Seven reasons Michigan residents should ask questions about their own drinking water

The Flint water disaster is no longer solely about Flint. The debacle raises questions about drinking water safety for millions of Michigan residents.

Bridge today publishes a revised and expanded Flint water disaster timeline based on more than 20,000 additional documents released last Friday by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

Culled largely from those newly released documents, here are seven reasons residents across Michigan should ask keen questions about their own drinking water safety.

No. 1: Communities throughout Michigan likely have some lead water supply lines

As the Flint lead problem exploded last fall, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulators exchanged numerous emails about lead in drinking water pipes elsewhere across Michigan.

In September 2015, Liane Shekter Smith, chief of the MDEQ Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, emailed numerous colleagues a list of dozens of Michigan communities with lead service lines. Some of those pipes may have been replaced at some point, and some are likely still in use. Shekter Smith wrote, “We should be careful how we use this list at this time, but it is an indication of which communities may be facing similar issues to Flint.”

It should be emphasized that the mere presence of lead service lines does not constitute an emergency. Many communities nationwide have some lead service lines. Municipal water supplies are routinely protected with corrosion-control chemicals, which coat old pipes and keep them from leaching lead. The lack of such corrosion controls when Flint switched to Flint River drinking water is a root cause of the Flint disaster.

But an August 2015 report to the National Drinking Water Advisory Council by a national team of experts urges nationwide “proactive” replacement of lead service lines, “strengthened” corrosion control treatments, and more intensive lead monitoring of household tap water.

No. 2: Flint is far from the only Michigan community with elevated blood lead levels

In December, Bridge published a statewide map of blood lead levels in children. As the map and related data make clear, other Michigan communities are struggling with even higher blood lead levels than Flint.

There is good reason for families across Michigan to understand blood lead levels in their community. As state and federal health agencies are quick to point out, there is no safe level of lead in the bloodstream. Lead is a neurotoxin which is especially damaging to the developmental progress of young children.

But it’s important to also understand that the sources of elevated blood lead levels are numerous and hard to track in individuals. Typical sources of lead ingestion include old lead paint, including chips and dust; some toys (about which there are health warnings); and lead brought into a home from a parent’s workplace. But drinking water can also be a source.

If you are on a public water system, annual quality reports published by your local utility are a first place to look for any lead concentrations in your drinking water – check your local municipality’s website. Yet such reports, and monitoring by the MDEQ and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, didn’t protect or warn Flint residents about rising lead levels in both drinking water and children. It took independent third-party water safety and medical experts to uncover the Flint problem.

One of those experts, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, recently stated in a peer-reviewed medical journal study: “As our aging water infrastructures continue to decay, and as communities across the nation struggle with finances and water supply sources, the situation in Flint may be a harbinger for future safe drinking water challenges. Ironically, even when one is surrounded by the Great Lakes, safe drinking water is not a guarantee.”

No. 3: Flint isn’t the only Michigan community with drinking water safety issues

State email records released last week indicate that in 2013 and 2014, the MDEQ identified 1,100 drinking water regulations violations statewide, including what appeared to be 200 violations for exceeding maximum allowable contaminant levels in drinking water. Altogether, the 1,100 violations came from 326 community water supplies statewide over those two years.

State email records also show that between 2010 and 2014, 41 “non-community” drinking water supplies in Michigan exceeded the 15 parts per billion federal action level for lead.

Non-community drinking water supplies include schools, restaurants, motels, campgrounds, and churches. Bridge did not find details of those 41 lead problems in state records released last week.

No. 4: There are significant questions about MDEQ’s drinking water safety program, and its monitoring might not tell the whole story

In October, Richard Benzie, MDEQ chief of field operations for the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, described Flint in email as the “biggest firestorm I have experienced in almost 40 years, and to think it is about a water system that has never exceeded an Action Level.”

