governor’s pilot effort to replace 30 lead service lines is projected to be finished within 30 days. Mayor Weaver commended the governor’s desire to partner with the city to remove these lines, yet she also indicated that more needed to be done by Snyder and others to secure funding for her plan. Her administration plans to start replacing lead pipes in Flint even sooner. “We’re going to get this done — and done quickly — by any and every means necessary,” Weaver announced in a statement.  “The people of my city have simply run out of patience, and I have a moral obligation to act.”

Members of the U.S. Senate have also been involved in crafting a proposal to help Flint remove its lead pipes. The original measure in January would have provided $400 million in emergency funds for the EPA to help replace Flint’s water infrastructure—which would require the state of Michigan to match funds—along with $200 million to create a Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure in Flint.

However, it has become increasingly evident that cities throughout the country face similar problems. According to the EPA, an estimated 10 million American homes and businesses receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead.

If passed, the Senate’s recent proposal would offer financing to any state that has received a presidential emergency declaration due to lead.