Flint, Mich., Didn't Follow Drinking Water Controls

By Nora Macaluso

Oct. 19 — E-mails released under a Freedom of Information Act request show that Flint, Mich., which was found to have high lead levels in its water, did not implement proper corrosion controls when it switched water sources and that regulators were aware of it, a researcher said Oct. 19.

The lack of controls may have prompted the high lead levels, one of the e-mails from an Environmental Protection Agency official said.

Researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who conducted a study that found elevated lead levels in Flint water, requested the e-mails. High levels of lead were also found in the blood of children in some Flint neighborhoods.

Flint recently switched from getting its water from Detroit's water system, which uses Lake Huron as a source, to the Flint River, which residents said coincided with the increased lead levels. The city made the switch as a cost-saving measure in 2014 and has been relying on the Flint River as a temporary source while it builds a new water system.

The e-mails, released Oct. 19, showed that state and federal regulators were aware that Flint wasn't treating its water with phosphate to control corrosion after making the switch from Detroit water, Siddhartha Roy, a Virginia Tech doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering who worked on the study, told Bloomberg BNA. The study was done in conjunction with efforts by Flint residents and the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate problems with city water.

“According to the e-mails, they very well knew [Flint was] not practicing corrosion controls, and there was a very big problem,” Roy said.

Miguel Del Toral, a laboratory certification program manager with the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 in Chicago, warned in one e-mail that high lead levels in Flint were likely related to “the lack of corrosion control being conducted by the city.”

The e-mails show that the EPA suggested DEQ officials inform Flint leaders that their water system was not “optimized” for lead, and that corrosion-control measures should start “as soon as possible.”

No Response to Recommendation 

The DEQ passed that recommendation along to Flint leaders, though a Sept. 11 e-mail from Stephen Busch, a DEQ district supervisor, said “the city has not sent us their recommendation at this time,” and added, “They have until the end of the year to make a recommendation, but they are planning to have the treatment in place by January 2016.”

“You cannot be in charge and make a statement like that when people are drinking that water, even for a year,” Roy said.

In a July 21 e-mail to EPA officials, Shekter Smith, a state official, asked the agency to confirm that Michigan was complying with federal regulations.

“While we understand your concerns with the overall implementation of the lead and copper rule[s], we think it is appropriate for EPA to indicate in writing [an e-mail would be sufficient] your concurrence that the city is in compliance with the lead and copper rule as implemented in Michigan. This would help distinguish between our goals to address important public health issues separately from the compliance requirements of the actual rule, which we believe have been and continue to be met in the city of Flint,” Smith said.

Mistake in Testing Protocol 

DEQ announced Oct. 19 that a mistake had been made in how the sampling of Flint's water supply was done.

In sampling the drinking water in Flint, a city of 100,000, DEQ staffers relied on federal testing guidelines established for cities with fewer than 50,000 people, DEQ Director Dan Wyant said in an Oct. 19 statement.

“I am convinced our program staff believed they were doing their job right,” Wyant said. Effective immediately, he said, DEQ Chief Deputy Jim Sygo will take over from Liane Shekter Smith as chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

Brad Wurfel, a DEQ spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19 that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires cities of 50,000 or more to maintain full corrosion control even while they're doing testing. However, he downplayed the significance of the e-mails.

“The e-mails only show a snapshot” of the discussions between DEQ and EPA, he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has promised an investigation into how lead got into city water and why the problem wasn't detected sooner. He also directed the Legislature to provide funds for a switch back to the Detroit system and for further testing of schools and support to city residents.

State officials initially denied that there was a problem with lead in Flint's water, saying later that a closer look at the date did in fact support the Virginia Tech and Hurley findings, and an action plan was announced

Senator Awaits Investigation

In September, studies released by the Virginia Tech researchers and a pediatrician at Flint's Hurley Medical Center showed elevated lead levels in city water and in children's bloodstreams. State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D) also sounded an alarm, sending Snyder a letter outlining recommendations. Most of those were addressed in the governor's plan, Ananich told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19.

“This issue's been going on for 14 months,” Ananich said. “I think it's becoming more and more obvious that a deeper dive or investigation needs to be put in place” to find out what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again, he said. He said he's working with the governor's office and his colleagues in the legislature on investigations, in addition to asking the state auditor general to “dig a little deeper” while working on an audit of the DEQ water program.

For now, “the impression I get is that things are moving in the direction they're supposed to,” Ananich said. “I'm going to continue to hold [state officials] accountable, to make sure everything laid out in that press conference last week happens.”

While many older cities have had problems with lead pipes, Flint's situation is “unprecedented,” Roy said. “Flint is unusual in that they changed the water source without getting permission or even doing adequate testing on the new source of water. It's the only city not practicing corrosion control.”

The EPA is in the process of revising its lead and copper rule. Although the rule is “imperfect,” cities generally try to ensure their corrosion-control methods are working, Roy said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nora Macaluso in Detroit at nmacaluso@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The e-mails and more information on the Virginia Tech study are available at http://www.flintwaterstudy.org.