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The Flint Water Crisis

There have been varied news representations regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that commenced in 2014 and the length of time it took for government officials to react to the problem. The considerably high levels of lead found in the drinking water of residents in Flint have had an adverse impact on the level of trust within the city and state, the health and wellbeing of the residents, as well as, the economy of the region. However, as Rothstein (2016) states, albeit the water crisis in Flint is tragic in many respects, it also presents an opportunity for the local community to come together and benefit from combating the problem. It is imperative to note that Flint River is a variable water sources and as such, presents a challenge to treat. Missteps and oversights combined with inherent chemical conditions formed the premise for the historic Flint water crisis. This deduction is based on extensive review of scholarly articles, monthly operating reports and other reported documents from personal communications with pant managers and operators and the water treatment facilities.

Examples-the Flint Water Crisis

According to Felton (2014) after the city of Flint failed to come to an agreement with Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) on a short-term contract, it decided to utilize water from the Flint River and treat it at the Flint Water Service Center. However, numerous concerns and warnings were voiced regarding the utilization of the Flint River as the water source. Depsite the warnings and concerns, the Flint Water Service Center switched from buying and distributing water from Detroit Water and Sewage Department to treating water at its facility in Flint city. Within few weeks of the switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the residents began complaining about the color, odor and taste of their drinking water. As Felton (2014) denotes, during this time, discoloration and red water were observed throughout the distribution system and this was accompanied by an unusually large number of breaks in water supply and rashes, particularly in children. Also, General Motors Corporation submitted complaints regarding the corrosiveness of the Flint water on its engines before switching to using water from the Flint Township rather than that from Flint. The city of Flint sampled water from one of its resident’s home and found lead in the water at a concentration of 104 ug/L.

After the publicity regarding the lead problem in the Flint water, the source of water for the community was switched back to the treated Lake Huron water distributed by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. According to Anderson (2016), after the information on the increase in the number of cases of Legionellosis that took place in Flint city in the summers of 2014 and 2015 was released to the public, 91 cases and twelve deaths have been confirmed in the city of Flint. While the source of the outbreak has not been vividly determined or directly related to the Flint water system, the illnesses commenced following the switch of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River (Anderson, 2016). The presence of lead in the water distribution system, low residual disinfectant levels, that is, chlorine and high concentrations of assimiliable organic carbon that would have likely occurred during the process of ozonation of the high total organic carbon in the Flint River are conditions that could have been conducive for biological growth and propagation of Legionella in the city’s water distribution network. The treatment of the Flint River water also experienced major challenges due to the regularly fluctuating alkalinity and pH levels of the water as Lockwood Andrews, Newman Inc. (2014) report.

Discussion-the Flint Water Crisis

The discussions above demonstrate the intricacy of treating a variable water source. Water from the Flint River was contemplated to be a challenge to treat since it has high carbon and high bacteria concentrations that fluctuate regularly depending on rain events. According to Lawrence (2012), the Flint River water source is particularly difficult to treat due to seasonal variation between high magnesium hardness and high organic load. Moreover, the treatment train utilized at the Flint water treatment plant differs immensely with that recommended in the AB&H report, which meant that the plant operators lacked vital information regarding the treatability of the Flint water that was necessary for appropriate plant operations (Lawrence, 2012). Based on the report by Muylwyk et al. (2014), the American Water Works Association (AWWA) recommends that if a municipality is contemplating altering how its water source is treated, the need for corrosion control and the prospective impacts on the corrosivity of the treated water should be properly assessed. Nonetheless, sufficient corrosion studies and pilot testing were not commissioned and completed prior to the switch of source waters in April 2014. Moreover, since the Flint plant was under-staffed, had not been in operation for almost fifty years and some of the staff were undertrained, it did not come as a surprise that it was difficult to obtain optimum water treatment.

There are certain treatment changes that Muylwyk et al. (2014) believe could affect corrosion control and corrosion in the distribution system including:The Flint Water Crisis

  • Process changes that impact the CSMR.
  • Introduction of a novel acid to the process such as the recarbonation by the Flint plant.
  • Process alterations that cause alkalinity or pH changes.
  • Alteration of the coagulant.
  • Introduction of a novel base such the use of lime by the Flint plant.

