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Analysis | The water crisis saturating America

Flint water crisis

The city of Flint in Michigan isn’t the sort of place where presidential battles are normally played out, but a civil engineering crisis has thrown it in the spotlight.

In early February, Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton touched down to campaign to residents about the safety of their water supply, an engineering catastrophe that has opened a chasm of mistrust between locals and authorities.

Unravelling what happened has gone all the way to the White House and the Flint Water Advisory Task Force set up by Michigan governor Rick Snyder has analysed the events in detail. In a scathing report published last month, the task force said: “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

In spring 2014, Flint Water Department temporarily switched its water source to the Flint River, as a cost-saving measure. At the time the city had severe financial problems and the governing systems had been replaced by emergency management. As the task force’s report said, the normal checks and balances of public decision making were not in place.

The report spells out how a critical element of the treatment, corrosion control, as required under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, was incorrectly determined by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) not to be required immediately. The water had high levels of chloride. Flint Water Department could instead complete two six-month monitoring periods and MDEQ would then determine whether corrosion control was necessary.

But soon after the new supply was used, complaints started from residents about the smell, appearance and taste of the water – this ranged from pets vomiting after drinking it to residents with skin rashes. Testing followed and the water was deemed to be safe; however, later tests revealed thousands of people were being exposed to water with high levels of lead from corroded pipes. In October last year, Flint was connected to Detroit’s water system. 

Today many families are still drinking, washing up and bathing in bottled water, such is the mistrust and uncertainty of the local water supply and official reassurances that the problem – which took so long to acknowledge – will be fixed. President Obama has declared a state of emergency in the city.

In an unprecedented State of the State speech in January, Michigan Snyder said: “To you, the people of Flint, I want to say tonight — as I have before — that I am sorry and I will fix it.”

Last month, the full report of the task force wrote: “[MDEQ] failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health. Both agencies, but principally the MDEQ, stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss others’ attempts to bring the issues of unsafe water, lead contamination, and increased cases of legionellosis (Legionnaires’ disease) to light. With the city of Flint under emergency management, the Flint Water Department rushed unprepared into full-time operation of the Flint Water Treatment Plant, drawing water from a highly corrosive source without the use of corrosion control.”

The civil engineering sector in the US is already starting to look for lessons. 

One of the key figures in the crisis is Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. He listened to residents early on and led initial testing of water through the Flint Water Study, helping to raise awareness of the disaster and galvanising local people to take part in large-scale testing. Following the authorities’ admission of the problem, he was part of the task force that carried out the independent review into the crisis and is now part of a team looking for a long-term solution.

The Environmental and Water Resources Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (EWRI of ASCE) said it agrees with many who call for a review of the technical, economic, and political decisions that led to the current crisis. It said: “As the decisions to transition to the Flint River water supply occurred, there was a failure on multiple levels to effectively protect public health. In some cases, authoritative voices raised concerns that were ignored by those with lesser technical knowledge. As this situation continues to unfold, citizens need to understand how the technical, societal and economic system safeguards broke down in Flint, in order to restore their trust in public drinking water supply system.”

But as the legal and political ramifications continue, it’s now down to engineers to ensure that the people of Flint can carry out the everyday action of drinking a cup of tap water once more.

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