Researchers: Lag in water use slows Flint recovery

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint residents aren’t using enough water to pull necessary chemical treatments through the city’s system, hindering efforts to get water up to safety standards in a community where residents are afraid to use their taps and loathe to pay for what comes out of them.

Although the past six months have produced improvements, recent testing by Virginia Tech researchers, including expert Marc Edwards, shows contamination still at problem levels.

The latest sampling showed Flint with a lead level of 22.8 parts per billion — an improvement from the 28.5 ppb recorded in August. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for lead set an action level of 15 parts per billion for 90 percent of the homes in a community.

The system needs more of the chemicals — orthophosphates and chlorine — moving through pipelines and plumbing fixtures to combat lead contamination and bacteria growth, researchers said Tuesday.

Residents have been dealing with water problems for almost two years and most have become used to using bottled water for everything except quick showers or sponge baths. As a results, they are using an estimated 20 percent to 45 percent of the water they would have before the crisis began in April 2014.

In addition to failing to get enough of the chemicals moved through the system, such low usage also means particulate matter is building up within the pipelines.

“We have learned in the past few months it’s probably going to take months or a year to get these deposits out of the pipes and clean those pipes out,” said Edwards, who heads the Virginia Tech research team.

To move that timetable up, Edwards said he is backing a flushing program to begin moving more water through the system at faster rates. Doing so, however, means getting residents to raise their usage rates — likely a dicey subject with people who have been forced to pay for water they can’t use.

On Feb. 26, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a supplemental spending bill making $30 million available in reimbursements for residents’ water bills. That relief was supposed to start arriving on water bills last week but has been delayed.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the governor said a flushing program and a way to help residents pay for the increased usage are under consideration.

“The governor understands the importance of what needs to be done and also the hesitation some Flint residents may have in doing so because of the potential cost,” wrote Ari Adler, in an email response to questions. “It will be vitally important for everyone to participate to ensure the water quality improves in Flint. That’s why Gov. Snyder has people looking at what the cost estimates would be and how they could be addressed to increase participation by Flint residents while minimizing their cost.”

Edwards and the Virginia Tech team underscored the need for additional steps to bolster the Flint system Tuesday during a press conference in which they released the latest results from testing. In March, the team and citizen volunteers returned to 174 of the 269 Flint homes tested last summer when the contamination was first identified.

The city’s distribution system is recovering from an 18-month period of using the corrosive Flint River as its water source without proper chemical treatments. During that stretch, issues escalated from early smell and taste problems to evidence of dangerous lead levels and increased cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

In October, after switching back to Detroit’s water system, local and state officials hoped the lead issues would disappear within a matter of weeks. But while the past six months have produced improvements, recent testing shows contamination still at problem levels. Residents have been told they can use their water for bathing and showering but still can’t drink it.

The recent results across the city were varied enough that Edwards said all homes should be considered at risk — even those that may have shown low lead levels in the past. In addition, he called for the continuation of lead line replacement, as well as a close look at the state of Flint’s water mains.

“The water mains in Flint are also in very bad shape,” he said. “Until those are rehabilitated in a proactive way, I don’t think the system is really financially sustainable. I think the federal government owes it to Flint to try and help upgrade the system.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver echoed that sentiment following the press conference.

“We know the water infrastructure in Flint is old and has suffered extreme damage from this man-made water disaster,” she said in a press release. “We need the funding to replace it. And it should come from the state and federal government. We did not deserve what happened here in Flint, but we do deserve the resources needed to fix it.

“The governor says he wants to do everything he can to fix this water disaster in Flint. Well, then, give us the funding we need to fix it.”