Action, inaction and rhetoric linked to high lead-levels in the Flint, Mich., water supply reached a new peak in mid-March. State officials on March 21 unveiled a 75-point plan that, among other actions, aims to boost the contamination fix and toughen state drinking-water rules beyond federal mandates.

But Congress failed to approve a federal-aid package for Flint and other states with water emergencies before adjourning for recess, and public-sector and private participants in the city’s unfolding saga traded blame at heated Washington hearings.

The Flint crisis “represents a low point in our country’s ongoing efforts to improve and solve our aging water infrastructure crisis,” adds Marshall Davert, president of the government-and-infrastructure unit of MWH Global.

The state plan, unveiled by Gov. Rick Snyder (R), calls for new drinking-water standards in Michigan that would set tighter controls than now are required under the federal lead-and-copper rule; however, he did not disclose any specifics. The plan also does not specify complete replacement of the city’s underground lead service lines, which could be as many as 15,000 pipes.

Local officials have pushed for that action, after it was discovered lead has been leaching into Flint’s water supply since 2014, when the city switched to the Flint River as its water source but corrosion-control chemicals were not added until months later.

Under the current federal rule, action is required only if more than 10% of samples from high-risk homes exceed the federal lead limit of 15 parts per billion. But experts say any level of lead exposure is dangerous, particularly for children, and studies have highlighted risks above 5 parts per billion.

“I think there have been failures at all levels,” says Mae Wu, Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney.  She says NRDC filed a petition with EPA last October “asking them to use their emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act to deal with what was happening in Flint, and they didn’t. They didn’t do anything until months later.”

She adds, however, that there were failures among state and city officials, too.

On Jan. 27, NRDC, along with the American Civil Liberty Unions and other groups, filed a lawsuit the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against city and state officials to enable local residents to gain access to safe drinking water supplies.

The problem goes well beyond Flint, with reports of elevated lead levels in Newark, N.J., Washington, and other cities. One Newark legislator now seeks to divert $20 million from New Jersey's Clean Energy Fund to pay for lead-removal work.

“The biggest problem is that we have all these lead service lines in the ground,” Wu says. The most recent estimates calculate the number of lead service lines to be approximately 6.1 million in the nation, predominantly in older cities.

She says that the corrosion controls required under the Lead and Copper Rule are more of a temporary “band-aid” for a persistent problem, and its implementation has been inconsistent.

“Unfortunately, you won’t necessarily get a violation in places where there are problems, because the problems may be that they are not doing the sampling the right way.” Flint “didn’t have any violations of the Lead and Copper Rule on the books,” she notes.

Insists Wu: “The only way to get the lead out is to get those lead pipes out of the ground."

At a March 17 Washington hearing, Snyder acknowledged that “local, state and federal officials—we all failed the families of Flint.” He claimed state environmental officials assured his administration that the Flint River water was safe and noted “immediate action.”

But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) cited state emails he obtained that indicate concerns about Flint’s water as early as February 2015. “People all around the governor … were sounding alarms, but he either ignored them or didn’t hear them,” Cummings said.

Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, who presided over the water-source switch, said at the March 15 hearing that he was not informed of safety risks, telling legislators he has been “persecuted and vilified” over his role.

Engineering firms that have worked on various aspects of the Flint water switch and system upgrade also are being caught up in litigation over the contamination. The firms said lead and corrosion issues were outside their scope of work.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy testified that, based on state claims of appropriate action, she “had no justification legally” for federal intervention until late in 2015. “The state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and absolutely incorrect information,” she said.

But Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University engineering professor and a vocal EPA critic, claimed the agency knowingly allowed municipalities to “cheat” on implementing the lead rule. McCarthy said EPA knows “[the rule] needs to be strengthened.”

Snyder, whose state budget calls for $165 million to address the crisis, urged Congress to pass a $220-million bipartisan emergency bill “to aid Flint immediately.” It includes $100 million for water infrastructure upgrades through the drinking-water state revolving fund and $70 million to back secured loans under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which could leverage up to $4.2 billion for broad U.S. water and wastewater needs.

But Congress took no action on the funding before it recessed for Easter on March 18. “There’s not a lot of agreement on fixes, dollars or the urgency of the problems,” says Scott Berry, director of AGC’s water and utilities group. EPA now is limited in its ability to administer WIFIA loans to Flint or others, he adds. 

In February, the governor requested $25 million to contribute to the $55-million Fast Start program, which will remove an estimated 8,000 or so lead service lines from homes in the city and outlying areas. But those funds still need to be approved by the state legislature.

In addition, on March 6, the Union Labor Life Insurance Co. and the American Federation of Teachers announced that they would contribute an additional $25 million to Fast Start to get the program up and running.

Meanwhile,industry firms await more specifics on how the Flint system upgrades will be procured, “whether procurement will be done locally, at the state level, or overseen by federal agencies,” says John Raimondo, a director of Roncelli Construction, Sterling Heights, Mich.

Raimondo and the Michigan chapter of the Design-Build Institute of America have been meeting with state legislators and the governor’s office to promote a design-build approach to construction projects in general in Michigan.

Traditionally, the state has used a low-bid procurement process. He says using design-build, “given the crisis and sense of urgency,” would provide a more cost-effective, streamlined and competitive process that might provide “a lower-cost and quicker-to-market solution when compared to publicly procured, low-cost competitive bids.”

At a Water Summit held at the White House on March 22, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said there will be additional cost as a result of not acting proactively. Instead of paying $55 million up front to remove the lead service lines, the costs to “fix” Flint may reach $1.5 billion, he said.

John Raimondo, a Director on the board for Roncelli, Inc. Sterling Heights, says, “What hasn’t been determined is the procurement approach---whether procurement will be done locally, at the state or federal level overseen by federal agencies.”