Flint Mayor Karen Weaver
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver

A  report completed last March for Flint, Mich.’s emergency manager contained recommendations to inhibit pipe corrosion, which has been blamed for high levels of lead in the city’s water supply.

However, the report did not specifically mention the possibility of lead poisoning, documents released by the state show.

Written by Chicago-based Veolia North America, a unit of the global water giant, the report said the measure would cost $50,000. The suggestion was part of a long list of ideas, and most of the text dealt with other potential toxins and the water’s taste and odor. Flint city officials had seen a preliminary version of the report last February; shortly afterward, the full report was posted on the city’s website.

On Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C., President Obama told attendees of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that Michigan would receive $80 million to help pay for water infrastructure improvements, including in the city of Flint, which is scrambling to address the crisis. Obama called the situation “inexcusable.”

As the crisis continued to unfold, two Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality officials resigned in late December. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy on Jan. 22 accepted the resignation of Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman. Additionally, a Justice Dept. probe has been launched.

The city, under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, in 2014 switched its drinking-water source from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-cutting move. A new pipeline is being built to provide water from Lake Huron to mid-county residents, including Flint, but that project won’t be completed until this summer. While a new pipeline will help, the entire system needs to be upgraded, according to several sources.

Because proper corrosion controls were not used, the service lines—some of which are antiquated lines made of lead—have been compromised and even clean water could become tainted, the sources say. At the mayors’ meeting, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (D) noted that many of the service lines to local homes are lead lines and need to be replaced. “This is, No. 1, a public health issue, and, No. 2, an infrastructure issue,” she told reporters. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis, and he apologized to the people of Flint and promised resources “to anyone and everyone who has been affected.”

He released thousands of emails related to residents’ queries as well as local EPA officials’ responses to growing concerns about water-quality issues in Flint.

Report Cites Cast Iron Pipes

As part of that release, Veolia’s March 2015 report to the city’s emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, recommended that the city add at least $50,000 in corrosion controls to reduce water discoloration.

“Many people are frustrated and naturally concerned by the discoloration of the water with what primarily appears to be iron from the old unlined cast iron pipes,” the report noted. Veolia recommended adding polyphosphate to minimize water discoloration but warned that the addition “will not make discolored water issues go away.” The report did not make any specific references to the potential for lead contamination, although the firm noted in the report that the scope of the study was limited to assuring that total trihalomethanes—a suspected carcinogen—were within federal limits. In a statement emailed to ENR on Jan. 22, Veolia said copper and lead levels were “not part of our scope of work” and that the company has not done any work for Flint since the study was completed.

It is not clear how soon the governor received Veolia’s report, but many are demanding his resignation. He may be called to testify before Congress. Meanwhile, thousands of parents in Flint must worry for years to come about the potential for lead poisoning—and brain damage—in their children.