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Flint mayor to state: Approve plan “as fast as humanly possible” to help keep lead out of water

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Flint hasn’t been using any corrosion-control method since it switched from Detroit’s water system in April 2014. Corrosion-control treatment helps keep lead out of drinking water. Since the switch, more kids are showing up with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling says he wants to put corrosion-control treatment back in place, but he needs state approval first. The state says it’s going to take a little while to implement.

“One of my requests to (Michigan’s) Department of Environmental Quality director is that (approval) be accelerated as fast as humanly possible,” Walling said.

“Whatever decisions are coming next, we need that corrosion control in the water treatment process that we have now,” he said.

Walling was a guest today on Stateside with Cynthia Canty.

Flint spokesman Jason Lorenz says MDEQ made the recommendation to put corrosion-control treatment into the water supply last month. But, he says, it needs MDEQ Director Dan Wyant’s official approval.

There’s been some debate over whether Flint should have had corrosion control in place the entire time.

MDEQ officials have argued to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that corrosion control is not technically required yet, because the Flint River is a new water source.

“You have to have to do a full year of studying” the water chemistry as it behaves across the system before implementing corrosion control, MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said. He says that’s the only way to know what corrosion-control treatment to use.

That period of study was to be completed by June 30.  

As the DEQ reads federal regulations, Flint technically has up to two years after the study to install treatment. But Wurfel says an announcement on the state's decision will come by the end of this week, and "the prescription for optimizing the system for corrosion control is going to be done in Flint by the end of this year."

"If I handed you a bag of chocolate chips and a sack of flour and said 'make cookies,' you'd still need a recipe right? They need to get the results from that testing to understand how much of what to put in the (new water source)," Wurfel said.

"We have a plan to expedite this with the city ... and folks can take some comfort in that," Wurfel said.

It's not clear yet how much the treatment will cost, but Wurfel says "this won't break the bank." A state-appointed emergency manager made the interim switch to the Flint River to save the city money.

Related: Have you missed parts of the Flint water story? Here's a quick rundown.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not yet answered this question: Was Flint required to have some form of corrosion-control treatment the whole time?

At face value, the EPA rules are clear, all water systems that serve more than 50,000 people must have some kind of corrosion control.

But when you switch water sources, there is apparently some room for interpretation.

In approving updates to this federal regulation in 2000, the EPA noted that “water systems need to make treatment changes, on occasion, to react to changing circumstances.”

In these cases, the rule does not “prevent a state from approving treatment changes,” but it’s not entirely clear if the state can approve having zero corrosion-control treatment.

One key section of the rule change reads:

“One commenter requested that EPA clarify in the rule language that (large water) systems are not required to have (corrosion-control treatment) physically present. EPA disagrees that this is appropriate.” “For large water systems, (the federal rule) does not eliminate the need to have any (corrosion-control treatment) in place, unless the water system can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the State that such treatment will have no effect on reducing the levels of lead and copper at the tap … EPA expects few, if any, large water systems can make this demonstration without (corrosion-control treatment).”

Flint residents can be sure about one thing: This period of study and approval won’t happen the next time the city switches water sources.

The city expects to stop using the Flint River when a new regional water system in Genesee County is completed, slated for the end of 2016. According the MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel, that’s because they won’t need to study the nature of the new water source – Lake Huron. Because Detroit’s water system uses water from Lake Huron, Flint will be able to use the same corrosion-control treatment it did when it was hooked up to Detroit’s system.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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