When the city of Flint, Mich., disastrously switched its drinking-water source in 2014, it hired an engineering consultant that now claims state and municipal officials ignored the firm's recommendation for a two- to three-month trial period, as well as water-softening and pipe-corrosion controls, before using the Flint River water treated at the city's rundown water treatment plant.

The claim opens up a new perspective on several bypassed suggestions offered to officials that might have prevented the surging lead levels in Flint's water.

The claim emerged in an unusual way.

In the final report of Michigan’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which blames the state Dept. of Environmental Quality for drinking-water lead levels that were well above permissible limits, there is an intriguing note related to the engineering consultant, Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), a Houston-based unit of engineering firm Leo A Daly.

When state officials compelled Flint to switch its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River on a temporary basis to save money, LAN performed consulting work on operational changes needed for the treatment plant. The groundwork for the switch was performed from 2011 to 2013, and the switch finally was made last year. City and state officials expected the move to be temporary until the city could connect to another regional water system.

The task force, which issued its final report on March 21, says LAN declined to answer questions in person. Instead, the company agreed to provide written answers to written questions.

But the task force says LAN did not provide the written answers in time for the final report, which, on page 3, states that the task force “has not received responses to these questions.” However, the final report puts no blame on LAN for what occurred.

In a statement made public following the release of the final report, LAN claims it received questions from the task force on March 1 and “regularly advised” the task force of its progress in providing answers. The answers were provided “in advance of the public release of the report,” the firm contends.

Task-force members could not be reached for comment by ENR press time on March 28.

LAN’s statement notes that city officials limited the firm's role to “[addressing] specific components of the existing Flint water treatment plant” and that LAN had no responsibility for overall water quality; further, the engineering consultant did not have responsibility or authority for compliance with the federal lead-and-copper rule, LAN states.

Because the water treatment plant was in poor condition due to lack of maintenance, the engineer recommended that, using Flint River water, the city run the plant on a trial basis for “60-90 days before it became operational in order to assess water quality after treatment,” says LAN.

“To our knowledge, the recommended test run never took place,” LAN told the task force in its written answers.

Corrosion Measures Suggested

Flint’s main engineering consultant, Rowe Professional Consultants, retained LAN in 2011 to prepare a study of costs and technical issues related to the switch of water sources. LAN says its study “made provision” for full water softening, using lime and soda ash, and testing for compliance with the lead-and-copper rule, “including corrosion controls.”

LAN adds that, in July of that year, “the city informed LAN that the city would not use full water softening" because state environmental officials were not requiring it. City officials deferred to the state on the matter, LAN contends.

The most prominent findings in the task force's final report state that Michigan environmental officials “misinterpreted” the lead-and-copper rule and “misapplied its requirements.”

As a result, many Flint residents’ exposure to high lead levels was “prolonged for months,” notes the task force's report.