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Flint water crisis

How to Prevent Another Flint Water Crisis

Flint water crisisThe Flint water crisis, resulting in potentially toxic levels of lead in the city’s water supply, shines a spotlight the devastating environment, health and safety ramifications of bad decision making — and also America’s aging infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says America’s infrastructure will need an estimated $3.6 trillion in total investment by 2020, leaving a funding shortfall of $1.6 trillion. Replacing US water pipes alone would cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association. AWWA says this figure does not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property.

The country’s failing infrastructure has caused some to worry a similar water contamination crisis could happen elsewhere in the US. As Rohan Hepkins, the mayor of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, tells Slate: “I go through eastern Delaware County and I see many boroughs and townships going through the same infrastructural meltdown.” He says the city’s water and sewer infrastructure should have been replaced 20 years ago. “Most communities have waited until the end of the life cycles, and all of the bills are coming to roost at once.”

Like Flint, Yeadon, located just west of Philadelphia, is an economically depressed city. In Flint, state officials made a money-saving decision to switch its water supply to the Flint River, which contained high levels of lead and iron. It took the state and EPA officials months to admit there was a problem and take action.

Involve Professionals in Decision Making

“One important lesson to be learned from this is that important financial decisions cannot be made in a vacuum,” Lawrence (Larry) Clark, tells Environmental Leader. Clark is principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a South Florida-based engineering firm focused on energy and sustainability consulting. “If all of the technical factors had been considered prior to the switch in water supplies being made, the outcome could have been very different.”

Clark, in an HPAC Engineering blog, writes about the Flint water crisis and Legionellosis, and says “I wonder how many of the individuals who made those bad decisions were professional engineers, licensed plumbers, or water-treatment specialists? The involvement of such professionals might have made a difference.” In an interview, Clark says professionals must be involved in the decision making process to prevent similar crises.

“Clearly, elected and appointed officials without the technical training/knowledge in those areas should consult with professionals before making these types of decisions,” he says. “After all of the negative press associated with Flint, I can’t imagine another jurisdiction making this kind of a change without consulting a variety of qualified professionals and relying on their expertise going forward.”

Calls for EPA Reform

EPA reform is needed to prevent another Flint water crisis, argues a Bloomberg View editorial. It says Flint and many other US cities including Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago use water-testing techniques that underestimate lead levels. Additionally, utilities sometimes concentrate sampling in neighborhoods known to have low lead levels or those without lead pipes.

“The EPA considers these techniques ‘against the intent of the monitoring protocol,’ but so far has failed to ban them,” according to the editorial, which says the agency is currently considering tightening the protocols for lead testing. “The rules should be stringent enough to ensure that all cities get an early warning when lead levels rise to the danger point,” it concludes.

The Washington Post says the EPA’s “lethargic response to the Flint water crisis makes the agency look like an accomplice after a crime — the poisoning of the city’s water system and assaulting its population.”

The Post quotes Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who says EPA enforcement actions have fallen. It also cites an Environment & Energy Publishing report that shows, according to EPA data: “the 213 criminal cases EPA opened in 2015 were 87 fewer than two years before and down a fifth from 2014.”

Increase Lead Exposure Awareness

Lead testing firm Environmental Testing Services president and CEO Michael Stefkovic says ETS has seen an increase in awareness about the dangers of lead exposure from sources other than drinking water.

“The catastrophic lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan water supply in recent months has been a disaster for that city’s 99,000-plus residents,” Stefkovic told Environmental Leader. “If there is one good thing that might come out of this tragedy is that it has increased awareness of the danger of lead exposure. The same lead that is found in Flint’s drinking water also exists in hidden forms located in many homes.

“Too often the dangers of lead are down played through disclosure and release of liability. New renters and homebuyers are provided information concerning lead and its dangers without knowing if it actually exists. It is a common practice to ‘play dumb’ on behalf of landlords and home sellers in the housing industry relating to the presence of Lead. Renters and homebuyers normally sign releases accepting liability on lead present. Homes built prior to 1978 are assumed to have lead in certain painted surfaces. Unless testing is preformed the occupant will never know.”

Beware of Unintended Consequences

AWWA CEO David LaFrance agrees that Flint highlights the importance of communicating to the public about lead exposure risks. “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,” LaFrance says.

Another lesson learned from Flint: “water chemistry is complex,” he says. “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.”

Photo Credit: Flint water crisis by Barbara Kalbfleisch / Shutterstock.com

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4 thoughts on “How to Prevent Another Flint Water Crisis

  1. just move the whole city and start the over with the new building,civil planning and etc. make all new and healthy. make additional units and plan the city development. cost less over a defined period to make it all new. an old car verses a new car makes it easier to understand. http://www.ted.com is a good place to begin to do research. May we all make a better society to live, work and enjoy. Healthy place to work ,play and raise our children. Cost less,enjoy more because it does not cost more to do things right.

  2. The way to avoid another Flint crisis is for municipalities to simply follow existing regulations outlined in the Federal Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Water Quality Act which have existed since 1972, 1974,and 1987, respectively. If the Flint River had been kept clean and managed according to regulations, perhaps there would have not been such a significant health crisis in Flint. It is quite amazing that in the outpouring of press related to the tragedy in Flint none have pointed out that it was all preventable. Nor does the common citizen seem to be aware of existing regulations and policies in the U.S. to protect our water. Secondly, all decision makers involved in infrastructure, technology, and policy decisions, the public that elects them, and the children who will someday work in these positions, must become educated in environmental management to ensure that the environmental, social, and economic impacts of projects are thoroughly and accurately considered. Finally, those who were responsible for violating their mandate as elected officials to serve their constituents should be fired, sending a clear message that abuse of the system that was put in place to protect the public will not be tolerated. Simply focusing on technology, as this article does, will not solve the deeper underlying problems that surfaced in Flint.

  3. Most labs that test water samples save their data in digital format.
    Why isn’t this made available online to the public?
    There are many of us interested in creating apps to help the public compare their utilities against others.

  4. While I support the calls for less government waste with less intrusion by government into private lives; government oversight is an absolute necessity. The so called conservatives that would eliminate or greatly restrict government agencies, such as the EPA are short sighted if not don right dangerous. These agencies must become more responsive and proactive in protecting public health and safety. They need to lose the blotted administrative baggage and “Political Correctness” that hinders appropriate protection of the environment and public health. Every action such agencies take is met by politically motivated rhetoric from some politician. We need to elect “Statesmen” instead of career politicians, that may have entered government for the right reason; but got in the mud with the political machines and big government/business/labor that “is looking out” for their self interests and not the public or the planet.

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