The Flint plant undertook the changes mentioned above when the city switched to treating Flint River water. However, the treatment process did not take into account corrosion or include a corrosion control plan. The red color of the water reported by Flint residents is the evidence of lack of a corrosion plan to deal with the corrosion of the iron distribution pipes. In as much as the Flint Water Service Center (FWSC) flushed the mains through opening of fire hydrants, the institution did not address the root cause of the problem of colored water, that is, corrosion of the iron pipes. As Hill and Cantor (2011) mention in their research, changes in the alkalinity and pH levels of water can cause softening of the iron tubercles and thus, result in increased iron corrosion. It is vital to note that the addition of phosphate as an inhibitor to prevent or curb lead corrosion is often utilized in the industry (Hill and Cantor, 2011). However, despite the possible use of phosphate as a corrosion inhibitor was suggested to the Flint water treatment plant, no corrosion control was implemented. It is because of this reason that most journalistic reports of the Flint water crisis have often indicated that the failure to add phosphate by the treatment plant was the principal cause of the lead corrosion problem. Notwithstanding, it is important to note that the CSMR of the treated water was so high that even the addition of phosphate would not have been enough to eliminate the lead levels in the system. As such, the failure to acknowledge the corrosivity of the water and consequently add a corrosion inhibitor had detrimental effects.

The discovery of immense lead residue in the Flint water led the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to conduct extensive sampling and scientific evaluation of the water. Based on the analysis, the highest levels of lead measured superseded 23, 100 ug/L. Thus, it has been deduced that in many cases, the high levels of lead now evident in water derived from the homes of Flint residents are as a result of the significant presence of particulate lead in the water.

Summary-the Flint Water Crisis

There are certain considerations that need to be taken into account when treating water for human consumption. The Flint water crisis is the direct outcome of failure of the treatment plant to follow these standards. However, there are certain factors that lead to this failure on the treatment process. For instance, the treatment plant had not been in use for nearly fifty years, it was under-staffed and some of the staff lacked adequate training required for the treatment process. Thus, the fact that the treatment plant failed to have a corrosion control plan did not come as a surprise. The high lead particulate found in the water after numerous tests is attributed to the corrosion of the delivery pipes that the treatment plant failed to account for in their water treatment procedures. The Flint treatment plant failed to add phosphate as a corrosive inhibitor to prevent lead particulates emanating from the iron pipes from contaminating the eater to the point whereby it was red in color. Plans are underway to supplant all lead pipes in the Flint water system with the lead pipes in various residents having been replaced. Nonetheless, it may take years for the lead levels in the Flint water to reach a point whereby the concentrations of all samples taken are determined to be below the action level. Therefore, there is vividly much work to be done before the Flint water crisis is over.

 

 

 

References

Anderson, E. (2016). Legionnaires -Associated Deaths Grow to 12 in Flint Area Detroit. Retrieved from https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/04/11/legionnaires-deaths-flint-water/82897722/

Felton, R. (2014). Flint residents raise concerns over discolored water. Retrieved from https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/flint-residents-raise-concerns-over-discolored-water/Content?oid=2231724

Hill, C., & Cantor, A. (2011). Internal Corrosion Control in Water Distribution Systems. 1St. AWWA; Denver.

Lawrence, C. (2012). Special Rules Meeting of the Board of Trustees, Village of Park Forest, Will, and Cook Counties, IL. Retrieved from http://www.vopf.com/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/ltem/496

Lockwood Andrews, Newman Inc. (2014). Draft Operational Evaluation Report: Trihalomethane Formation Concerns. Flint, Mich.

Muylwyk, Q., Sandvig, A., & Snoeyink, V. (2014). Developing Corrosion Control for Drinking Water Systems. Opflow, 40(11), 24-27. doi: 10.5991/opf.2014.40.0073

Rothstein, E. (2016). Why Flint Matters. Journal – American Water Works Association, 108, 36-42. doi: 10.5942/jawwa.2016.108.0136