Flint meets lead water standard for over five straight years, but distrust lingers

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint has recorded more than five consecutive years of meeting state and federal standards for lead in its drinking water, Michigan's environmental department said Thursday, despite deep distrust by its residents after the water crisis.

In its latest six month sampling period, the city had 7 parts per billion of lead in its drinking water under stricter state testing rules, which was below the action level of 15 ppb, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers any level of lead in the water to be harmful.

Because the city has removed so many lead service lines from homes in the city of over 90,000 residents, the sampling included more non-residential locations with lead pipes in the sampling, the department noted.

The city of Flint has been replacing lead and copper water service lines for several years. Because there are fewer homes with lead pipes, the state of Michigan is sampling more non-residential locations or businesses for lead in its six-month testing.

The city's water supply got contaminated with lead after the system's water source was changed in April 2014 from the Detroit area water system's Lake Huron to the Flint River. A failure to treat the more acidic river water with corrosion control chemicals resulted in lead leaching from old pipes into the drinking water and the declaration of a public health crisis in January 2016.

City Council President Eric Mays, a longtime councilman, said he is "leery" of EGLE's results given disagreements and debates over the homes that were "properly" tested for lead in the past.

"We've seen some debacles in the past on testing," Mays said. "If you accept it on its face that all testing was done according to rules and law, if you accept that on its face, it can be expected that you'd see improvements from the Flint River water with no corrosion control."

But Mays said he  would welcome having EGLE officials come present the numbers and evidence of proper testing to city council members.

"I'm leery of the testing procedures and the press releases," he said. "I would say that there's going to continue to be a lack of trust as it relates to the government, particularly the state government, as it relates to the accuracy of information."

After the state government recognized the lead problem in late September 2015, the drinking source was switched back to the Detroit area system, now overseen by the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Since July 2016, Flint's water system has tested below action levels of the federal lead and copper rule for 11 consecutive six-month monitoring periods, according to the state environmental department.

The latest test results were calculated from water samples drawn from 71 homes and businesses known to have lead service lines with 40 from homes and the other 31 from businesses and a church. The department said this was the largest number of non-residential sites used in calculating Flint’s 90th percentile samples to date.

The 40 homes tested at 5 ppb, while the non-residential sites generated a 13 ppb result, according to the state.

“We’re pleased to see that Flint’s work to eliminate residential lead service lines is showing a sustained drop in lead levels across the city,” said Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, in a statement. “The data we are now seeing from the Tier 2 sites is also an important reminder to business owners to flush their lines after extended periods of stagnation that may have been caused by pandemic-related closures.”

The highest lead level recorded was 3,492 ppb at a church that has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oswald said. This finding highlights the need for owners with lead service lines to actively use the water in their residences or businesses to ensure better water quality, he said.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Twitter:@leonardnfleming