The Flint water crisis, resulting in potentially toxic levels of lead in the city’s water supply, shines a spotlight the devastating environment, health and safety ramifications of bad decision making — and also America’s aging infrastructure.
The American Society of Civil Engineers says America’s infrastructure will need an estimated $3.6 trillion in total investment by 2020, leaving a funding shortfall of $1.6 trillion. Replacing US water pipes alone would cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association. AWWA says this figure does not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property.
The country’s failing infrastructure has caused some to worry a similar water contamination crisis could happen elsewhere in the US. As Rohan Hepkins, the mayor of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, tells Slate: “I go through eastern Delaware County and I see many boroughs and townships going through the same infrastructural meltdown.” He says the city’s water and sewer infrastructure should have been replaced 20 years ago. “Most communities have waited until the end of the life cycles, and all of the bills are coming to roost at once.”
Like Flint, Yeadon, located just west of Philadelphia, is an economically depressed city. In Flint, state officials made a money-saving decision to switch its water supply to the Flint River, which contained high levels of lead and iron. It took the state and EPA officials months to admit there was a problem and take action.
Involve Professionals in Decision Making
“One important lesson to be learned from this is that important financial decisions cannot be made in a vacuum,” Lawrence (Larry) Clark, tells Environmental Leader. Clark is principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a South Florida-based engineering firm focused on energy and sustainability consulting. “If all of the technical factors had been considered prior to the switch in water supplies being made, the outcome could have been very different.”
Clark, in an HPAC Engineering blog, writes about the Flint water crisis and Legionellosis, and says “I wonder how many of the individuals who made those bad decisions were professional engineers, licensed plumbers, or water-treatment specialists? The involvement of such professionals might have made a difference.” In an interview, Clark says professionals must be involved in the decision making process to prevent similar crises.
“Clearly, elected and appointed officials without the technical training/knowledge in those areas should consult with professionals before making these types of decisions,” he says. “After all of the negative press associated with Flint, I can’t imagine another jurisdiction making this kind of a change without consulting a variety of qualified professionals and relying on their expertise going forward.”
Calls for EPA Reform
EPA reform is needed to prevent another Flint water crisis, argues a Bloomberg View editorial. It says Flint and many other US cities including Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago use water-testing techniques that underestimate lead levels. Additionally, utilities sometimes concentrate sampling in neighborhoods known to have low lead levels or those without lead pipes.
“The EPA considers these techniques ‘against the intent of the monitoring protocol,’ but so far has failed to ban them,” according to the editorial, which says the agency is currently considering tightening the protocols for lead testing. “The rules should be stringent enough to ensure that all cities get an early warning when lead levels rise to the danger point,” it concludes.
The Washington Post says the EPA’s “lethargic response to the Flint water crisis makes the agency look like an accomplice after a crime — the poisoning of the city’s water system and assaulting its population.”
The Post quotes Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who says EPA enforcement actions have fallen. It also cites an Environment & Energy Publishing report that shows, according to EPA data: “the 213 criminal cases EPA opened in 2015 were 87 fewer than two years before and down a fifth from 2014.”
Increase Lead Exposure Awareness
Lead testing firm Environmental Testing Services president and CEO Michael Stefkovic says ETS has seen an increase in awareness about the dangers of lead exposure from sources other than drinking water.
“The catastrophic lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan water supply in recent months has been a disaster for that city’s 99,000-plus residents,” Stefkovic told Environmental Leader. “If there is one good thing that might come out of this tragedy is that it has increased awareness of the danger of lead exposure. The same lead that is found in Flint’s drinking water also exists in hidden forms located in many homes.
“Too often the dangers of lead are down played through disclosure and release of liability. New renters and homebuyers are provided information concerning lead and its dangers without knowing if it actually exists. It is a common practice to ‘play dumb’ on behalf of landlords and home sellers in the housing industry relating to the presence of Lead. Renters and homebuyers normally sign releases accepting liability on lead present. Homes built prior to 1978 are assumed to have lead in certain painted surfaces. Unless testing is preformed the occupant will never know.”
Beware of Unintended Consequences
AWWA CEO David LaFrance agrees that Flint highlights the importance of communicating to the public about lead exposure risks. “Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure,” LaFrance says.
Another lesson learned from Flint: “water chemistry is complex,” he says. “When a community changes water sources or water treatment, unintended consequences can occur. Water systems must be alert to these potential issues and have plans in place to address them.”