Lead pipes, corrosive water, a declined population, a loss of control over water supply — these are some of the reasons the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, happened.
It could have happened anywhere, Todd Royer, School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor, said Thursday morning at a talk about toxic places. The panel was part of the 10th Annual Landscape, Space and Place Conference at the Indiana Memorial Union.
“Flint was sort of a perfect storm,” Royer said.
It happened there — escalated to crisis-level — because it was handled poorly, he said.
A financial crisis led the state to switch Flint’s water from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to save money.
City utility managers took further cost-cutting measures, said Jeff White, a panelist who teaches at SPEA.
They stopped using an anti-corrosive chemical and used more chlorine, which lessened chances of bacteria in the water but made it more corrosive. Road salt, which ended up in the Flint River, also contributed to the water’s acidity.
The water ate through a protective layer of minerals in the pipes, exposing itself to lead and poisoning the water.
A too-big water distribution system also added to the problem.
A decline in population since the 1960s meant the city had a much bigger system than it needed. It went from using 100 million gallons of water per day in the 1960s to 16 million gallons per day in 2015, White said.
Water could spend six days or more in the system. That meant it had longer to become contaminated.
Reports of brown-colored water — a sign of iron corrosion, which happened in addition to lead — came to the city, but Royer said these were largely ignored. Testing water as it comes out of the tap is crucial, because a lot can change during the water’s journey from treatment plant to home.
Monitoring water is expensive and time-consuming, Royer said, and often agencies will not do any more than the minimum required by law.
Water with high levels of iron in it will turn brown and cause concern, but water with high levels of lead could appear normal. Drinking it increases the amount of lead in the blood, which is extremely dangerous, especially for children.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, this is because children absorb more lead than adults, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to it.
Lead in the blood can cause learning and hearing problems, slowed growth, lower IQ, anemia and hyperactivity.
“No safe blood level has been identified and all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated,” according to the Center for Disease Control’s website.
No testing determined that level to be the highest safe presence of lead in drinking water, he added. The 10 percent requirement means nine percent of homes in a city could have lead levels much higher than 15 ppm and utilities would not technically have to do anything about it.
On Nov. 13, 2015, a class action lawsuit was filed against “key figures in the State of Michigan and the City of Flint responsible for the contaminated water,” according to FlintWaterClassAction.com.
The lawsuit “is likely to ultimately include up to 30,000 households and tens of thousands of residents seeking compensations and damages from the Flint water crisis.”