Examining Flint’s Water Testing & Other Challenges of Drinking Water Emergencies

Flint, Mich., Water Tower

By Andrew Farr

There have been many questions raised in recent months about what the water sector can learn from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Some would say the crisis, while a nightmare for the residents of Flint, has reinvigorated the discussion around the importance of our water systems, whether it’s aging infrastructure, management of water treatment practices or the obvious funding gap that exists for needed projects.

But just because the discussion is renewed, it doesn’t mean problems will cease to arise. If one thing is clear about recent water crises, it’s that there are a number of threats to the quality of drinking water, and they can transpire at almost any time.

The Elk River chemical spill in January 2014 that contaminated source water in nine West Virginia counties provided an example of what a public without access to safe drinking water looks like. The picture was further illustrated later that year when the City of Toledo, Ohio, was also forced to issue “Do Not Drink” advisories when an algal bloom formed around the city’s intake. The incidents affected hundreds of thousands of people, and even though each situation was quickly resolved, questions were raised about accountability and emergency protocol. The water crisis in Flint, on the other hand, was not sudden. Events were set in motion long before the situation turned into national news, but that story has a tendency to get lost amid the political finger pointing. It also highlights the importance of customers knowing about the condition of their own service lines.

“The experience of Flint underscores the importance of public communications about lead risks,” AWWA CEO David LaFrance said in a recent statement. “Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure.”

This all raises the question — are we truly prepared for the next water crisis? And when it happens, what will it take to avoid mistakes made in the past? By examining some these recent water emergencies, we can start to uncover some of the best practices, failures and the importance of public communication.

Flint: Behind the Scenes

We now know Flint’s water crisis stems from the city’s decision in 2014 to switch from Lake Huron water, supplied by the City of Detroit, to water from the Flint River treated at Flint’s city treatment plant. The decision was made in an effort to save the city $5 million over the course of about two years.

Despite the constant national media attention surrounding Flint’s lead-contaminated water distribution system, which began in early 2016, the problem was really discovered nearly a year earlier.

In February 2015, LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident, learned the lead content of her water exceeded levels for safe drinking. As reported by numerous media outlets, Walters’ son was eventually diagnosed with lead poisoning, which was determined to have been caused by exposure to lead solder after an investigation by Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager of the Ground and Drinking Water Branch of EPA Region 5. The lead content only increased over the next few months, leading Walters to grow suspicious of treatment practices, specifically regarding corrosion control chemicals that should be added to the water before it enters the distribution system.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which regulates water treatment in Flint, was asked by Del Toral if it was treating the water with the proper corrosion control chemicals. Initially the Michigan DEQ claimed that it had a corrosion control program in place but failed to specify what that program was. Walters, still suspicious, began searching for experts on lead in drinking water to investigate the matter further.

She contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who runs a water quality and water infrastructure lab. Edwards’ lab does work in both water chemistry and microbiology, studying opportunistic pathogens in drinking water systems with experience in corrosion and lead in drinking water research. Edwards and his research team conducted extensive sampling of the water at Walters’ home and found lead levels as high as 13,200 parts per billion (ppb), nearly three times higher than what is considered hazardous waste.

Edwards gave the results to Walters. Del Toral was also informed. The results prompted EPA to again question the Michigan DEQ about corrosion control. This time, the DEQ admitted it was not using corrosion control, a violation of EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“This is when our group and Dr. Edwards knew there was a problem,” says Anurag Mantha, a member of Edwards’ Flint research team. “Basic chemistry told us Flint would have a major lead-in-water problem. They had a lot of lead service lines in the city because it is an old city and they were not using any corrosion control and they were running corrosive water through the distribution system.”

According to Mantha, at a Flint town hall meeting shortly after, Michigan DEQ officials refused to acknowledge the results of the tests on Walters home.

Sampling & Testing

In August 2015, the Virginia Tech research team underwent a massive sampling effort after receiving a $50,000 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation. As part of random sampling, the research team sent out 300 testing kits to homes in Flint. Of the 300, 271 kits were returned for analysis. Walters even helped lead a team of volunteers on the ground in Flint to assist in the sampling.

After testing the samples, the team concluded that the lead content in the water still exceeded acceptable levels for drinking water, with 90 percent of the lead value recorded at 26.5 ppb — greater than the EPA allowed level of 15 ppb that is applied to high risk homes. The World Health Organization (WHO) maximum lead level is 10 ppb. Several of the samples exceeded 100 ppb and one sample collected after 45 seconds of flushing exceeded 1,000 ppb.

According to Mantha, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

“We created a website, Flintwaterstudy.org, and posted anything we did,” he says. “At this point, we knew government agencies are sluggish in their response. Our main priority was to get the word out because citizens of Flint were being exposed to harmful levels of lead, which was totally preventable. You can protect yourself from lead by using an NSF-certified filter at your faucet.”

Mantha also says the Michigan DEQ continued to ignore Virginia Tech’s research. “Instead of working with us, they discredited our work,” he says. “And this went on for a while.”

Public Outreach

At this point, the Virginia Tech team went as far as to literally call Flint residents whose homes tested with high levels of lead to notify them of the dangers of drinking or using their tap water — an effort Mantha headed up in mid-August.

“People usually don’t pick up calls from their home phone, so for some people, I would call 10 to 15 times in a matter of a couple days to try to get ahold of them,” he says.

Mantha says he called roughly 70 Flint residents.

