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Flint


The Flint saga continues.  The latest is that they continue to use Detroit water, but will convert to the new Lake Huron supply in 2018. The argument now is who’s water plant will be used. The County is building a plant.   John Young notes that the Mayor of Flint wants to use their own plant.  I think we know how that worked out last time. All the non-elected officials overseeing the City say buy from Genessee County.  Should be interesting to see how that plays out.

Meanwhile Midwest regional EPA officials appear are being criticized for failing to deal with the problem in a timely fashion.  EPA delayed their emergency declaration for 7 months, but EPA says the state action prevented EPA from acting.  This is exactly what the states asked for when they persuaded Reagan to delegate authority from EPA to the states.  Then the finger pointing starts when state officials do not react quickly because the state legislature cut their budget and no one is asking about that like they did in Walkerton in 2001.  It could have been predicted especially when too many states have legislatures that want to starve the bureaucracy.  But they forget why the bureaucracy was there to begin with – because something bad happened and government reacted to it by passing laws and creating oversight.  Delete the oversight and bad things happen.  It is human nature.

That will play out, but there still is the problem of the people who made the decisions in the first place.  As the elected officials in the class I taught this summer noted, it was a political decision to save money that created this problem to start with, not an operation issue.  The operational issue came up after the elected officials decided to start up a 50 year old plant that had not been run more than 18 months in 50 years, and after improvements were quickly made to the plant, but never tested.  Not sure how the engineers (sorry) let that happen, but why is it that no elected officials have been scrutinized for their bad decisions?  It makes us all look bad and sends a poor message to the residents of the country, not just Flint.

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FLInt 2

As you probably know, the continuing saga in Flint has two state regulatory folks and an operator with the City of Flint under indictment.  Where that goes remains to be seen, but the Attorney General Bill Schuette felt something needed to be done.  But are the right people under indictment?   The charges are “tampering with evidence, and misconduct in public office,” but these are employees that few know or see and they were the ones dealing with the symptoms since they did not create the problem.  That means the harder question still is not addressed – there are engineers, managers and local officials who agreed to the change in water source for financial reasons, not public health reasons that precipitated this tragedy.  Where is that responsibility since all indications are that the change in water sources created a situation that could not be managed easily?  The question that those in Flint are likely is asking is whether the local officials going to skate on this?  It is worth asking because these incidents occur every few years, and the reasons are similar – a decision gets made for financial reasons by public officials, a problem happens, and there is a series of events that is uncovered that precipitates the concern.  The utility or City gets sued, but that simply means that the public (you and your neighbors) pay (and in Flint everyone was impacted, who do you collect from?).  The local officials are rarely challenged about these decisions and often accountability is lacking.  So the question is:  is the Attorney General done, or are there bigger fish to fry in Flint? And who are those fish?  Mayor?  Council? Managers? Consultants?  Legislators who cut regulatory funding?


For your Reading Pleasure….

 

http://flintwaterstudy.org/

http://www.npr.org/2015/09/29/444497051/high-lead-levels-in-michigan-kids-after-city-switches-water-source

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/flint-task-force-rick-snyder-blame/475182/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flint-s-lead-tainted-water-may-not-cause-permanent-brain-damage/

http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/environment/2016/03/19/solving-disinfection-byproducts-led-unintended-consequences/81447884/

http://www.vindy.com/news/2016/mar/20/few-knew-of-excess-lead-in-warrens-water/?mobile

 


For those wondering what the big report was going yo say, interesting reading, and a lot like Walkerton – plenty of blame to go around.

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf

And some related articles:

http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/flint-water-crisis/112311306-story


How to Predict the next Flint?

IMG_4803In the last blog we talked about Flint’s water quality problem being brought on by a political/financial decision, not a public health decision.  Well, the news get worse.  Flint’s deteriorated water system is a money thing as well – the community has a lot of poverty and high water bills, so they can’t pay for improvements.  They are not alone.  Utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age related problems. So the real question then is who are the at risk utilities?  Who is the next Flint?  It would be an interesting exercise to see if a means could be developed to identify those utilities at risk for future crises, so we can monitor them in more detail as a means to avoid such crises.

So what would be the measures that might identify the future “Flint?”  These could be things like age of the system, materials used, economic activity trends, income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, utility size, reserves, utility rates, history of rate increases, etc.?  Could these be developed into a means to evaluate risk?  If so, who would use it and how would we address the high risk cases?  I suggest that lenders have means to evaluate this using many of these same measures, but from a risk of events, this method has not been applied.  So I think this would be a useful research project.  So if anyone has some ideas, time or ideas for funding, let me know.  Let’s get rolling!


I was at a recent AWWA technical and Education Council meeting in Denver. One of the major discussions was the issues with lead service lines as highlighted by the current problem in Flint, and how many utilities are now fielding questions about and dealing with lead in their services lines, research that will come for lead, and regulatory requirements for upgrades. One issue that remains unanswered is what happens on the customer’s side of the meter, which may also be lead piping. So removing the utility’s lead service would not solve the lead issue completely, but it will help. But why has lead not been an issue in 25 years? Did it suddenly arise?
While the lead has arisen again as a public health topic, the lead and copper rule has been in effect for nearly 30 years and much of the lead and copper testing was conducted in the early 1990s. Most utilities made water treatment upgrades based the findings from the testing, and utilities have been required to continue to monitor their system ever since. Normally lead levels, even when present, were not a health issue because the zinc orthophosphates and other treatment methods kept the pipe
encapsulated. Others like Cincinnati, Lansing, Madison, Boston and others had ongoing programs to replace lead pipes. 30 years ago in North Carolina we changed out lead goosenecks and galvanized lines rather than replace them – it was just easier.
Most of the folks in the room agreed most utilities have or have such programs and that the number of lead service lines and lead goosenecks on the utility side is
limited. So I suggested that maybe the lesson we should learn from Flint is not about lead service lines, but instead the risks we incur with decision-makers who only look at money when making decisions. Flint’s decision to change water sources was driven by money, not public health.
In fact the report just published indicates that public health was not a real consideration at all. But decisions based on money impacted not only Flint, but Alamosa, CO in 2008, where disinfection was not practiced, and Walkerton,
ONT in 2001 where a Flint like set of decisions cascaded into contamination that killed people. There are utiity systems who contract operations and their contract operator makes decisions based on money, and now there is a distribution system problem. This is a repetitive pattern that has less to do with personnel operating these systems, than decision-makers, who tend to look more at the business case or money as opposed to public health. The lesson we need to learn is that money cannot be the
deciding factor when operating public water and sewer system. And to reduce the chance it happens in the future, perhaps there should be penalties if it does.
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