Flint Faces Water Treatment, Money Struggles
In a letter penned to the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 28, Flint, Michigan, mayor Karen Weaver said that it will take a few more years for the city to be up and running with its own water treatment facility, setting a goal of August 2019.
That news comes after state officials announced at the end of January that beginning March 1, they would no longer provide subsidies for Flint residents to help pay their water bills, after recent testing showed that lead levels were back with federal standards.
Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April 2014, when the city chose to switch its water source from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River as an interim solution while a pipeline to carry water from Lake Huron to the communities of the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority was being built.
However, water from the Flint River was not treated with anticorrosive agents, and began to corrode the city’s aging pipes. Drinking water in many homes was contaminated with lead, leading to the public-health crisis that the city is still dealing with today.
Water Treatment Plan
Despite the late 2019 goal that Weaver put forth, the EPA had responded to a preliminary plan submitted on Feb. 1 with a list of concerns regarding the corrosion-control studies portion of the outline, suggesting a process that would take significantly more time.
Weaver’s report, which was required by an administrative order, addressed several facets of the New Source Treatment Plan, including a tentative infrastructure upgrade schedule for the new plant. This plant schedule includes a final design submittal (early May), bid advertisement (mid-May), contract notice to proceed (early August) and construction completion slated for December.
In the corrosion-control plan section of the report, Weaver outlined a two-phase coupon test approach, which is what the EPA took issue with in its February response letter.
The EPA’s letter states, “The coupon test approach has not been validated in corrosion literature or case study experience as being adequate to predict changes in lead release with changes in background water quality and treatment; and the amount of time that was allotted to do a study with a sufficiently rigorous technical approach to protect the public against changes in lead release is highly inadequate.”
|Michigan State Police, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
The state says that Flint’s water now meets federal quality standards, but at the same time, still recommends filters be used for cooking and drinking water to account for any fluctuations while repair and construction work is ongoing.
Further, the EPA recommended that the city “expand the plan scope to include pipe loops in each stage of the project,” with realizations that it will increase the cost and time needed for each stage of the project.
Weaver’s schedule was not updated to account for the EPA’s recommendation, but did note, “This schedule will need to be significantly modified to accommodate pipe loop analysis.”
The EPA has not yet responded to Weaver's report.
Rising Costs for Residents
The state ended water subsidies for residents because Flint’s water now meets federal quality standards, but at the same time, still recommends filters be used for cooking and drinking water to account for any fluctuations while repair and construction work is ongoing.
National Public Radio noted that this is especially problematic because Flint’s water rates are “extremely high compared to other cities" since the switch back to Detroit water.
Part of the reason that the subsidies existed to help residents in the first place was to encourage them to run the water through the corroded pipes, after an additive was introduced to help the pipes recover.
If Flint residents don’t pay their water bills, either because they can’t afford it or they refuse (a distinct possibility based on a protest last month), that would compromise the funds needed for the new treatment plant and correlated studies.
“The city is facing a couple of cost issues here. They have to replace pipes. They’re getting some help from the federal government with that. They also have to pay for water from Detroit, which is their current water source, which is rather expensive,” said Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody. “And if people are no longer paying their water bills, the state is no longer helping them and the city is no longer receiving a separate subsidy to pay for Detroit water, it’s going to put the city’s budget into a big squeeze.”