Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is questioning if General Motors Co. did enough to raise awareness of potential problems with Flint’s treatment of water months before high levels of lead were discovered.
The 81-year-old political activist raised his concerns in a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra that was released to news media Friday afternoon by Nader’s Washington, D.C.-based Center for Study of Responsive Law.
“The concerned people of Flint, of Michigan, of the United States, should be informed in detail of the degree or lack thereof of GM’s corporate and community responsiveness to sound the alarm and disclose the test results at the time they were produced,” Nader wrote, saying, “there is no way GM did not have information about lead and other heavy metals in the water from its own comprehensive testing.”
GM confirmed it received the letter and company officials are reviewing it.
GM spokesman Tom Wickham previously told The Detroit News that the company did raise concerns that Flint water began corroding engine parts at GM’s Flint Engine Operation shortly after the city switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system to drawing its own from the Flint River in April 2014.
“Employees noticed the corrosion, and they hadn’t seen anything like that before,” Wickham said last month. “The water was more corrosive based on how the water was being treated.”
Wickham said the automaker, which employs around 7,000 in the Flint area, first reported the problem to the city in summer 2014. Unable to find a financially viable solution, GM in December 2014 switched to water from the Flint Township system, which still was getting water from Detroit.
The switchover was reported by local media at the time.
“There was full disclosure there because there was great concern there was a problem,” Wickham said. “We were upfront with them and said we needed to switch because it was causing problems for us.”
The problem was caused by high levels of chlorine in the water that had been treated by the city, Wickham said. The corrosion was not directly caused by the quality of water coming from the river.
Around December 2014, the city of Flint sent out a notice saying it had been found in violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of disinfection byproducts.
Due to the Flint Engine Operations’ location on the Flint city limits, the switch to a different water system was relatively easy, but reportedly would cost Flint upward of $400,000 a year in lost revenue. GM paid an undisclosed amount to connect to the township’s system.
Wickham said there have been no problems with corrosion since the switch, and the company plans to continue dealing with the township for the foreseeable future. Part of the agreement was that the automaker would return as a Flint water customer after the city’s new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline from Lake Huron was completed — provided the water met GM’s standards.
Chlorine is the primary oxidant, other than oxygen, used in treating water, according to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers International Institute. Different types of metal alloys corrode at varying levels of chlorine.
Although GM’s business problems with the water were resolved more than a year ago, Wickham said company officials and employees are involved with helping Flint residents.
Days after the state announced in October 2015 it would take action in response to high lead levels, the automaker’s philanthropic foundation donated $50,000 to the United Way of Genesee County to purchase water filters for residents.
“Giving back to our communities is more than investing in our facilities; it involves helping to improve the quality of life for those who live in our plant cities,” said GM North American Manufacturing and Labor Relations Vice President Cathy Clegg in conjunction with the October donation.
Nader has a long history of locking horns with GM. His 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” charged that handling problems with the 1960-63 Chevrolet Corvair were causing crashes and rollovers. Sales of the sporty rear-engine compact plummeted.
A report commissioned by NHTSA in 1972 found that the car was no more prone to rollovers than similar rear-engine cars. By then GM had discontinued the Corvair, but Nader’s career as a consumer activist had been launched.