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Flint water has fallen below federal lead limit

Jim Lynch, and Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Flint’s tap water is meeting governmental guidelines for lead, but residents should continue to use filters until more lead service lines are removed in the city, state officials said Tuesday.

Richard Kuhl, an assistant Michigan attorney feneral, told U.S. Judge David Lawson on Tuesday that under state and federal rules that govern water safety, Flint’s water is meeting lead allowances.

“Progress has been made with respect to drinking water,” Kuhl told Lawson. “Is it safe? Yes.”

Kuhl’s comments came as test results — laid out by a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality official late last week and reaffirmed Tuesday — allowed the city to come out from under certain actions required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule by this summer if the city’s water quality remains acceptable.

Six months of testing conducted over the last half of 2016 show Flint’s water consistently met or topped the federal standards for lead. A water system must complete two six-month testing periods with low lead readings to establish optimal corrosion control under the federal law. While no amount of lead is considered safe, lead levels must be under a 15-parts-per-billion “action level.”

“The good news is that this most recent six-month monitoring period, from July 1 to the end of last year, the 90th percentile value was 12 parts per billion (for lead),” said Bryce Feighner, chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, at a Flint task force meeting Friday. “So that is now below the action level of 15 parts per billion.”

A lack of corrosion treatments in the system between April 2014 and October 2015, when the city was drawing its water from the Flint River, resulted in lead contamination. It is also believed to have caused a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease that left 12 dead.

On Tuesday, Kuhl was in Detroit’s federal court to answer why state officials have not fully complied with Lawson’s Nov. 10 order to deliver bottled water door-to-door in Flint if working filters cannot be verified.

Lawson asked Kuhl if he was able to say if it’s safe to drink unfiltered water in Flint. Kuhl responded it was safe to do so under the federal Lead and Copper Rule and the state Drinking Water Act.

“That’s an interesting dodge,” retorted Lawson, asking again: “Is unfiltered water safe?”

Kuhl said the water in Flint is meeting “risk-based standards,” and it was safe to drink as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. When Lawson asked if Flint residents were being informed of the development, Kuhl said no.

“We are still concerned about lead service lines, and we still recommend filters,” Kuhl said.

Flint resident and local activist Melissa Mays said that despite the numbers, there continues to be holes in the state’s testing that make safety declarations questionable.

“They have not continually tested the same homes to show any kind of pattern,” she said. “People who tested high in February were not properly retested. They have also tested only on third of the homes.

“That does not qualify as a legal meeting the standards of the Lead and Copper Rule.”

Official discrepancies

The state’s stance that filtered water is safe for residents conflicts with messaging from some local Flint health officials. As lead line replacement moves ahead throughout the city, excavation work is expected to shake loose particulate lead in portions of the system. That could lead to short-term spikes in lead in home water samples.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center researcher whose work helped identify the presence of high lead levels in Flint children, has repeatedly stated residents should continue to use bottled water. The state has been a primary provider of bottled water in the city for more than a year.

Snyder’s administration has fought Lawson’s order for the last two months, arguing it’s “overbroad” and the city lacks the financial resources to comply with it. State officials filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to block the order and asked Lawson to stay his own order. Both said no.

Lawson on Tuesday told attorneys for the state and city that they were “slow walking” his order and, by next week, he wanted a more robust plan of compliance that specifically outlined what officials were doing to get water to residents, including hiring targets for staff to deliver water and check filters, delivery options with vendors and costs of the program.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said she is encouraged that test results show improvement but her goal to have all lead pipes replaced has not changed.

“Despite this development, our efforts to put safeguards in place will continue. The water resource sites located around the city will remain in operation and continue to provide residents with free water filters, replacement cartridges as well as bottled water,” Weaver said. “We have been assured by MDEQ officials that free water testing will continue, and I want parents to know that efforts to monitor the water quality in schools will be ongoing as well.

“We are not out of the woods yet. My goal has not changed. All of the lead-tainted pipes in Flint still need to be replaced.”

While good news for a water system that has been recovering slowly, it could cost Flint residents. The Associated Press reported Tuesday the state, which has been providing financial assistance to residents on their water bills, may end that practice.

Cautious optimism

In recent weeks, state officials have said that Flint’s water is now similar to that of other cities.

“The remarkable improvement in water quality over the past year is a testament to all levels of government working together, and the resilient people of Flint helping us help them through participation in the flushing programs,” Snyder said in a statement Tuesday.

Many have blamed Snyder for Flint’s situation since a key decision in the crisis — the move to draw water from the Flint River — was made while the city was under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager.

“It was important to attain a water quality that remains below action levels of the federal Lead and Copper Rule and is comparable to cities with similar size and age of infrastructure in Michigan and the U.S,” Snyder said. “This is not the end of our work in Flint, but it is one more step along the path toward Flint’s future.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher whose work was instrumental in identifying high levels of lead in Flint’s water in 2015, was cautiously optimistic Tuesday.

“This is good news, and indicates real progress by the state and feds in addressing what was once a public health crisis,” Edwards wrote in an email response to questions. “There is still much more that needs to be done to upgrade Flint’s old infrastructure.

“We have also learned that meeting the EPA lead and copper rule is simply not good enough, either in Flint or anywhere else. As long as bottled water and filters are provided by the state, residents should continue to use them to get extra health protection, while the infrastructure upgrades occur and water quality continues to improve.”

Those infrastructure upgrades, particularly replacement of lead service lines throughout the city, could be a blessing and a short-term curse.

After years of frustrations, residents have expressed high levels of distrust in both state and federal officials. Simply hearing that their water is safe, when that time comes, may not be enough to convince them.

That’s one of the reasons officials like Weaver have pushed for replacement of the city’s lead water lines.

Dimple Chaudhary, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a plaintiff in the case before Lawson, told the judge on Tuesday the water is still not safe to drink unfiltered.

“No regulatory agency has told Flint residents the water is safe to drink,” Chaudhary said. “The water is still not drinkable.”


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