Experts: Flint system ‘recovering’ but ‘unstable’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Flint’s water system is showing signs of improvement since the city switched back to Detroit water in mid-October, but the system remains “unstable,” according to state and federal experts.

Particulate lead — small scales that are flaking off damaged underground pipes — is an ongoing concern and the system remains “unstable,” said Robert Kaplan, the acting regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, on Friday.

Kaplan and others are recommending a city-wide push to “flush” pipes on a daily basis, a process that would require buy-in from residents and potential costs.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards as well as experts with the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality met this week in Chicago to review their separate water testing data. The information led to several shared conclusions, Kaplan said Friday in a video conference call with members of the Flint Water Interagency Coordination Committee.

“The drinking water system is recovering,” he said. “After the switch from the Flint River, and then the feeding of the orthophosphate, we’ve had now a number of months to evaluate whether the system is recovering, and it is.”

Flint returned to Detroit water in October 2015 after it began using local river water in April 2014. State regulators did not require corrosion control chemicals in the river water, which ended up leaching lead from pipes.

Detroit water is treated with orthophosphate chemicals, and the city began adding extra amounts in December in attempt to recoat damaged pipes.

While testing shows the process is working to reduce lead levels, state and federal experts say high spikes at some Flint homes point to an ongoing problem with particulate lead.

“Basically, you still have the scale that’s on the pipe flaking off in tiny particles, most of them invisible,” Kaplan said. “Don’t think chunks — there are those too — but think nano-particles. Very small things. And, unfortunately, those small particles can also be very high in lead.”

George Krisztian, Flint action plan coordinator for the state DEQ, echoed those conclusions from the Chicago meeting.

“Although everybody approached the data process form different directions, we all kind of arrived at a central location,” Krisztian said.

School fixtures replaced

The state has been conducting three different water testing programs, including voluntary residential testing, “sentinel site” sampling and testing at schools.

Krisztian said the state is working to replace fixtures, such as taps and drinking fountains, at all Flint schools. Buildings of that size do not typically have lead service lines, and testing in Flint Community Schools revealed “a very consistent picture,” he said.

“All of the (lead) issues were related to the fixtures. There was some lead going back a little bit to the adjacent plumbing, such as brass valves and things of that nature, but basically it was concentrated right there,” Krisztian said.

Residents in Flint continue to rely on bottled and filtered water for their daily needs, and experts say they do not want to put a timeline on when tap water may again be safe to drink. In the interim, Kaplan said both research and testing show tap filters can handle the kind of lead levels seen in Flint water.

“The filters, to the extent they’re being maintained, actually work,” he said.

Absent replacing all pipes — a costly prospect that officials continue to debate — experts at the Chicago meeting agreed that the best way to help Flint’s water system to continue to recover is through city-wide “flushing.”

“That means a vigorous running of the water, not just through an aerator and one tap, it means opening up all the taps in the house and often the outside spigot, and letting the water just blast through,” Kaplan said. “That carries all the sediments and particulates with it.”

Seeking a consensus

State and city officials have not yet formalized flushing protocol recommendations, but Friday’s discussion included a suggestion that residents could be asked to run their tap water for five to 10 minutes each day.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s office issued a release suggesting residents “regularly” flush and clean faucets to remove pieces of lead that may be in their home’s plumbing.

Krisztian said Flint Community Schools has already implemented an aggressive flushing program that has been “very effective” and could be implemented on a city-wide basis.

“If we can get the water flowing through the entire system, it not only helps the distribution system, but it also helps the premises plumbing — the plumbing inside the home there,” he said.

Asking residents to “flush” their home each day would lead to higher water bills, however.

The state has already approved $30 million designed to reimburse residents for 65 percent of their water charges since April 2014, but those credits have not yet hit resident bills.

Local officials said Friday the state may need to revisit that funding formula if it expects residents to participate in a flushing program.

“You have a public that already doesn’t trust what they’re told, that is already concerned about the cost of the water, and now we need them to be partners in the solution,” said Laura Sullivan, a Kettering University professor and member of the interagency committee.

“And if they aren’t, there’s no solution.”

Snyder, who attended the committee meeting in Flint, said the state may “need to go do those calculations” as experts formalize their flushing protocol recommendations.

“I don’t think anyone would misunderstand the fact that people don’t want to see wasted things without value. That just takes some time to work through that process,” he said.

Kaplan said a flushing program may not be successful if residents think they are going to end up paying even a portion of the cost.

“If we don’t have an extremely simple message — as in, free water, you will not be charged for the water you use that is related to this flushing — I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to get that lead washed out of the system and it’s not going to resonate,” he said.