WATER QUALITY CRISIS IN MICHIGAN

From Plumbing Engineer

Michigan is a state that is fortunate to be surrounded by four of the Great Lakes where a majority of the world’s fresh water is contained — Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Now, for a trivia question: Which Great Lake does not have shorelines on Michigan borders?

If you guessed Lake Ontario, give yourself a gold star in geography. Let’s study some current events in chemistry, biology and metallurgy. Recent news reports have been circulated all around the country about a water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The water crisis in Michigan made national news and was a topic of discussion on “Meet the Press” as they talked about elected officials’ failures in the Flint water crisis. There have been many news stories about the issue for the last year and a half. The story has gone viral recently because the Michigan governor declared a state of emergency in Flint.

The crisis involves contaminated water with high lead levels, sediment and other debris in the public water mains. The water from the Flint River is so contaminated that many years ago city officials decided to connect to the nearby Detroit Water System because Detroit’s water was clean. The city of Flint’s water came from the Flint River, and it was very contaminated. The Flint water department had to use high amounts of chlorine to kill bacteria. But, water treatment chemicals cause corrosion, and high levels of chlorine can cause cancer and other health hazards. So, Flint water department officials chose to buy water from Detroit.

The problems began several years ago when automotive factories closed and many people became unemployed. Soon after the massive loss of jobs, the population started to migrate away from the city to look for jobs elsewhere. This caused home prices to fall sharply, and the corresponding property values declined. Lower property value meant lower taxes and many people walked away from their homes because they owed more than they were worth. With many abandoned properties, it left the city with a major tax shortfall and serious budget deficit situation that the city leaders did not keep up with.

Many years later, the city was not able to stay afloat financially so the state took over the city because of a state law that allowed the state to come in and take over cities that were in a budget deficit condition. The State of Michigan Public Act 4 of 2011 amended and expanded the Public Act 101 of 1988, which provided certain triggers for an initial financial review of troubled state governments. Triggers included: failure to pay debts, failure to pay employee salaries, a request by local residents or officials, or request by a state legislator or state treasurer. If the review found that a financial emergency existed, the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board would make the appointment of an emergency financial manager for the governmental unit. The Michigan Department of Treasury would conduct a preliminary examination of troubled local governments. If “probable financial stress” was found, a financial review would be ordered.

The governor of Michigan and other officials would appoint eight members to a financial review panel, which could report back to the governor indicating that the local government is in, “mild financial stress, severe financial stress or a financial emergency,”  within 60 days. If a financial emergency existed but local officials had a viable plan to correct the situation, then the panel could recommend a consent agreement. Otherwise, the panel could recommend an emergency manager to take control of the local government. The governor was given 10 days after the panel reported its findings to choose an option. The local government had seven days to request a hearing by the governor or his designee to appeal the decision. Local governments were required to pay the emergency manager if one was appointed. The state appointed someone to manage the Flint to help bring it back into a financially stable position.

Some of the decisions to manage the city out of a deficit condition were to cut spending, lay off workers, cut services and review all city expenditures. One of the expenditures was the Flint’s water department had been buying clean water from Detroit, because the Flint River was determined to be contaminated a long time ago. The Flint Water & Sewer Department had already determined that refurbishing their water treatment plant would be very expensive to bring the plant up to meet EPA standards for safe drinking water.  So, they struck a deal to purchase clean water from Detroit Water Department. One of the state-appointed emergency manager’s decisions was to stop spending money to buy water from the Detroit Water & Sewer Department and switch to drawing water from the Flint River. There were communications warning about poor water quality and recommendations against making the switch. But, it appears the complaints, phone calls and emails fell on deaf ears and were explained away as the water meets drinking water standards. The problem was the emergency manager’s appointees and  Department of Environmental Quality officials used an outdated standard to justify the poor water quality levels.

There is now a federal probe. The old pipes and the water treatment facilities for Flint weren’t used for a while, and when they put them back into service it was said that the Flint River water was corrosive with a low PH. This caused the water to dissolve the scale and sediment build-up on the pipes, which led to the cloudy water. High levels of chlorine are corrosive and cause biofilm and sediment on the walls of the water mains to de-laminate and dissolve from the walls of the pipe to the point where the lead joints and  service pipes were exposed and leached high levels of lead into the water.  In the late summer of 2015, numerous children in the Flint area started to show signs of lead poisoning. State officials approved the purchase of water filters and bottled water for residents. The city has over 1,000 residents so that was probably a monumental task.

In hindsight, the amount of money saved will be pale in comparison the cost of cleaning up the mess. The state will now have the burden of cleaning up the lead contaminated pipes. Some estimates for corrective measures have been as high as $1.5 billion, and that did not include medical or litigation costs. Although most of the time the government is immune from prosecution, the investigation in this case could find there was knowledge of a problem. It could lead to criminal charges if someone is found to have intentionally harmed people. So far, the state’s emergency manager has spent a lot of money buying water filters; they knew the water was contaminated. It makes you wonder if the emergency manager had actually been from or lived in Flint, would he have switched back to using Detroit Water sooner.

