Flint: A Cautionary Tale for Millions Still Served by Lead Lines

Lately, it's impossible to open a newspaper or turn on a news program without some mention of the lead contamination disaster in Flint, Mich.

Lately, it’s impossible to open a newspaper or turn on a news program without some mention of the lead contamination disaster in Flint, Mich. It’s hard to comprehend how the situation escalated to the level it did before any measurable action was taken.

Much of the media and the American public has been squarely focused on placing blame, needing someone - anyone - to be held accountable. Already, several resignations have been tendered, including the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and the director of EPA’s regional office in Chicago. Some are even calling for Governor Rick Snyder’s resignation, with filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore going so far as to accuse him of criminal behavior.

Several lawsuits - at least four that I’m aware of - have been filed. The most recent one by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Natural Resources Defense Council accuses the state of Michigan of failing in its duty to uphold the Safe Drinking Water Act. They want the state to replace all lead service lines at no cost to Flint residents and provide health monitoring for those exposed to lead poisoning.

Demanding accountability is part of our human nature and I suspect the who-knew-what-when debate will continue for some time. Meanwhile, the series of events that led to the contamination of Flint’s water supply have brought to light in mainstream America a number of challenges that the water industry has been trying to address for quite some time - not the least of which is aging water infrastructure.

Lead service lines, like the ones in Flint, are quite common in older cities across the United States. Typically, a buildup of biofilm around the inside of the pipe keeps lead from leaching into the water supply, but that very delicate relationship can easily be upset if the chemistry of the water changes in such a way that causes the biofilm to deteriorate - as we’ve seen happen in Flint (and in Washington, D.C., a decade ago).

In hindsight, it’s clear that a series of missteps grossly exacerbated Flint’s situation - with new details seeming to emerge daily. But at the end of the day, is it unreasonable to think that the same couldn’t happen elsewhere?

Some 10 million homes in the U.S. are still served by lead service lines, and while some communities are required under the Lead and Copper Rule to replace them, it only pertains to the public portion of the pipe. If lead plumbing is present in the home, the onus is on the homeowner to first determine whether they have lead pipes, and then whether or not replacement is an option.

“Water service is priced well below its value,” said AWWA CEO David LaFrance in a statement, “but there are still families that struggle to meet essential needs. In many cases, utilities and customers will have to work collaboratively to remove lead service lines.”

He suggested that there may be opportunities to expand existing government assistance programs to mitigate costs. And until that happens, I daresay this won’t be the last time we encounter a situation like we are witnessing in Flint.

Angela Godwin

Chief Editor, WaterWorld

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