After allowing months of foot-dragging from state and local officials, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last week finally initiated steps to reduce heightened lead levels in the city of Flint's water supply.
The remediation program comes months after scientists hired by local residents conducted water tests and reported their findings to the local water agency and state environmental protection officials, who at first refused to act.
Now, some of the scientists who ran those tests say the officials in charge of Flint's water quality can't be trusted. “The same people who caused this are running the show,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who sampled water for Flint's residents last April.
Edwards' tests found “hazardous-waste-level” amounts of lead—13,200 parts per billion—in one home's tap water, among hundreds of homes he tested. “There is a very serious problem with Flint's water—it's not debatable,” he said.
The exact causes of the problem are still being debated. In April 2014, the impoverished city switched its water supply from Detroit-furnished Lake Huron water to the Flint River to cut costs.
Some local residents subsequently began reporting skin rashes and other health problems. When local officials didn't respond to their complaints, they hired outside scientists to test the water in selected homes and take blood samples from local children. Both studies showed lead levels well above Environmental Protection Agency limits.
Elevated blood-lead levels, especially in young children, can cause long- and short-term health problems, ranging from headaches and stomach pains to behavioral issues and anemia. Lead exposure also affects developing brains, and has been shown to reduce total IQ in those who are chronically exposed.
After receiving the water test results, local and state officials continued to downplay the issue. State officials said the lead wasn't coming from the water itself, but was being dislodged from antiquated city and home plumbing infrastructures by the corrosive nature of the water.
After switching the city's water supply to the Flint River, however, anti-corrosive measures, which are needed to keep lead from leaching out of pipes and into the water, were never taken.
But that's started to change after the state's Department of Environmental Quality confirmed results of a study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine in Lansing, that showed children in some sections of the city had elevated blood-lead levels. Lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood are now considered dangerous, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says any lead in the blood—especially in young children—can cause harm.
On Oct. 1, the Genesee County Board of Commissioners issued an emergency advisory instructing residents not to drink water from the Flint River until their home's water has been tested and found free of elevated lead levels. The county also said water filters should be installed in local homes.
That's when Gov. Snyder finally acted. His plan calls for testing water in schools and homes, providing free water filters and accelerating corrosion controls and the replacement of the lead service lines that connect Flint homes, schools and businesses to the city's water mains.
He also stepped up the pace on pipeline construction that will bring Lake Huron water back to Flint, setting a completion date for June of 2016. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also allocated $1 million for mitigation efforts that include purchasing 1,800 water filters to be distributed by the Flint Housing Commission.
“We are focused on helping ensure safe, clean, accessible drinking water and addressing and mitigating concerns and protecting public health,” Snyder said in a news release last week. “Today's action plan builds upon ongoing work with local, state and federal agencies, and our partnership with city and community leaders.”
The water woes in Flint, a deindustrialized city whose poverty and economic problems received national attention in 1989 when filmmaker and hometown hero Michael Moore released the feature “Roger & Me,” is also drawing charitable contributions from across the country. For instance, Zero Technologies in Bensalem, Pa., manufacturer of ZeroWater filters, donated 5,000 filter tumblers to Flint 's schools.
The scientists hired by local residents aren't the only ones expressing frustration about the state's slow-moving remediation efforts. Environmental activists from around the country, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, have petitioned the EPA (PDF) to take over the operation.
But an EPA spokesman said the federal agency is already involved. “Actions that the State of Michigan and the City of Flint announced last week are important steps to protect public health,” the spokesman said. “The immediate steps being taken to implement corrosion control will reduce lead in drinking water, as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. U.S. EPA will continue to provide technical assistance to the State of Michigan and the City of Flint to support their joint effort.”