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Flint Water Crisis

The Lead Series: Flint, Michigan and Corrosive River Water


The Makings of A Massive Water Crisis

Making headlines since 2014, Flint’s ongoing water crisis is a testament to the importance of drinking water infrastructure management. We created a snapshot of what happened in Flint over the last three years to highlight just how quickly a legislative decision led to a massive, city-wide health emergency.

How Did the Flint Water Crisis Begin?

Once a hub for auto-manufacturing, Flint, Michigan lost its stronghold on the industry, and so too its successful economy. By 2011, Flint was in danger of bankruptcy, and while attempts were made to salvage the city’s finances, it was their drinking water and their community’s health that took the biggest hit.

A money-saving initiative estimated to save $200 million over 25 years, city officials decided to construct a pipeline connecting Flint to the nearby Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) water system in 2013. Shortly thereafter, Detroit Water (the city’s former drinking water source) decided it would stop supplying water to Flint.

This is where the Flint lead story begins: Between April 2014 and the completion of the KWA connection, the city needed a new water supply.

The Flint River was deemed the most reasonable option, as it was a primary water source for the region until 1960. However, water operators and officials failed to consider (or in several criminal cases, outright ignored) that the river was severely degraded in the 1970s—becoming dirty, dangerous, and loaded with corrosive compounds.

When Flint switched to river water in 2014, water operators made a devastating mistake. By not treating the water with anti-corrosives, they failed the community of Flint and inflicted irreversible health damages.

The First Signs of Danger in Flint

Residents quickly became concerned about the river’s poor water quality and the city of Flint addressed these concerns by conducting water quality tests—which inexplicably concluded that water met current standards; the water–they said–was “safe to drink.”

Within a month, however, poor water quality became increasingly evident, as an off-putting smell and color emanated from taps. Initially, these changes were attributed to the 70% increase in water hardness—a measure of magnesium and calcium in water that can alter water taste. Unfortunately, this was not the only reason for changes in water. Flint began using chlorine to combat an E. coli outbreak in 2014 and although it killed the bacteria, the chlorinated drinking water produced unintended disinfection by-products. As a result of these byproducts, residents experienced rashes, hair loss, and other health problems.

Flint also failed to add critical corrosion controls, so the city’s old and outdated pipes began leaching lead. Because even low levels of lead exposure can be toxic, a public health crisis ensued. Again, residents voiced their concerns to city officials who largely ignored or even dismissed them, leaving residents without any solution. After months of extremely poor water quality, Flint’s water was eventually tested (thanks to the persistent effort of resident LeeAnne Walters).

The results were more shocking than expected.

The lead concentration in Walters’ water was 104 parts per billion (ppb) and just a few months later that number skyrocketed to 13,200 ppb. To put this in perspective, the EPA’s limit for lead in drinking water is 15 ppb.

Tap Score Water Testing

The Future of Flint’s Water

Despite the switch back to the Detroit Water Supply, Flint’s pipes are so corroded that they still release lead even with clean water flow. Perhaps most criminal of all, lead poisoning in Flint disproportionately impacted socioeconomically disadvantaged communities (predominantly of color) and young children.

Given the (gradual) progress, the federal state of emergency ended in August 2016, which stopped federal funding. The State is again responsible for the full costs of recovery efforts and a city report outlined that it would cost approximately $216 million and take nearly a decade to replace the city’s pipes.

Flint, Michigan is not alone in this fight for clean water. Lead contamination is a very real and persistent problem throughout much of the United States. In fact, a recent investigation has identified almost 2,000 additional water systems in all 50 states that show excessive levels of lead contamination.

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