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Lessons Learned from Flint, Michigan 

Drinking water plants can be totally automated so that when a drinking water plant goes out of compliance, immediate corrective action can be taken.

The American Society of Civil Engineers states that 2016-2025 water and wastewater capital requirements are $150 billion, but only 30% percent of the funding is identified. (1) Could this inadequate funding lead to another Flint, Mich. water crisis with 16 lawsuits, including class-action lawsuits, plus 4 resignations, 4 firings, 5 suspensions, and 13 criminal indictments? (2) The Flint water crisis, which started in April 2014, is not a simple matter of just one technical issue, but a multitude of interacting technical issues together with the length of time it took government officials to take action. Furthermore, Flint was not merely about critically elevated levels of lead in drinking water, but five U.S. EPA drinking water standards were out of compliance.

The Flint water crisis began when the city switched sources from Lake Huron/Detroit River water to the Flint River to save money resulting in more than 100,000 residents being exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016 and Flint residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for consumption, cleaning, and bathing. Today, the water quality meets acceptable levels, but residents must continue the use of bottle or filtered water until all the lead pipes have been replaced, which is anticipated to be by 2020. (2)

The Problem
In 1967, Flint began purchasing wholesale treated water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to ensure sufficient water quantity for the growing population. The water quality of the Flint River was poor, a result of unregulated discharges by industries and municipalities.

In 2013, Flint joined the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority, which was constructing its own pipeline to transmit raw water from Lake Huron. In the interim period, Flint had the option to continue to purchase treated water from DWSD (Lake Huron) or to treat Flint River water, but Flint could not come to agreement on a short-term contract with DWSD. Despite concerns from the Governor’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives and the Flint laboratory and water quality supervisor, Flint made the change to Flint River water. Within a few weeks of the switch, the water was causing rashes, red water, and discoloration throughout the distribution system. General Motors complained about the corrosiveness of the water on its truck engine parts and switched to Flint Township water.

In the summer of 2014 a number of U.S. EPA violations occurred: (1) E. Coli and total coliform (death), (2) Total Trihalomethanes (cancer), (3) bromate levels (cancer), (4) lead (neurotoxin), and (5) 91 cases of Legionellosis that caused 12 deaths. Making matters worse, the water treatment plant was poorly staffed, monitoring was inadequate, and the plant was poorly equipped. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) upgrades were incomplete. Filter headloss meters, showing too high of a dirt/organic loading, were not operational on the SCADA system. There was no chlorine residual monitoring equipment at the point of entry into distribution. Residual chlorine is necessary for killing pathogens. Grab samples, from time to time, would be the only alternative for residual chlorine monitoring. Fluoridation was not implemented until July 2014. The lead problem occurred due to no corrosion control plan and respective equipment in combination with old lead piping to houses. (3)

The Solutions
Pilot Study

The obvious solution was to stop using Flint River water and switch back to Lake Huron water. What should have happened was a pilot study to determine the proper operating conditions that would make Flint River water drinkable, along with the associated capital and operating costs, but that did not happen. Pilot studies take months but can be free from interested equipment suppliers.

Corrosion Prevention
Flint also should have been measuring the Larons-Skold corrosion index and added sufficient corrosion inhibitors.(3) In simple terms, an operator wants a low (chloride + sulfate) to (bicarbonate + carbonate) ratio to prevent corrosion, and you can add bicarbonate to the water to adjust this ratio plus phosphate corrosion inhibitors.

With today’s instrumentation and computer technology, drinking water plants need to be totally automated so that when a drinking water plant goes out of compliance, immediate corrective action can be taken and not days, weeks, or months later when it might be too late. And again, before any new water filtration scheme is implemented, it should be piloted for as many months necessary to experience the extreme operating conditions so that a proper plant can be designed.

The above facts show that it is very difficult to treat a complex water source high in bacteria and organics that fluctuates. When changing equipment technology to improve the existing drinking water quality, like adding ultrafiltration and/or reverse osmosis membranes, municipalities require pilot testing to determine all design and operating parameters before the plant is changed or built. It is even more imperative when changing the source water.

James L. Wideikis is a legal advisor and litigator who has counseled entrepreneurs, startups, mid-cap companies and large, publicly traded corporations. He has represented businesses, owners, executives and directors in federal and state courts across the country, including in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York and Oklahoma. More information on Jim can be found here: www.muchshelist.com/attorney/james-l-wideikis

(1) “Infrastructure Grade: D+”, David Harrison, Wall Street Journal (May 10, 2016).
(2) “Flint water crisis”, Wikipedia, 43 pages (June 5, 2017).
(3) “Flint Water Crisis: What Happened and Why?” Susan J. Masten, Simon H. Davies, and Shawn P. McElmurry, Journal AWWA, pp22-34 (Dec, 2016).