Agencies look to better map Flint’s water quality

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — The effort to map Flint’s lead levels and ensure the city’s residents are getting accurate readings on water from their taps has expanded to include teams teaching residents how to collect samples.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, local volunteers and plumbers met in the city’s downtown on Friday to showcase their partnership with the community, announcing 10 “sentinel site teams” are visiting 402 homes across the city to teach residents how to test their water in a “scientifically accurate manner,” MDEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said.

Brown said the teams will help the MDEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency “determine the quality of the water that is coming out of the pipes at this point.”

The teams will help the differing state and federal agencies to see if corrosion control is working to address Flint’s water crisis and what the next steps are to “verify that clean drinking water is returned to the city,” she said.

“These sites will help us highlight where the real hotspots are that still have high levels of lead. And up until now, we have taken a snapshot of data based on residential volunteering, but these sites will be integral to making scientifically based, sound decisions based on the data we’re seeing,” Brown said.

Officials were alarmed last month by water samples of unfiltered water from the DEQ suggested Flint’s lead contamination in parts of the city was stronger than residential faucet filters can handle, 150 parts per billion. The EPA retested filtered and unfiltered water in eight of the 26 homes with extremely high lead levels earlier this month and found one home had lead exceeding 2 parts per billion when a faucet filter was properly used.

“We start with the safety issues first: we provide the bottled water first, filters and get them the materials and upkeep first to ensure they have safe clean drinking water,” said Mark Ducharme, an incident management specialist for the MDEQ.

Ducharme said the eventual goal is to prove to residents the water that is flowing through the pipes is safe.

“Make sure that they understand to keep using the filters and bottled water until we understand from evaluating tests that the water is good,” he said.

Ducharme said if residential results come back over 150 parts per billion for lead, the teams visit that homeowner within 48 hours to determine the source, ensure safe drinking water for the home and have health representatives evaluate individuals for blood tests and health consultation.

“We also bring a plumber with us to see if the issue is a lead or copper service line, and to also make sure that the lines is properly grounded,” he said. “If a line isn’t grounded, there can be a copper issue in the water.”

In terms of approach, the teams announced Friday have been divided up by residents who volunteered to monitor their water from a cross-section of 10 areas that represent high lead levels and low levels alike.

“These residents have said, ‘let me know what I can do to take an extra step to help,’” Brown said.

According to Brown, the DEQ is still working to establish where all the lead lines are in the city.

“At this point we’ve learned where most of the lead lines are,” she said. “We started off with very old data, but working with our federal and state partners, so that’s something that we know now that we didn’t know before. But more importantly, because of the testing that has gone on, we are not able to see around the city to where some of those hotspots are.”

These hotspots will be set up for additional testing in the coming days, and for the teams, according to the DEQ, will perform, “wrap around services” for households in high-level testing areas.

“This way we can look to see if there is an issue with their plumbing — is it in your fixtures, is it in your water line, where exactly, from the distribution process, from how the water enters your home where the issue could be,” she said.

Brown said with the boil water advisory from the water main break earlier this week, the day-to-day water quality issues are what the DEQ is focused on addressing.

“Our partnership from the state and federal representatives are helping people across the board with water testing, blood testing and evaluating households for lead lines,” she said.