Flint worried about water quality during warm months

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — Officials say an aged, oversized water distribution system continues to draw drinking-water quality concerns.

Mayor Karen Weaver on Tuesday addressed a letter sent to the city late last week from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mark Pollins over whether there are proper chlorine levels throughout Flint’s system.

“One of the things we know we’re dealing with is an old and outdated infrastructure,” Weaver said. “The concerns are that as warmer weather settles in, there could be more problems as it relates to chlorine decay.”

With a history of bacteria issues in Flint’s water system, stagnant water and low chlorine levels are a problem, leading to a range of issues, from E. coli to a likely link to deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

So far, testing has shown Flint has the proper amount of chlorine in the system to keep water quality issues at bay. But that could change when water demand increases as the weather warms, EPA officials said.

“As chlorine decay increases with warmer temperatures, EPA is concerned that (Flint) will not be capable of maintaining chlorine residuals that follow best practices and are protective of public health,” wrote Pollins, director of EPA’s Water Enforcement Division.

Chlorine is used to great effect as a disinfecting agent. The concern, Pollins wrote, is that while the city can add more chlorine to the system, this “additional chlorine does not reach the entire distribution system.”

“With the onset of warmer weather, the situation is urgent,” he wrote. “We believe the city and the state must take immediate action to implement a temporary solution even as a long-term treatment system is developed and put in place.”

Flint is requesting assistance from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA in “devising a plan of action, so that we can dose these chemicals in the best possible manor,” said JoLisa McDay, Flint’s interim utilities administrator.

“Before we even take the approach to add these chemicals,” she said, “before we add chemical feeds, we are proactively lowering the levels of our reservoirs stations.”

McDay explained this will help “turn the water over” or to move more water through the system to address water age and push the chemical treatments through areas of “low use.”

Weaver on Tuesday pointed out that while the city’s population has “decreased drastically over the years, the city’s water system remains the same.” Because of this, the city held a flush initiative last month as well as installed automatic flushers in city hydrants to move old, stagnant water through the system.

Flint has had a troubled history with bacteria in its water after the city dropped its longtime provider, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in April 2014, and began drawing its water from the Flint River. During the next 18 months, problems ranged from E. coli alerts and boiled water advisories to a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said sickened 79 people and killed 12.

The 18-month switch in water sources took place while Flint was under the control of emergency managers appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. That’s why the state has shouldered the bulk of responsibility for the city’s two years of water woes and the Department of Environmental Quality continues to oversee work to help the system recover.

Pollins is calling on Flint to upgrade its main water treatment plant with additional chlorination equipment. His letter indicated a temporary chlorine feed system should be installed at the city’s water plant by June 10.

Weaver said the city’s recent flushing efforts could only do so much and Flint is working to implement recommendations by the EPA by June 10.

“To that extent we are installing and procuring the necessary equipment in order to provide chlorine and sodium hydroxide to the water that we’re receiving from (Great Lakes Water Authority),” McDay said.

The EPA is also requiring the city to “boost” the PH levels so the water system can compensate for reactions with chlorine and protective orthophosphate coating that has recovered pipes that are in “higher use.” The orthophosphate buildup provides a barrier to prevent lead contamination.

McDay thanked the collaborative work of the EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on technical assistance and implementation of chemical pumps on Tuesday.

“If you will recall, last year at this time, we had elevated levels of chlorine in our drinking water,” she said. “That is not a mistake that we want to have happen again.”