Future Water: Flint Fix Stirs Wide Debate

'For the city': Stevie Wonder headlined a star-studded benefit concert for Flint on Feb 28. www.freep.com

‘For the city’: Stevie Wonder headlined a star-studded benefit concert for Flint on Feb 28. www.freep.com

by JOHN GREGERSON | March 1, 2016

Residents of Flint MI are now getting a clearer picture of the toxic crisis that has rocked their community since well before an independent research team confirmed in January that their drinking water was tainted with lead. Last week, University of Michigan-Flint urban hydrologist Dr. Marty Kaufman released research indicating that 8,000 lead pipe service lines delivering water from mains to residences extend throughout the city had been contaminated.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver says she’ll use the estimate to replace the service lines at a cost of $2,000 to 3,000 per pipe, the majority involving 23,000 homes constructed prior to 1950. Since then, many municipalities across the U.S., Flint included, have replaced lead lines – or laterals – with copper or other metals.

To some extent, circumstances in Flint are unique. For years, the city drew its drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). As a cost-cutting measure, city officials in 2014 parted ways with DWSD and began drawing water from the Flint River while awaiting completion of a 67-mile-long pipeline drawing water from Lake Huron, the same source as DWSD’s supply. Problem was, a local plant in Flint did not employ proper chemicals to remove sediment from the river water, promoting widespread corrosion of lead piping. But complaints of dirty, foul-smelling water fell on deaf ears at virtually all levels of Michigan government. Lead toxicity levels soared, tests confirmed.

Flint Water Study research team from Virginia Tech provides regular updates online for local residents and officials.

Flint Water Study research team from Virginia Tech provides regular updates online for local residents and officials.

To avoid adulteration, most older cities, Chicago included, add chemicals that form a protective coating inside pipes. Nevertheless, shaken by Flint’s example, some are now scrambling to avoid their own crises. Large-scale main replacement projects, no matter where they occur, frequently require that laterals be cut, which unavoidably releases lead-containing scale and sediment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alarming amounts of lead can leach into tap water in weeks, months, even years after lines are cut. With that mind, the city of Milwaukee WI, for example, has begun a $500-million program to remove all lead laterals while suspending replacement of a major water main.

For its part, Chicago is now facing mounting pressure to follow Milwaukee’s lead. A lawsuit filed by three plaintiffs on Feb. 17 seeks removal of lead pipes in the city, citing the potential for water main replacements to compromise the performance-protective coatings lining the lead laterals. But the scope of such retrofits would far exceed those in Milwaukee, and not just because Chicago is so much larger. Prior to the implementation of a federal ban in 1986, lead laterals were actually required in Chicago.

Meantime, it remains unclear whether lead-tainted water is a widespread problem in Chicago. According to a Chicago Tribune study, city officials tested just 50 residences last year, “only three on streets where mains were replaced within the past five years.” City officials also have been criticized for failing to advise residents of potential hazards following projects involving water mains, street repairs and plumbing. Estimates vary on the number of lead pipes in place in the U.S., from 3.3 million to 10 million, depending on the source. Although lead-tainted water is a decades-old problem, the intersection of dubious policy, shoddy protocols and political indifference in Flint has come to a boil.

On Sunday, singing legend Stevie Wonder, along with Grammy-nominated performers Monae and Musiq Soulchild, headlined #JusticeForFlint, a benefit concert in Detroit that also drew luminaries such as Jussie Smollett, star of the Motown-based television series Empire and Ryan Coogler, director of the Oscar-nominated film Creed. “For us, this is not a hashtag,” Smollett told an audience of 2,000 fans, many of them from Flint. “This is so much more. We stand with you. We may not be residents of Flint, but we are Flint, Michigan,” he said.

To spark additional discourse on the broader topic of global water safety, BuiltWorlds will host SmartWorlds: Future Water on March 10, the next episode within our Future Conversation Series. This ongoing initiative aims to spur innovation and to promote smart, sustainable thinking that informs future action.

Among the experts on hand to address the issues are:

  • Doug Buch, owner and president of Pave Drain, a supplier of permeable articulating concrete block mats that assist in resolving problems involving storm water runoff, a potential pollutant. Look for Buch to discuss internal storage chambers in the mats that serve as a reservoir for runoff while simultaneously providing strength for heavy vehicular loads;
  • Seth Brown, principal and founder of Storm and Stream Solutions, and formerly policy director with Water Environment Federation’s (WEF) Stormwater Program will discuss the role climate change in problems pertaining to stormwater runoff and flooding. Up for discussion: green infrastructure and potential methods of funding it, including public, private partnerships;
  • Barry Liner, director of WEF’s Water Science & Engineering Center. A longtime former veteran of engineering giant Black & Veatch, Liner will draw on lessons learned during his involvement in operational efficiency, public-private partnerships, benchmarking and strategic finance for 30-plus water and wastewater utilities and research groups in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Peru.

Lake Michigan water treatment must safely satisfy Chicago's daily demands. For more details, click here. 

Lake Michigan water treatment must safely satisfy Chicago’s daily demands. For more details, click here

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