Flint shows how vulnerable the public is when government officials try to cut costs on basic infrastructure without seeing the big picture. It is far from clear whether the Flint disaster proves negligence on the part of the engineering firms that served as consultants when the city switched its water-supply source. Several lawsuits have targeted the government officials and the engineers. Of concern is whether reassuring public statements from the engineers—and the reassuring tone of their limited-scope reports—delayed recognition of the lead problem and whether that creates liability.

Under the state’s direction, as Flint prepared to switch the source of its drinking water to the Flint River, the city hired engineer Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam to study the project’s feasibility and develop cost estimates for using the city’s water plant to treat the water. After switching in April 2014, Flint’s level of total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), the potentially harmful compounds that are a by-product of chlorination, exceeded federal maximum levels. Alarmed residents voiced their fears. In a report that Lockwood, Andrews issued in late 2014, the company wrote exclusively about the TTHM problem and how to fix it.

Corrosion and Drinking Water

The taste and color of the water—and its effects on people using it—continued to stir worries. So, early last year, the city retained Veolia N.A. to perform an independent, third-party review of current treatment processes. News accounts of a public meeting in Flint described comments made by Veolia managers. One was quoted in a lawsuit as saying that the company would look at several issues, including how the water “is getting through the pipe to the house.” Veolia’s recommendations included a suggestion to help control corrosion, but again, the focus of Veolia’s efforts was on the TTHMs. Beyond the physical appearance of the water, Veolia issued a report March 12, 2015, saying its review showed the water “is considered to meet” state and federal drinking-water requirements, but that was only for TTHMs. In public statements, both Veolia and Lockwood, Andrews say they worked within the scope of their contracts.

While we would have preferred engineers to have stood up and blown a whistle on the Flint lead dangers, the engineers appear not to have been hired to do the tasks needed to figure that out. Skepticism should greet any effort to expand, retroactively, the consulting engineers’ scope and standard of care, trying to show that they should have alerted their clients and public to a lead danger. It seems clear that engineers can invite problems with overly optimistic public statements that don’t come with disclaimers about scope of work. The old truism also seems to hold that, no matter what the known facts, engineers can and will be sued when trouble arises.