By “action level,” Benzie appears to mean that MDEQ’s official water testing in Flint in 2014-15 did not reveal a serious lead safety hazard. He’s quite right. It’s the rest of the story that’s so troubling. In contrast to the MDEQ, independent technical researchers and a lone Environmental Protection Agency regulator uncovered Flint’s lead problem, as well as serious defects in Flint water treatment. And independent medical professionals discovered elevated blood lead levels that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service failed to detect.

Also in October, MDEQ officials briefly discussed lead levels in Saginaw’s drinking water in response to media inquiries. Lead in water is measured in parts per billion. Federal regulations require water utilities to certify that 90 percent of sampled locations in a community contain 15 parts per billion of lead or less in drinking water.

The MDEQ emails showed lead levels of 8 parts per billion in the last testing period in Saginaw. That’s below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Flint’s two most recent rounds of lead monitoring showed 6 parts per billion and 11 parts per billion. According to regulatory procedures, those results meant no further public safety action was required.

But then, independent researchers, led by Virginia Tech professor and drinking water expert Marc Edwards, found much higher lead levels in Flint drinking water last fall. Edwards also alleged to federal investigators that Flint’s lead sampling procedures in Flint homes were seriously flawed. A Michigan Auditor General investigation also found flaws in Flint’s lead sampling, as well as MDEQ’s oversight.

On Sunday, Bridge asked Edwards if the problems he and others found in Flint call into question MDEQ-supervised lead sampling elsewhere in Michigan.

“Without a doubt,” Edwards responded.

Last week, MDEQ Communications Director Melanie Brown said MDEQ is working hard to “ensure our water sampling and testing protocols are the most effective methods as possible now and into the future.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about MDEQ’s drinking water safety regulation before, and is now conducting a thorough audit of Michigan’s oversight. Results are not expected for several months.

No. 5: Full drinking water safety may be impossible to achieve

In May 2015, Jon Allan, director of the MDEQ Office of the Great Lakes, asked MDEQ colleagues for reactions to a proposal calling for 98 percent of the community water systems in Michigan to have drinking water that meets all health-based standards by the year 2020.

MDEQ Water Resources Division Chief William Creal responded the same day. “I think you are nuts if you go with a goal less than 100 percent for (drinking water) compliance in the strategy,” Creal wrote. “How many Flints do you intend to allow???”

A day later, Liane Shekter Smith, chief of the MDEQ Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance responded with a different reaction.

“The balance here is between what is realistic and what is ideal,” Shekter Smith wrote. “Of course, everyone wants 100 percent compliance. The reality, however, is that it’s impossible. It’s not that we ‘allow’ a Flint to occur; circumstances happen. Water mains break, systems lose pressure, bacteria gets into the system, regulations change and systems that were in compliance no longer are, etc. Do we want to put a goal in black and white that cannot be met but sounds good? Or do we want to establish a goal that challenges us but can actually be accomplished? Perhaps there’s a middle ground?”

Shekter Smith was fired earlier this month over the Flint water crisis.

In December, the staff of Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, requested MDEQ feedback on a bill he planned to introduce to require drinking water in schools be tested at least once every three years. Shekter Smith pushed back on that idea, too.

“Even if the proposal were to be for only lead and copper, this is a huge expense that would be placed on the supplier of water inappropriately,” she wrote. “I understand the desire to have this kind of information, but if the legislature wants to require this monitoring, the burden for this should be on the schools or the board of education.”

No. 6: If water safety was ‘minimalist’ in Flint, could it also be minimalist in your community?

In December, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, a bipartisan investigatory panel of policy makers and health professionals established by Gov. Snyder, laid much of the blame for the Flint crisis on the MDEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. The task force blamed MDEQ for a “minimalist approach to regulatory oversight responsibility” that is “unacceptable and simply insufficient to the task of public protection.”

The task force also characterized MDEQ’s public response to the Flint crisis as “often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit” citizens and experts who raised concerns.

