Flint Settlement: First Round Testing Results Reported
On April 13, 2018, Dr. Susan Masten from Michigan State University released the results of lead testing she conducted in Flint from August 2017 - March 2018. The testing was performed as part of the March 2017 landmark settlement reached in a Safe Drinking Water Act lawsuit brought by Flint community groups, NRDC, and ACLU-MI. Under the settlement, the State of Michigan provide up to $97 million dollars to the City of Flint for the removal Flint’s lead and galvanized steel pipes by 2020. This 3-year timeframe cuts 10 years off of the typical 13-year schedule that would have been required if government officials ultimately agreed on their own to replace the pipes instead of allowing them to “heal” over time. To date, more than 6,000 of the estimated 18,000 pipes have been removed and replaced with copper lines.
The settlement also sets up an independent tap water monitoring program to test some residents’ water for lead. As a part of that program, the City, the State, and the Plaintiffs agreed to engage Dr. Masten as the independent monitor. The independent monitor’s work is funded by the State and overseen by Plaintiffs. The monitor will conduct two six-month rounds of testing for lead in Flint homes, following the protocol set out by the Lead and Copper Rule. This means that the monitor works with Flint residents to collect tap water samples from up to 100 Flint homes with lead service lines. The monitor and her team then work with an independent lab they have chosen to analyze the samples for lead. As set out in the Lead and Copper Rule, the monitor then calculates the 90th percentile concentration of lead across all of the samples.
The purpose of this monitoring program is to mirror the lead testing conducted by the City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) under the Lead and Copper Rule. In 2017, prior to the execution of the settlement agreement, Flint residents were asking for a way to verify the testing conducted by MDEQ and the City. This was important because one of the reasons Flint residents were kept in the dark for so long about the dangers of their water was that Flint and MDEQ were not following the Lead and Copper Rule’s testing protocols. If Flint and MDEQ had been following the law, the lead contamination in Flint’s water may have been uncovered far earlier.
What were the testing results and what do they mean?
Dr. Masten’s team collected samples from 92 homes with lead service lines and concluded that the 90th percentile lead concentration of water collected from those homes was 4 parts per billion (ppb). That means 10% of the samples collected had a lead concentration above 4 ppb, which is comparable to the testing results obtained by MDEQ. From this data, one can conclude that lead levels in Flint are improving from where they were a few years ago as measured by the Lead and Copper Rule. And over time, this monitoring can help confirm that MDEQ and the City are no longer manipulating the Lead and Copper Rule’s testing process.
But we must also recognize the limits of this testing. These results do not show that water in Flint generally is “safe” or “unsafe.” No amount of lead in drinking water is safe. Also, this testing was limited to lead and copper, as discussed below. Therefore, we cannot draw sweeping conclusions about the general quality of the City’s water from the results of this monitoring program.
Why didn’t the independent monitor test for other contaminants, beyond lead and copper?
Dr. Masten’s testing program is limited to lead because it was the result of a lawsuit about lead contamination. Consequently, under the settlement, this program could not include all the testing Flint residents need.
Why did the independent monitor use the testing process set out by the Lead and Copper Rule?
Although we all know the Lead and Copper Rule is in desperate need of improvement, at the time the parties executed the settlement, many Flint residents wanted a check on the City and MDEQ’s Lead and Copper Rule testing. These residents wanted independent testing that could help them understand whether the lead levels the State was reporting were accurate based on the current testing requirements. And because we knew the State would be making many decisions based on its testing of lead levels in Flint’s water, mirroring the State’s testing was and still is valuable.
But to get a fuller picture of lead contamination, one must go beyond the Lead and Copper Rule, which, unfortunately, is not a health-based regulation. Instead, it contains what is called a “lead action level” of 15 ppb, which means water systems must act to reduce lead exposure if they exceed this level. But 15 ppb has no correlation to health impacts. In fact, the federal Maximum Contaminant Level Goal for lead in drinking water is zero because there is no safe level of lead exposure. And it’s important to note that Flint is a unique case where residents have already absorbed high doses of lead. Consequently, any additional lead for Flint residents is unacceptable.
NRDC has been fighting for changes to the national Lead and Copper Rule as well as to the rule used here in Michigan. These changes are long overdue for all communities, but especially for Flint.
Given the limits of the Lead and Copper Rule and these testing programs, at a minimum, all Flint residents should have a properly installed and working faucet filter. This is especially important in view of the ongoing service line replacement work throughout the city. Residents can obtain filter installation or inspection by calling the CORE program at 810-238-6700. If you have trouble getting help from CORE, call us at (312) 995-5906. If you are interested in participating in the next round of testing conducted by the independent monitor, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 517-884-8456.