EPA was ‘concerned’ about Flint’s chlorine supply

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — The federal Environmental Protection Agency notified city and state officials earlier this month about its concern with Flint’s lack of chlorine tablets available to treat the municipal water system.

Mark Pollins, director of the EPA’s water enforcement division, stated in a letter stamped July 19 and addressed to Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality DEQ interim Director Keith Creagh that he was “very concerned to learn” that “the city ran out of chlorine tablets for pellet chlorinators” on July 16 at the city’s water treatment plant.

According to the EPA and DEQ, calcium hypochlorite pellets are a solid form disinfectant used by cities to chlorinate water supplies, such as reservoirs, to treat against bacteria.

DEQ spokeswoman Tanya Baker said Flint ran out of “hypochlorite pellets over that weekend” and “the DEQ was made aware of the situation on Sunday, July 17.” Local officials at the department responded that same day to coordinate “operational changes at the (water treatment) plant” to ensure proper chlorine residual levels.

Baker said these changes included “increasing the dose of sodium hypochlorite (bleach) to the point of entry at the water plant.”

She added that according to DEQ technicians, “the absence of the calcium hypochlorite pellets did not result in a loss of chlorine residual in the water, and therefore was not a public health concern.”

It’s also quite common for U.S. cities to utilize sodium hypochlorite or liquid bleach to disinfect drinking water. Using either, according the DEQ, “yields the same results.”

Pollins, nevertheless, made strong remarks over the decision-making taking place at the water treatment plant in Flint.

“The lapse in ability to add chlorine at the reservoirs, and the fact that no actions to secure pellets appear to have been taken until EPA elevated the issue and the MDEQ intervened, demonstrate a continuing need for the city to take stronger act to effectively manage the drinking water system,” he wrote.

The EPA also sent a letter last month to the city expressing concerns related to the increased potential for chlorine decay in warmer temperatures. The city had the proper amount of chlorine in the system, but concern stemmed from the impact of increased water demands in warmer weather. Flint officials responded by installing a new temporary system to increase chlorine levels.

“There are very few things more important to running a drinking water system than maintaining adequate disinfection, especially in summer months,” Pollins wrote.

Flint has 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 likely link in a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says sickened 79 people and killed 12.

Flint reconnected to Detroit’s system, now run by the Great Lakes Water Authority, in October and receives pretreated water.

Flint spokeswoman Kristin Moore said in a statement the water received at the water treatment plant from the GLWA contains “a level of residual chlorine that the WTP then increases for improving residuals.”

Moore added interim Utilities Administrator JoLisa McDay was in the process of transitioning from the pellets to liquid bleach during the time in question.

“Sodium hypochlorite (liquid bleach) is what’s used in larger cities with systems similar to those that are the size of Flint’s,” Moore said. “The use of sodium hypochlorite is more efficient, and it is not as labor intensive to dispense. The facility always maintained supplies of chlorine on site to be administered to drinking water as needed.”

The city has since procured additional supplies of both forms of disinfectant, liquid bleach and pellets, “just as a precaution,” McDay said.

McDay, meanwhile, shot back, saying “the only way to avoid the miscommunication of activities, practices and progress is to develop a cohesive communication strategy for those that are directly involved.”

“I have requested numerous times that a project management approach be developed for the activities in Flint,” McDay’s said in a response to Pollin’s letter. “There is no one from EPA at the water plant that is serving as a member of the team and providing their expertise.”

She added EPA “officials only serve mandates and send scathing letters that further erode public trust.”

The EPA responded Wednesday, saying: "Since EPA issued an emergency Safe Drinking Water Act order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan on January 21, 2016, agency staff have met regularly with city and state officials to ensure timely compliance with the order to address the serious drinking water problems in Flint. EPA continues to focus on ensuring that progress is made to comply with the emergency order and is committed to making sure the water in Flint is safe to drink."