Watered Down

Flint made many mistakes, but its haphazard lead monitoring system was the worst of them.

Keoni Cabral/FlickrPhoto: Keoni Cabral/Flickr

When asked why he robbed banks, legendary criminal Willie Sutton allegedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Although Sutton later disavowed the quote, it has become the pithiest expression of an intuitive idea: Always begin a search in the most obvious place.

Apparently, nobody told Flint, Michigan, about Sutton’s maxim. When its utility managers developed a system for detecting the presence of lead in its citizens’ tap water, officials made no attempt to look in the obvious place—the homes that are connected to the city’s lead distribution lines. Their approach was more than ill advised; it was a flagrant violation of federal law, according to a lawsuit filed today against the city. (Disclosure: NRDC, which publishes onEarth, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.) If you’re looking for a reason to get indignant about the Flint water crisis, this act of gross incompetence is it.

You’re undoubtedly familiar with the basics of the Flint lead poisoning story by now. In 2011, due to budgetary issues, the state of Michigan installed what would become a series of emergency managers to take control of Flint. (Fans of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation will recognize these technocrats as the Chris and Ben characters.) Noticing that the cost of buying water from Detroit had risen in recent years, one of those state officials decided to end the 50-year relationship with the nearby Motor City. In April 2014, Flint began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River.

The state bureaucrats sent to manage Flint had no idea that Detroit had been selling them not just water, but “finished water.” Detroit was testing the water from Lake Huron, adding the appropriate levels of disinfecting chemicals, and then mixing in phosphates to minimize the water’s corrosiveness. Neither Flint’s treatment facilities nor its personnel were prepared to assume those responsibilities. In the summer of 2014, soon after the switch to the Flint River, the city faced a coliform bacteria outbreak in its water. Flint mismanaged its response then, too. The “fix” caused a surge in the concentration of carcinogenic trihalomethanes.

Less obvious, but of greater long-term impact, was the leaching of lead from the city’s pipes into the water supply. It’s crucial to understand that the lead was not coming from the Flint River itself, but mostly from the service pipes that connect the municipal water supply to the city’s homes. The pH of Flint River water is low to begin with, and highly susceptible to further acidification. As the acidity spiked between December 2014 and August 2015, the water became more corrosive to lead pipes and the solder used to connect them.

Therefore, if the city wanted to know whether its residents were drinking lead-contaminated water, it should have tested water in homes serviced by lead supply lines. Federal law requires as much.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates that 50 percent of homes targeted for water testing have lead service lines. Flint initially claimed that it was in compliance with this 50 percent rule but recanted after the scandal became public. In fact, the city had no practical method for identifying homes at risk of lead contamination, because, until this past fall, the locations of lead service lines were documented on 45,000 separate index cards.

How did Flint establish which homes it would test? One of the methods was soliciting city employees. City utilities manager Michael Glasgow sent an e-mail to his Flint government colleagues in June looking for people willing to draw water from their home taps for the biannual water testing. This ad hoc scramble was about as far as the city could have gotten from the systematic, focused testing regime that EPA rules envision.

Federal law requires additional testing and treatment obligations if 10 percent of drinking water samples have more than 15 parts per billion of lead. The flawed testing regime initially suggested that the city was in compliance, but something about the muddy brown tap water tipped off Flint residents.

Citizens groups partnered with scientists from Virginia Tech in the summer of 2015 to show the city how the testing should have been done. In their first sample of 252 homes, the Virginia Tech researchers found that 10 percent of samples exceeded 25 parts per billion—40 percent higher than the federal action level. One of the samples exceeded 1,000 parts per billion.

The state of Michigan made many, many mistakes managing Flint’s water supply (you can’t create a crisis of this magnitude with just one bad decision). Flint lacked the expertise to manage its own water supply after relying on Detroit’s expertise for half a century. Officials also failed to adequately test the Flint River source water before opening the pumps. And the in-home lead monitoring system was comprehensively flawed. For instance, the city asked residents to run their faucets for five full minutes before drawing a sample for testing, a disturbingly widespread tactic to flush lead out of a system before checking for its presence. And the city failed to retest homes in their original sample, yet another violation of federal rules.

But none of these errors reach the level of incompetence—and let’s hope that’s all it was—exhibited in the selection of homes to test. It’s obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of water chemistry that you have to test for lead in homes serviced by lead pipes. That’s where the lead is. It shouldn’t take a mastermind to figure that out.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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