Flint water tests suggest statewide lead issues

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

State and local officials hope switching Flint back to Detroit’s water system, announced Thursday, will solve lead contamination issues there in the short run, but the situation exposed a health issue that may be happening in other parts of the state.

Water sampling at Flint’s schools discovered a few instances of lead levels that exceed the federal safety standard. The findings raised the possibility that lead problems may exist in other parts of the state, including Metro Detroit.

Private and public schools are not covered under federal testing guidelines, said Dan Wyant, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

State testing of four water samples from three Flint schools came back with lead levels exceeding the 15 parts per billion standard set by the federal government. A total of 37 water samples were taken from 13 Flint schools.

“This data underscores the need for a complete and thorough evaluation of the plumbing system in each school,” Wyant said.

State officials plan to contact all schools in the state, urging them to assess their lead levels in drinking water. Facilities built in the last quarter-century are unlikely to have lead issues, but others built before the mid-1980s may have lead connections and could be a problem, according to the agency.

“Schools that have lead infrastructure should be testing,” Wyant said.

The Michigan Association of School Boards said it “absolutely supports anything that helps to keep students safe,” but added that the state needs to chip in more money for school infrastructure like water pipes.

“Michigan is one of just a handful of states that does not offer funding for some portion of school construction,” said John Tramontana, spokesman for the school board group. “We should be looking at ways to help schools pay for infrastructure improvements to ensure our students are learning in a safe environment.”

Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and, at high levels, may lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reconnecting to Detroit

Gov. Rick Snyder appeared in Flint Thursday to announce that the city will reconnect to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in two weeks. The hookup for up to a year is expected to cost $12 million since the city since April 2014 has been getting its drinking water free from the Flint River.

The city will tie into the Detroit system until it can finish construction of its own pipeline to Lake Huron, which is where Detroit also gets its water.

“I’m relieved,” said Flint Councilman Kerry Nelson. “I am thrilled for this community that we reached across the aisles. We’ve come together.”

Residents have complained of a foul smell, taste and appearance of the river water for the past year and a half, but worries heightened two weeks ago when researchers determined many Flint children were showing higher-than-expected levels of lead in their blood.

Sue McCormick, interim CEO of the Detroit water system and the regional Great Lakes Water Authority, embraced the opportunity to “provide residents with clean, safe drinking water.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, was more subdued.

“I view this not as a victory for our community, but as a fix that is unfortunately necessary,” said Ananich, who was in Flint for the announcement.

All local schools have been using bottled water for the past two weeks, yet it’s unclear how long students there may have been exposed to contamination. Eisenhower Elementary, Barnell STEM Academy and Freeman Elementary showed lead levels above the safety standards.

Since schools are not covered under federal testing guidelines, there is no baseline of previous testing information with which to compare, DEQ’s Wyant said.

The Michigan Environmental Council called for even more safety measures, including testing every Flint child for lead exposure and investigating the cost and feasibility of testing all Michigan children for lead.

“Restoring the public’s trust will be a long, difficult process,” but the state’s adoption of the group’s recommendations “can begin rebuilding trust and make the best of an awful situation,” Andy McGlashen, communication director of the MEC, wrote in a post on the group’s website.

Snyder wants the state to cover half — $6 million — of the cost for the Detroit water. Flint will pay $2 million, and $4 million will come from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Two key legislative appropriations chairmen said Thursday that Snyder is likely to find the votes to secure the state’s $6 million contribution. .

“This is a public health emergency and we need to get it done,” said Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “It probably will have to come out of two or three (state) departmental budgets, but we’ve got to do it.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said fellow GOP senators have questions about whether the money would be a grant or a loan, which would be repaid. But he, too, supported the idea.

“It’s in the state’s best interests to ask these questions, but we have to do it quickly,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s a public health emergency.”

$2M city payment riles rep

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling described the Detroit water reconnection as the best and fastest option to “stabilize the infrastructure system” and considered the $2 million contribution “money well spent.”

But U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, the Flint Township Democrat who represents the area, objected to the city’s payment.

“Flint is a financially distressed city, and it should not have to empty out its bank account to pay for the state’s failures,” Kildee said.

“The decision to switch to the Flint River water source was made while the city was under state emergency management, and now it is incumbent on Gov. Snyder and the state to fix — and pay — for the problem they created.”

The decision to switch to the Flint River was seen as a move to save money after years of officials and residents complaining about Detroit water rates.

Flint River water, however, has been shown to be more corrosive than the Lake Huron water provided by Detroit.

When that river water sits in lead plumbing connections, which are found in many of Flint’s older houses in lower-income neighborhoods, it takes in the harmful substance.

Pressed Thursday on whether the decision to switch to the Flint River was a mistake, Snyder deflected by saying the state will put together an “after-action” report. He previously said it wasn’t an error.

Detroit News Staff Writer Gary Heinlein contributed.