Tests (or Lack Thereof) Show New Players Needed to Fix Flint

A Grey Day in Flint jmogs via Flickr

The mess in Michigan has yet to be cleaned. Despite all the national attention and big talk from politicians who should share blame for the poisoning of Flint, very little has been done to improve the core problems with the city's water crisis--and much of the most constructive, helpful work has been undertaken by volunteers and outside nongovernmental groups. I am sure many officials would take exception to that statement, but it doesn't take much more than a cursory look at the parade of horrifying daily headlines emanating from Flint to understand why people in the community have real concerns about whether the governmental units that created the problem there are the right ones to fix it...

Last week, it was reported that despite 9 deaths from a Legionnaire's disease outbreak that may be linked to the switch to drinking water drawn from the polluted Flint River nobody has bothered to test the water for the Legionella bacteria which is the source of the dangerous disease.

That is right. Sixteen months after the water may have killed nine people and sickened 87 others, it still has not been tested. Even with the Governor publicly stating concerns about the issue in January, the state has not done the testing. The City has not done it either. Nor the EPA. From the Detroit News:

In March 2015, the state Department of Environmental Quality considered taking samples from Flint's water system to be tested for Legionella at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' laboratory. But neither agency followed through.

That same month, the Environmental Protection Agency also suggested city water should be tested for Legionella during an EPA meeting about the outbreak and expressed that opinion to the DEQ in an email reviewed by The Detroit News. Again, no testing was done. This is just another indication of how weak the government response has been to the Flint crisis. It also highlights that testing for Legionella--and indeed testing for several other hazardous contaminants that can often show up in drinking water--is still not required by EPA anywhere.

Experts, including Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor whose research uncovered the problem of lead contamination in Flint water, argue the municipal water should have been tested for Legionella because the outbreak could be tied to changes in the water system. Genesee County Environmental Health Supervisor Jim Henry also called for such testing. Experts say had the source of the Legionella been confirmed as the water system, targeted chlorine treatments could have been applied to kill the bacteria.

While the City, State and Feds point the fingers at one another over who should have tested the water, the people of Flint are reminded that these are the same folks who allowed this problem to continue for months--while they drank the dangerously contaminated water. Clearly, the problems have not been sorted. And this is a big part of the reason why NRDC, ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint residents have filed suit. To be clear, the Legionella issue is not part of our suit. But the lack of action and finger pointing we are seeing around the testing issue (while testing still is not done) is an indication of a problem we are trying to solve by calling for federal court supervision moving forward. With another switch in drinking water sources looming this coming summer, there is more opportunity for failure to come and the public needs to be reassured this switch will not reopen them to harm. We hope that the courts will act, even as others have not...

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Director, Midwest program

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