The full Flint water disaster timeline is littered with state agency dismissals and deflections as the crisis accelerated in the first nine months of 2015. That timeline is updated today with more such examples consistent with the criticisms leveled by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force.

Bridge is not the first to report the two examples cited below. But we do so to update the narrative and provide greater context to coverage we’ve emphasized previously.

Exchanges between the EPA and MDEQ about lead worries in Flint, and blatant denials and deflections by MDEQ, are a central point in the entire narrative of the Flint disaster. The records released last Friday added to the full narrative – with more intense worry from EPA officials, and more dismissive reaction from MDEQ officials, than previously reported.

“WOW!!!” EPA official Jennifer Crooks wrote to MDEQ regulators after lead readings in one Flint home topped 104 parts per billion. “Big worries here,” she continued, and noted that the family living in the home had rashes and one child’s hair was “falling out in clumps.”

MDEQ staff reactions included this: “Not sure why region 5 [EPA] sees this one sample as such a big deal.”

Two months later, as an EPA official continued to press MDEQ about possible high lead levels in Flint, MDEQ water safety regulator Stephen Busch took offense. If the EPA official “continues to persist,” Busch threatened to go to superiors at both MDEQ and EPA “to help address his over-reaches.”

In the end, Busch was suspended over the Flint crisis. And the aggressive EPA official, Miguel Del Toral, has been vindicated as the first regulator to truly attack and identify the Flint crisis.

Finally, the story of state government workers in Flint receiving “alternative” drinking water supplies a year ago is well known. But a new part of the backstory revealed in records Friday provides more detail.

The logic for the special water supply, according to state email records: “.. given that this state building has high public traffic (Flint citizens); it was felt prudent to offer an alternative supply of drinking water to citizens entering the building.”

Richard Benzie, MDEQ’s chief of field operations for the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, took special offense.

“No doubt,” he wrote in an email, the special water in a state office building “will make it more difficult from a perception standpoint.” Indeed, his MDEQ division continued to deny there was a serious problem with Flint drinking water for much of 2015.

But Benzie’s first concern in his email was state employees’ perceptions, not public perceptions.
“Why does ‘public traffic’ deserve a higher consideration than concern for state workers?” he asked. “How does that reasoning appear to state employees?”

No. 7: Because a Flint hero still has questions

Marc Edwards largely uncovered the Flint drinking water disaster. His independent testing in Flint homes showed lead levels far higher than the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had previously recognized. His tests of Flint River water showed it was highly corrosive, and the failure to properly treat it caused lead to leach into the city’s drinking water. His technical research helped doctors pinpoint elevated blood levels in Flint children – an emergency that state health officials had previously missed.

Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, is a nationally recognized drinking water safety expert. Edwards remains involved as a consultant as the city struggles to recover from the disaster.

On Sunday, Bridge interviewed Edwards via email. Are the issues outlined above – statewide water safety violations, controversies over lead sampling in Flint, lead service lines, water safety officials declaring full water safety as impossible – dots the public should reasonably connect?

“Yes,” Edwards said. “There is an attitude at some of these agencies… that by not meeting the health standards they will save money that would best be spent elsewhere. This has nothing to do with politics, but it is a self-serving argument by some, that is frankly an excuse to be lazy and sloppy and engage in illegal activities. I find this both arrogant and dangerous.”

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Jim Danielski
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 10:29am
Kudos to Bridge Magazine on the coverage of the Flint water crisis and the water issue in general - this is some of the finest and most comprehensive journalism I have ever seen!
Phil L.
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 10:59am
Why is the federal lead testing standard set to 90% of sampled locations? Aren't most statistical standard thresholds at 95% and sometimes in the medical field set to 99%?
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 3:01pm
I think you are referring to levels of statistical significance. I may be mistaken, but I think a 95% level of significance means there is only a ten percent chance of the results being due to chance.
Fri, 02/19/2016 - 8:41am
Sounds like Epa needs to appoint an emergency mgr for the state of MI! Clearly our accountant Snyder can't handle it