State: Flint's water data inadequate, violates Safe Drinking Water Act

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The city of Flint failed to provide adequate information to the state regarding testing for lead and copper in drinking water, putting it in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to a notice the state sent Flint officials last week.

Flint officials failed to show the city had collected enough water samples from “Tier 1” sites — homes with lead service lines — and fell 25 samples short of its 60 sample benchmark, according to the Aug. 16 letter from the MichiganDepartment of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Flint Director of Public Works Robert Bincsik accused the state of attempting "to make the city look negligent" with its correspondence, noting that testing was delayed by state directives in March on new sampling methods. Though well past the June 30 deadline, the city is now close to meeting the 60 sample benchmark, Binscik said in a Wednesday letter. 

Researchers, from left, Min Tang, Bekah Martin and Dr. Otto Schwake process chemical samples and take measurements in the mobile lab during water testing in Flint on Aug. 18, 2015.

The letter comes nearly four years after the state of Michigan acknowledged Flint's drinking water was contaminated with lead and set off a public health crisis in the Genesee County city of almost 100,000 residents. For more than two years, testing has found the city's drinking water has lead levels below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion but has advised residents against drinking the water until all lead service lines are replaced.

The city has until Sept. 16 to confirm the pipelines it tested were in fact lead service lines, said George Krisztian, assistant director for the state department’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health division.

City and state officials were scheduled to meet Thursday for a routine meeting, where Krisztian expects the recent violation will be discussed.

The biannual testing is one of several changes stemming from the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water that sparked nationwide outrage.

The contamination resulted from an April 2014 decision to stop using pretreated water from the Detroit area system and instead use Flint River water while a regional water authority finished building a pipeline from Lake Huron to Genesee County.

The city, following advice from state water regulators, failed to treat the river water with corrosion-control chemicals, resulting in the lead contamination first identified in August and September 2015.

Flint is in the process of replacing all of its identified 18,300 lead or galvanized steel water lines and had replaced nearly 7,000 as of December.

The city of Flint has been required since 2016 to conduct testing every six months of drinking water from at least 60 homes with lead service lines, Krisztian said. The city has been advised to use a predictive model to determine homes that might have lead service lines, take water samples from those homes and then excavate to confirm the home used lead service lines.

For the testing period between Jan. 1 and June 30, Flint tested 129 sites but only confirmed 35 used lead service lines.

Another 14 sites tested were confirmed to have had a service line replacement, but the city didn’t provide information on what material had been used prior to replacement. An additional 30 samples were invalidated because they didn’t qualify as Tier 1 sites and 50 others were not verified as lead service lines in the documentation given to the state.

The city was given a two-week extension in July but failed to supply the data the state requested, prompting the Aug. 16 violation notice.

“The issue has not been a matter of them being able to pull the requisite number of samples,” Krisztian said. “What they were lacking was the physical verification of those sites.”

As of Wednesday, the city had increased the number of confirmed samples to 56, just shy of the 60 samples required, Binscik said. He anticipated the city would confirm the remaining four samples prior to Sept. 16. 

The sampling process was delayed when, three months into the six-month window, the state issued new guidelines for sampling that required the city to test the first and fifth leaders pulled from a water line, Binscik said. The method allows officials to analyze water from the faucet as well as further down the service line. 

The city also is trying to combat "sampling fatigue" as the number of qualifying sites for sampling continues to decrease, an issue the city is attempting to address with EPA experts, Bincsik said. 

"We have no problem with communicating with EGLE and providing public notification, as the city agrees that the public has a right to know the status of its water sampling," Bincsik wrote. "However, the public should have the full recitation of the facts, including the numerous times that the city communicates with the EGLE and Flint’s status as a unique situation when it comes to water sampling issues."

Of the 35 verified samples analyzed by the state, about 90% fell at or below 3 parts per billion for lead, significantly below the federal action of level of 15 ppb and even the state’s new lower threshold of 12 ppb.

Given the levels of the remaining unverified samples, the state is able to discern the 90th percentile will not rise above 15 ppb, Krisztian said.

“We know at this point they won’t have an action exceedance,” he said.

The violation of the testing requirement is the first since a minor deadline violation in May 2018, Krisztian said. But the Aug. 16 letter is not the first time the state has crossed swords with Flint for inadequate repairs, techniques and testing surrounding its water infrastructure.

The state asked Weaver to sign an order outlining a corrective plan for water infrastructure problems identified in an August 2017 sanitary. Weaver delayed signing the order, alleging that the report made “false accusations or lies” about the city’s compliance with state and federal drinking water laws.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sided with the state but noted the city had made “good faith efforts to resolve the identified issues.”

The state now meets routinely with the city regarding the corrective plan that stemmed from the 2017 survey, Krisztian said.

“They are making good progress on that,” he said.

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