The decision to purchase water filters was made last year. Yet, they continued to pump contaminated water. The temporary emergency manager decided to switch back to Flint River water, and save the money that was being spent to purchase water from Detroit. The water flowing from Flint residents’ taps was soon cloudy and tasted bad, prompting many complaints. The complaints seemed to fall on deaf ears. During this time, water quality testing was done and the results were recorded.

The Michigan governor has apologized for the state’s role in the Flint water crisis, and high-level officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) have stepped down. The Detroit News reports that those actions might not be enough change for a department that has clearly proven itself lacking. The Detroit News also reported that the U.S. Attorney’s office is now investigating what happened in Flint, as is the EPA. The U.S. Department of Justice won’t say whether its investigation is criminal or civil. The governor has also declared a state of emergency in Flint in hopes of speeding federal assistance to the city.

The number of children with elevated levels of lead has more than doubled this year from before the city began using water from the Flint River, an unacceptable increase that developed on the MDEQ’s watch, while the city was under state oversight. The Michigan governor requested a report that shows the department made several mistakes that led to increased levels of lead in the drinking water after the city moved from Detroit’s water system. Emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show several MDEQ staffers talking with EPA officials, who questioned and warned the department about elevated levels in the water. The threat was downplayed department-wide. That suggests a problem with the MDEQ’s culture that must be addressed.

Emails released to local newspapers show the MDEQ may have tried to influence the collection of water samples to produce more favorable results. Other emails appear to show employees gave false information on Flint’s corrosion control system, which didn’t exist. It now seems there was confusion between EPA and MDEQ employees, according to a report from the state’s auditor general. That report said the department, however, agreed that they were allowed to throw out several water samples from water sources that didn’t meet federal standards for safe drinking water. News of testing until the tests looked good did not sit well with residents. Still, it is disturbing that MDEQ as a whole seems to have ignored or disregarded a number of red flags presented by a variety of sources, including Flint residents, city workers, the EPA, and outside researchers.

It will take a long time for Flint to recover from this disaster. The city, already struggling to improve its finances and upgrade its infrastructure, faces more challenges because of the water crisis, and state and federal assistance will be critical. The emergency declaration will allow additional federal funds, which could help replace water service lines, expedite upgrades to the city’s water system, and help prepare it for pumping water from its next water system.

There will likely be restitution and ongoing financial and medical support for children who suffer health problems from elevated lead levels. It is good that the governor is engaging in getting that help to Flint families. But, he also faces the challenge of making sure MDEQ is working in the best interests of state residents.  Staffers who ignored the growing water quality crisis in Flint, or tried to downplay it, must be held accountable.
Michigan is facing proposed legislation. Representatives Yonker, Pscholka, Franz and McCready introduced House Bill 5112 and sent it to a state committee on regulatory reform. They are looking to amend the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act as follows:

“…(4) A testable backflow preventer on a residential lawn sprinkler system shall be tested immediately after the residential lawn sprinkler system is installed or the backflow preventer is repaired. An approved comprehensive control program for the elimination and prevention of all cross-connections under Michigan Rule 325.11404 of the Michigan Administrative Code or a rule promulgated under this act shall not require additional testing.”

The proposed legislation makes it sound like it is doing good, but there are already requirements to test and annually inspect testable backflow preventers. Word on the street is this bill got its start when a state legislator in the northern part of the Michigan did not like that he had to pay someone to test a backflow preventer on his irrigation system. He obviously does not know about how often backflow preventers foul from debris, scale, corrosion or freeze damage to internal parts. A recent survey by one backflow preventer testing company found that each year approximately 12 percent of all backflow preventers tested fail. When these failures are discovered, they are repaired. If annual retesting is no longer required, we can expect most backflow preventers to fail within a few short years.

The cleaner and more neutral on the PH scale of the water is, the fewer problems there will be allowing a typical valve or device to last longer before fouling. All mechanical devices need regular maintenance, otherwise  valves will fail over time. The failure rate depends on the hardness of the water and other factors. Hard water will allow scale to build up on moving parts. Debris, such as sand and sediment from water main breaks and construction, can foul check valve seats and cause moving parts to stop. Aggressive water can also create corrosion, which can cause parts to fail. Annual testing finds these problems and fixes them.

If the Michigan House Bill 5112 passes,  within a few years we can expectbackflow incidents  to be so common that the public water systems in Michigan are no longer trusted as a safe source of drinking water. The Flint water crisis will seem pale in comparison to the contamination that could occur across the entire state. I urge Michigan residents to contact your state elected officials and let them know this is not good for the health and safety of the public. My friend, a civil engineer, would probably say, “Health and safety trumps cost savings and regulatory reform.”
Keep an eye on what your elected officials are doing. They need your technical advice on these issues.

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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