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Who's to blame for Flint's water crisis? Virginia Tech researcher points the finger at MDEQ

A table filled with bottles of Flint water (both clear and brown)
Flint Water Study
Researchers at Virgina Tech received samples of Flint water (both clear and discolored) from residents.

Yesterday, Gov. Rick Snyder admitted that the decision to switch the city of Flint's water supply from Detroit's system over to the Flint River was not well planned.

“In terms of a mistake, what I would say is, is there are probably things that were not as fully understood as when that switch was made,” Snyder said.

At the direction of the state-appointed emergency manager, the city made the switch in April 2014, and problems with the drinking water started soon after.

People complained of brown water. There were boil-water advisories after the water was found to have E. coli contamination, and the drinking water also had unsafe levels of a chlorine byproduct (total trihalomethanes).

Fast forward almost a year and a half, and now we learn some residents in the city are being exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water. Pediatricians have concluded that the water in Flint is likely poisoning kids.

How could one of Michigan’s major cities be facing this problem?

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor from Virginia Tech University and a nationally renowned expert on water treatment, has put the blame squarely on the agency in charge of overseeing the safety of Flint’s drinking water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Listen to our conversation with Edwards here:

Edwards published a blog post yesterday in which he writes:

Given MDEQ’s insistence that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Flint water, we have created a timeline that illustrates how MDEQ’s mistakes and deception created the Flint water crisis in the first place.

In his timeline, Edwards says the state failed to require that the city have a corrosion-control program in place when the city switched over to Flint River water.

Edwards says current estimates are that Flint has about 15,000 drinking water service lines made of lead.

“What we discovered to our shock was that they switched to a new water source that was obviously very corrosive, meaning it would eat up the lead pipe and iron pipe and essentially put the metals into the water, without controlling the corrosion,” Edwards says. “And this is a horrible idea in a city full of lead plumbing and lead pipe like Flint.”

Edwards says current estimates are that Flint has about 15,000 drinking water service lines made of lead.

How dangerous metals can get into drinking water

When water flows through copper and lead pipes, it can take up some of the metal and make the water unsafe. To control for this problem, the Environmental Protection Agency has what’s called a “lead and copper rule."

The purpose of the rule is listed in this “quick reference guide:"

Protect public health by minimizing lead (Pb) and copper (Cu) levels in drinking water, primarily by reducing water corrosivity. Pb and Cu enter drinking water mainly from corrosion of Pb and Cu containing plumbing materials.

To keep these metals from leaching into drinking water, municipal treatment plants can change the water chemistry to lower the water’s ability to corrode these pipes.

It’s called “corrosion control,” and Edwards says the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality covered up the fact that Flint had no corrosion control program in place.

“Before you switch to a new water source, six months to a year ahead of time, you are supposed to do laboratory experiments to determine the corrosivity of the water,” says Edwards. “And the chemistry – the pH, the alkalinity, and the phosphate that you need to make sure that the lead stays on the pipes and out of the water.”

Edwards contends that the new water system had to have a “corrosion control” plan in place so that “you’re not doing an uncontrolled human experiment on a city’s population.”

According to emails obtained by the ACLU of Michigan, a state MDEQ official, Stephen Busch, responded to a request from EPA Region 5, the federal agency that oversees MDEQ, that the new water system in Flint did have a corrosion control program in place.

That exchange occurred in February of this year.

In April, according to the emails, the EPA Region 5 official later found out that was not true. Flint, it turns out, did not have a corrosion-control program in place.

From the emails:

Pat Cook [of MDEQ] has confirmed that following the disconnection from Detroit, Flint has not been operating any corrosion control treatment, which is very concerning given the likelihood of LSLs [lead service lines] in the city.

The state has maintained that it is not required under the EPA’s lead and copper rule to have a corrosion-control plan in place until two rounds of testing are completed to determine what that plan looks like.

More from Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith:

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.

As Edwards understands it, the EPA should have acted once the agency found out the state had no corrosion-control plan in place in Flint.

"If there was ever a case where [the] EPA should exert emergency powers and take primacy away from an agency, this is it."

“If there was ever a case where [the] EPA should exert emergency powers and take primacy away from an agency, this is it,” he said.

Edwards says the city was also not conducting tests for lead and copper properly.

The point of the lead and copper rule is to make sure cities are sampling homes that are high risk – that is, homes serviced by lead pipe.

An ACLU of Michigan investigation found that the city did not know whether it was testing homes serviced by lead pipes.

In this video, Michael Glasgow, the utilities manager for Flint, indicated the city doesn't know where the lead pipes are.

“We throw bottles out everywhere just to collect as many as we can just to hit our number,” said Glasgow.

More from Marc Edwards’ blog post:

By law, at least 50 percent of the homes sampled must be verified to have lead pipe, and the remainder of homes sampled must have been built before 1986 and known to have lead solder. There is no basis for believing that this requirement was met in either the 2014 or 2015 LCR sampling events conducted by the City. Hence, the City of Flint has not had a valid LCR sampling event since the switch to Flint River water.

Edwards contends that even though the city did random sampling instead of "worst case" sampling, the results were still over the action level for lead.

Solving the problem

Edwards says there has been very serious damage done to the pipes by using corrosive water in the system, but he expects that if the city were to switch back to water from Detroit, lead levels in the drinking water would likely drop in one month.

He says his biggest concerns have been alleviated since the advisories about lead in the water have been put out. People now know about the danger.

“You can learn to live with lead in the water. The big problem is not knowing that you have high lead in the water because you cannot protect yourself.”

Lead filters, flushing the water, and treatment can be used to mitigate the problem of lead in the water.

Tomorrow, we’re supposed to hear from the state about what it plans to do to tackle the problem. And critics will likely push officials as to why they haven’t addressed this problem sooner.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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