Flint, Michigan has felt the brunt of national embarrassment for years. High crime, high unemployment, poverty and stagnation. Now the city has one upped itself. Now it is the city that knowingly poisoned its own residents. Its 17 month experiment using Flint River water for its source has been a tragic failure.
First it was the high levels of TTHM or total trihalomethanes. These are byproducts of the disinfection process. In the case of Flint, it was chlorine reacting with organics in the water to create these new compounds which are thought to be cancer causing when subjected to high levels over a long period of time.
The city was forced to install an expensive filtration system in order to address the problem. They initially rejected the system as a cost saving move since the whole point of dropping city of Detroit water as its source was to save money. However, repeatedly failing DEQ standards led to a public relations nightmare and the city had to bite the bullet and replace the water treatment plant filter media even though they planned to switch to a cleaner source of supply water in another year.
But it didn’t stop there. Lead in the water turned the nightmare into a disaster. The river water was more corrosive than Detroit water and it caused the lead existing in Flint’s ancient infrastructure to leach out into resident’s drinking water. No amount of lead is safe in humans and infants are particularly susceptible to metal poisoning.
An array of cover-ups, botched interpretations of rules concerning sampling and reporting followed as the city, the DEQ and the Governor’s office attempted to deny reality and deal with the problem. It took a report from a college professor that made headlines to finally force the Governor to act and pony up the dollars required to get Flint back on Detroit water.
The media has yet to report on a key point. In the world of water chemistry, there exists a formula called the CSMR or chloride sulfate mass ratio. It essentially determines that an increase in chloride along with a decrease in sulfate results in more corrosive water. Sometimes dramatically more which can lead to the lead leaching problem witnessed. In fact, case studies exist from prior issues in other areas of the country which should have led the powers that be in making decisions on Flint source water to change course. In other words, they had prior warning. They ignored it.
Coagulation is a water treatment process used to remove turbidity, and its potential to support disease, from water. Flint switched from a chemical called alum, which is sulfate based, to ferric chloride when the change from Detroit water to Flint River occurred. Just as the CSMR formula predicted, the corrosivity of the water increased so much so that the lead issue blossomed. Some will blame the lead issue on the states failure to force Flint to treat its water with phosphates to create a seal inside the pipes which actually keeps the lead in place. Detroit water had this and is why Flint never had a lead issue previously. However, the more critical point is why the CSMR data was ignored before the switch was ever made.
Was this a failure of technical expertise? Not likely. The CSMR isn’t a trade secret. A deranged conspiracy to purposely poison the people of Flint? I don’t think many would actually believe that. A way to save money by taking shortcuts and hoping to get to the mid-summer 2016 projected switch to Lake Huron source water when these types of problems would simply go away? Now you’re talking. It’s always been about the almighty buck where Flint problems are concerned.
The corruption aside, there is another point that any person drinking water treated under the provisions of the United States Safe Drinking Water Act should be very concerned with. Part of the act lays out the rules concerning water utilities switching source waters. It says that after a switch, the provider must conduct a monitoring period to accumulate data from real world sampling tests. Flint was required to conduct two 6 month periods in succession which they did. This is where the DEQ dropped the ball. In utilities serving more than 50,000 people, an anti-corrosion program is supposed to be put in place from day one throughout the monitoring period. The DEQ interpreted the rule incorrectly and never forced Flint to do this.
Do you see the problem? Government rules require that citizens are guinea pigs for a year of testing to see if toxic poison levels may be too high. Why? They want to have real world data to measure the effectiveness of the anti-corrosion program. Make you feel good? Worse yet, if a utility finds those levels too high they than have another period of time to develop an anti-corrosion program and beyond that a period of time to install and initiate it. All totaled up a water utility may actually have years to remove toxins in your water. Legally. As laid out in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In the case of Flint, all could have been avoided if they had simply utilized the lessons of past experiences. The CSMR was a red flag warning of what was to come. Now the afflicted will face an unknown future of health and cognitive problems due to lead poisoning. In America. The most advanced country the planet has ever seen. A historical tragedy that will always tarnish the city of Flint.