Environment Picture

President's Column: Lessons learned from serving on the Flint Water Advisory Task Force

Last October I received a phone call that would dramatically impact me professionally and personally. It was Gov. Rick Snyder’s office calling, asking me to serve as co-chair of the governor’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force. The task force’s charge was to determine what happened in Flint and why, and to provide recommendations on how to prevent this from ever happening again. The group would meet for five months, release three letters to the governor and issue a final report that contained 36 findings and 44 recommendations.

Thousands of Flint residents were exposed to high levels of lead due to a failure to add corrosion control treatment to the drinking water, which allowed the corrosive water to leach lead from pipes and plumbing fixtures. An outbreak of Legionella, which resulted in 12 deaths, may also have been caused by Flint’s drinking water, but we can’t be sure, due to the lack of specimens taken from the victims prior to their treatment for Legionnaire’s disease.

One of the questions I’m often asked around the state and country is: Could Flint happen here? I have spent a lot of time thinking about that question. I’ve come to the conclusion that what happened in Flint can happen anywhere policymakers and the public take clean water for granted and fail to make the investments needed to preserve and support safe drinking and recreational waters. Unfortunately, that describes too many communities, not just here in Michigan, but across the country; the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent report card gave the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a D grade.

We too often take our drinking water for granted. I know I did until I served on the task force. I always assumed that our drinking water was safe. As an environmental community, we have pushed tap water over bottled water because it’s a good product. We assumed that the people treating the water and the regulators overseeing them were doing their jobs correctly. The water treatment industry has for the most part done a great job of providing safe drinking water, but I can honestly tell you that I will probably never look at tap water the same way.

Drinking water issues happen across the country on a regular basis—we just haven’t been totally tuned in to them. In Toledo, Ohio, nearly half a million people woke up on August 2, 2014, to an emergency warning not to drink, bathe in or cook with their tap water. A toxic algae bloom like those that have plagued Lake Erie for years, caused by nutrient loading from agricultural runoff, contaminated the Toledo water system’s intake, triggering the alarm. Toledo-area residents were left without safe water for three hot summer days.

The lead problem is far from unique

Though what happened in Flint is an extreme example, the city’s lead problem is far from unique. A recent investigation by USA Today found excessive lead in nearly 2,000 public water systems serving more than 6 million people in all 50 states. The newspaper found 600 systems with Flint-like lead levels over 40 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s action level is 15 parts per billion.

Surrounded by the world’s greatest source of freshwater, who would have ever thought that such a terrible drinking water crisis could happen here in the Great Lakes State? Going forward, we must do more than fix the damage in Flint, replace the lead service pipelines, ensure the city’s water treatment plant is ready to produce safe drinking water before it is used again, and—of course—see that all children and residents exposed to potentially high levels of lead have access to affordable health care and secondary prevention efforts. As a state, we must also aspire to have the number-one safe drinking water program in the country. We cannot afford to continue an attitude of minimal technical compliance—the mindset that allowed Flint’s crisis to happen.

Proposing a new standard

Toward that end, Gov. Snyder has proposed updating how Michigan implements the federal Lead and Copper Rule to make ours the strictest regulations in the nation. Here is some of what is included in the proposed new Lead and Copper Rule for Michigan:
  • Lower the action level for lead from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion;
  • Require yearly testing for lead and copper from the highest-risk homes;
  • Include sampling from schools, child care facilities, and facilities for fragile adults;
  • Create citizen advisory councils for the state and all public water systems;
  • Require all public water systems to have a lead service line inventory and replacement plan; and
  • Connect residents with health care professionals if their home drinking water has 40 parts per billion or more lead.
Members of the public have an important role to play in ensuring public water managers are doing their jobs properly. Virginia Tech research Marc Edwards showed in Flint that citizen scientists can help with water testing, public education and outreach. The more involved, knowledgeable and engaged our public is, the more support there will be for greater protection and needed investments in our water systems, from source to tap and back again.

Fortunately, there are knowledgeable and engaged citizens making a real difference around the state. At our 18th Annual Environmental Awards Celebration, we honored two such individuals: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who earned our Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, and Pam Taylor, who received our Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership. These two women exemplify the very best in Michigan and encourage us in our efforts to protect and improve Michigan’s water resources. You can read about each of them in this edition of our newsletter:
I like to say that, here in Michigan, we are united by our love of water, from the Great Lakes that define us as a state, to our local lakes, rivers and streams. We Michiganders need to harness that love to enact greater protection of our source water and ensure that everyone has safe water to drink.
-Chris Kolb
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