The latest round of water testing in Flint, Mich., announced on Jan. 12, shows the city’s drinking water is well below action levels for the federal lead-and-copper rule, as is has been for 18 months. But many city residents are still afraid to drink the water.
“The reality is that Flint residents can’t reasonably be expected to trust anyone,” says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped to bring national attention to the high levels of lead in Flint water after 2014, when the city switched to corrosive water without corrosion control. The state later hired Edwards and his team to conduct independent testing. The team’s work has ended because the state’s testing is in alignment, he notes.
Edwards says even citizen scientists who helped to test the water and know it meets federal standards refuse to drink it. “There’s nothing that science can do to fix that problem [of trust] in the short term,” says Edwards, who is working with the city on the overarching problems of a costly, oversized water system.
Progress is being made to improve the drinking-water system, and those steps forward may appease some angry residents. Further, a state oversight board has voted to return local control to the city’s election officials, and a preliminary criminal trial is underway in Flint against four Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality officials charged with criminal wrongdoing in the water crisis.
On Jan. 11, Warren Green, vice president for Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), testified in the trial on his interactions with Flint’s state-appointed water manager. LAN was a consultant to Flint, advising it on water-system operations. LAN is the subject of civil lawsuits, though the company has said it recommended corrosion control and other measures that were ignored.
Green testified that the water manager and other officials said corrosion control would not be required by the state until the plant had been operating for a year, according to the news outlet MLive. Green also said the water treatment plant was in a state of “such disrepair” that LAN couldn’t fully evaluate the plant.
In November, the city finalized a contract to receive water for 30 years from the Great Lakes Water Authority, rendering the treatment plant largely unnecessary, but there is still work needed to improve the city’s water distribution system, including the continued replacement of lead-tainted service pipes. To date, approximately 6,600 of 20,000 pipes have been replaced.
Arcadis was hired by the city to develop a distribution optimization plan that the firm will deliver in February. The plan is set to include standard operating procedures, staffing and operational recommendations, condition assessments and hydrologic modeling, among other items, says Chris Hill, water supply and treatment leader for Arcadis. That modeling has led to recommendations to reduce the city’s storage facilities, so that residents will receive fresher water, and recommendations for smaller water lines to serve a smaller population. As part of its work, Arcadis has held public meetings to get information about the system and help build trust with the public.
In a Jan. 8 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, City Mayor Karen Weaver (D) says much of the recommended work, including a storage and pumping station, a chemical building and a secondary water-source transmission main, will be completed in 2019 using $120 million in federal funding.