“I would give them the results [of the tests] and they would ask about safe levels and what they could or could not use the water for,” he says. “I told them they should either use bottled water or use an NSF-certified filter. This is when I realized most Flint residents I called didn’t always have the money to buy a filter.”

Mantha describes one instance in which he spoke to woman in Flint whose home tested at about 200 ppb of lead. The woman had her daughter, who was pregnant, as well as another two-year-old living in in the house, all of who had been using the water. The woman told Mantha that she would likely have to wait until October before she would have $20 to buy a filter. Mantha and Dr. Edwards bought a filter on Amazon.com and sent it to the family. In mid-September, Mantha also started a fundraiser through GoFundMe to help raise support for Flint families affected by the water crisis to buy filters and other supplies. The campaign so far has raised about $4,500.

By comparison, it wasn’t until January 2016 when the National Guard was called into Flint to hand out bottled water to residents.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials have since acknowledged they made a mistake when they failed to require the needed corrosion control chemicals. Although the city switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, officials say the potential for harm continues because of damage done to Flint’s water distribution system. Going forward, the Flint Water Study team will continue sampling in Flint and is now working closely with EPA’s Region 5 emergency response team.

The situation in Flint has prompted comment from water sector leaders, calling for action on lead service lines across the United States.

“It may be some time before all the facts surrounding Flint are understood,” LaFrance continued in his statement on Flint. “However, there are a few lessons that seem apparent. First, water chemistry is complex. When a community changes water sources or water treatment, unintended consequences can occur. Water systems must be alert to these potential issues and have plans in place to address them.

“Second, affordability will become a significant issue as we renew our aging water infrastructure,” LaFrance continued. “Water service is priced well below its value, but there are still families that struggle to meet essential needs. In many cases, utilities and customers will have to work collaboratively to remove lead service lines. There may be opportunities to expand existing government assistance programs to mitigate costs.”

Toledo’s Response

The Toledo water crisis, as it is commonly referred to, affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents in Northwest Ohio in August 2014 and was also the subject of national media attention. Although water was only compromised for two days, the threat to drinking water standards prompted city officials throughout the region to issue “Do Not Drink” advisories to the public and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare a State of Emergency.

It was discovered that a large algal bloom had formed at the water intake on Lake Erie and forced an overwhelming amount of microcystin, a toxin common in algal blooms, into the finished water. According to EPA, a primary cause of algal blooms is nutrient pollution, which causes high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, causing algae to grow at a rapid rate.

Experts say algae blooms caused by nutrient pollution are an increasingly serious problem across the United States and that efforts to address the problem have fallen short. The challenges are also not restricted to the Great Lakes as harmful algae can also form in polluted inland lakes and ponds.

“When we bring this subject up for conversation with the regulators, everyone sort of walks out of the room,” Donald Moline, then-commissioner of Toledo public utilities, told reporters following the crisis. “The whole drinking-water community has been raising these issues, and so far we haven’t seen a viable response.”

Elk River Chemical Spill

The brief crisis in Toledo wasn’t the first major drinking water emergency to make headlines in 2014. On Jan 9, Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility in Charleston, West Virginia, spilled 10,000 gallons of chemicals, including 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM), into the Elk River, which serves as source water for 300,000 people. After discovering the contamination, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a State of Emergency and West Virginia American Water issued a “Do Not Use” order for the tap water in nine counties. The order lasted for one week, forcing many to go out of state to buy bottled water. In addition, because the public was presented with conflicting orders and an absence of information about the health effects of the chemicals, many refused to use the water for several weeks and even months after the order was lifted.

Numerous civil suits have been filed in the aftermath of the crisis, including more than 50 against West Virginia American Water in just the first nine months following the spill. Several personal injury suits as well as a class action lawsuit against Freedom Industries, its top executives, Eastman Chemical Company, West Virginia American Water and American Water, its parent company. In December 2014, Freedom Industries Farrell and Southern settled one such class action for $50,000 and $350,000, respectively.

The spill’s fallout and West Virginia’s lead to create a chemical storage tank regulatory program set a precedent for several other states to enact their own chemical tank legislation and bills were proposed in halls of Congress and the U.S. Senate. Despite immense public support, these West Virginia regulatory bills were already mostly dismantled in the next legislative session.

Dr. Krista Bryson, who manages a website on the West Virginia Water Crisis, wvwatercrisis.com, writes that response protocol and crisis communication standards raised by the crisis are just as critical as the regulatory questions.

“One of the most important questions is how to instruct the public to protect themselves when there is little to no information available on the chemicals the public is being exposed to, how to determine safe exposure levels during cleanup and remediation processes, again when there is little to no data, and how to adequately address public concerns openly and honestly while also teaching them how to protect themselves from exposure,” Bryson writes.

In addition to questions about prevention and response, long-term health monitoring is essential to learning the full health impacts of the crisis and being able to provide the appropriate care for those exposed. According to Bryson’s website, numerous organizations have created proposals for the monitoring of long-term illnesses and diseases relating to exposure from the spill, but as of yet, none have received funding. The current and future illnesses resulting from this chemical exposure will have no formal means of being tracked, and the significance of this event on public health will ultimately be lost.

By improving the process by which a crisis is handled, and improving communication with the public and coordination of various groups working to solve problems, a threat to drinking water quality can perhaps be limited to an emergency before it reaches the crisis status.

Andrew Farr is an associate editor of UIM.

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