Flint taps options after complaints about water

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint — Although residents here have complained about the color, taste, smell and quality of the municipal water for months, state and city officials argue it is improving.

But it’s unclear if Flint can avoid a costly interim solution to provide clean drinking water to its residents before the city ties in to the Karegondi Water Authority in late 2016.

On Thursday, city officials stopped accepting applications for a new water consultant contract to identify options. The contract could be awarded as soon as Monday, said Jason Lorenz, a Flint spokesman.

Saving money was the main reason behind the city’s decision to separate from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in April and begin drawing water from the Flint River until Karegondi becomes a reality.

The Detroit water system offered last month to reconnect water service to Flint because of the complaints over that city’s water quality, but Flint officials rebuffed it by saying an analysis concluded it would cost Flint an additional $12 million per year or more.

Flint residents have a host of complaints about the water coming from their taps: strange colors, bad smells, boil water advisories and rashes from bathing. Public meetings have been packed in recent weeks as locals voice their frustrations about a situation they say does not seem to be improving.

Local businesses have been affected, as well. In October, General Motors’ Flint Engine Operations plant stopped using the river water being provided by the city because of concerns about corrosive effects, and now gets its water from Flint Township.

The use of chlorine to treat the water has led to the creation of high levels of of trihalomethanes (TTHM) that put Flint in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act. In response, Mott Community College recently began testing its own water for traces of TTHM as well, said Michael Kelly, the school’s executive director of marketing and public relations. Contamination hasn’t caused many problems, but measures are being taken to protect the 10,000 people who are on campus each day, Kelly said.

These compounds, in high doses over long periods of time, can cause liver, kidney or central nervous system issues in humans and can increase the risk of cancer.

“The problem they’re having right now is a consequence of excessive treatment,” said Michael Prysby, a state Department of Environmental Quality district engineer. “The threat here is of a chronic nature. You don’t want to have this situation continue for over 10 years. But with regard to the trihalomenthanes standard they violated, the good news is the number is coming down.”

This assessment doesn’t sit well with Shelia Keller, who has lived in her Pencombe Place home roughly three blocks south of the Flint River for 18 years and never had any water issues until Flint switched from the Detroit water system. At that point, the water from the river came with a horrible taste and a smell she describes as “sometimes like strong chlorine” and, at other times, “like rotten eggs.”

As a result, Keller in recent months has steadily gone back and forth from her home to her sister-in-law’s house where the Detroit system provides the water. Jugs filled up there help supplement the family’s purchase of bottled water.

“We don’t drink the (city) water,” said Keller, 72. “We don’t cook with the water. We don’t make coffee or nothing with the water.”

Others have complained of physical effects like rashes and sores, while one man posted a video on Facebook in which he claimed the water was responsible for killing his dog.

The situation has made bottled water a valuable commodity. On Wednesday, the volunteer group Flint Strong gave out 200 cases in roughly 30 minutes. More bottled water will be given out this week to residents wary of their taps through a local church and at a United Auto Workers office on Monday, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

Earlene Caldwell, 64, said those types of programs are a big help to many.

“Everybody, especially people with four or five kids, can’t afford to go out and buy water all the time,” she said, while shopping at the Palace Food Store on Flint’s west side.

In Palace’s coolers, there was no sign retailers are raising prices to take advantage of the need for bottled water. Sixteen-ounce bottles of Nestle Pure Life water had “2 for $1” stickers on them, and a 23-ounce bottle of Ice Mountain water could be had for 99 cents.

River water is a trickier source for municipal cleaning and distribution than Lake Huron, where the Detroit system gets its water and where Karegondi will eventually tap its supply as well. The deeper, still waters of the lake contain few of the organic materials found in river water and require a different treatment protocol.

It’s the treatment procedures that are at the heart of the problems in Flint. The system uses chlorine to disinfect the water, and large doses can lead to the creation of trihalomethanes.

It’s unclear whether declining levels of TTHM will be enough to assuage the public. Recent meetings have featured many residents holding up containers of discolored water that they say continues to come from their taps. And the discourse at these meetings has become heated.

For local conservationists, the water crisis has been a setback for bolstering the image of the Flint River. The problem is not with the river water, they argue, but the chlorine application and the amount of time the treated water sits in the antiquated pipes of the city’s delivery system.

“The river has a bad reputation to begin with — what we believe is a very unfair reputation,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “Fact is, the Flint River is a viable source of drinking water, and we’ve documented its increasing health as a result of the testing we’ve done over the years.”

Back in Keller’s home, those kinds of reassurances don’t mean much. Her grandson, 26-year-old Andy Flores, has grown frustrated as the water issues have continued with seemingly little help from local government. He has taken to bathing his 1-year-old daughter with a cloth and as little water as possible.

“Worst part of it is,” Flores said, “it’s like we get just a shrug of the shoulders (from city officials).”


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