Update on Flint:  Lead-Contaminated Water Causing Health Crisis

The situation in Flint, Michigan - now in a state of emergency declared by President Obama and state officials as a result of residents’ months-long exposure to toxic lead levels leached from the city’s aging pipes -illustrates how inadequate funding for modernized water infrastructure can endanger the health and security of residents of our country’s financially stressed communities.

In April 2014, the city of Flint, which had for decades obtained its water from Lake Huron provided by Detroit’s water utility, changed its water source to the Flint River in an effort to save money. At the time the cash strapped city was operating under the control of emergency managers appointed by Governor Rick Snyder. Like many communities across the country, Flint suffered a decline in population in recent years so has been forced to foot the large bill for services like water and sewers with a significantly smaller tax base to pay for them. The switch to a less expensive water source was forced by this financial distress, and is typical of the ways in which struggling cities try to save money at the risk of water quality, increasing the risk of associated health problems for their residents.

Significantly, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to require Flint officials to add needed anti-corrosive chemicals to the Flint River water. Water from the Flint River turned out to be so corrosive that in October 2014, General Motors stopped using it because it was eating away parts in its engine plant. Corrosiveness posed a particular problem to Flint’s pipes because they, like those in many American cities, are made from lead which can leach into the water as the pipes age, poisoning those who drink it. Lead can cause stunted growth and brain damage in children and kidney issues in adults. (Lead was used in the manufacture of pipes until roughly the early 20th century, when scientific evidence began to demonstrate its toxicity. Modern pipes are generally made from copper or durable plastics like PVC.)

Very soon following the switch, Flint residents began complaining about rashes and strange odors from the river water, but city and state officials for the most part insisted that it was safe to drink. But when tested, the water was found to contain lead contents of 13,000 parts per billion, when the EPA suggests keeping lead content under 15 parts per billion. Not a single sample tested by independent officials at Virginia Tech University was found to be safe. State officials have admitted their failure to follow the correct protocol for corrosion, and the MDEQ’s director and spokesman both resigned after a task force appointed by Governor Snyder blamed the state agency for failing to ensure the safety of Flint’s water. In October, Flint switched back to Detroit’s water system.

The situation in Flint is particularly egregious because of the ineptitude and apparent dishonesty of city and state officials involved, but sadly Flint is not alone. CWC has documented numerous other health crises suffered by communities with aging and deteriorating water infrastructure. In July 2015, for example, CWC reported on the more than 400,000 residents of metropolitan Toledo, Ohio who were deprived of safe drinking water as a result of toxins contaminating the area’s water supply from Lake Erie. As CWC wrote, a ban on the use of drinking water was imposed when city officials identified toxins in the water supply stemming from, among other things, leaky septic tanks and faulty storm water drains. And CWC has reported on communities all over the U.S. being forced to issue “boil water” advisories upon finding contamination by lead and other toxins that have caused residents to suffer health problems like fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures. As Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University who has followed the Flint case said, “Flint is an extreme case, but nationally there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure…This is a common problem nationally — infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”

Wayne County Vote Triggers Regional Water System

October 3, 2014 6:28 AM

DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - A new regional authority will take over operations of Detroit’s water system with the approval of the Wayne County Commission.

The commission voted 14-1 Thursday to approve creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority.

The Macomb and Oakland County commissions are scheduled to vote next week on joining the authority. To become active, the commission required the Detroit City Council and one of the county boards to approve it.

The city council acted Sept. 19, the plan with a 7-2 vote.

Under the deal, Detroit will retain ownership of the system; but the Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties will have a greater say in operations.

The counties will lease regional water assets from Detroit $50 million per year for the next 40 years; and, for water customers, the rates imposed by the authority will be limited to 4-percent a year for the next 10 years.

The agreement guarantees funding to rebuild the system’s aging water infrastructure, as well as financial assistance for customers throughout the region who are struggling to pay their bills.

The Detroit water and sewer system consists of more than 3,400 miles of local water mains, 3,000 miles of local sewer pipes, 27,000 fire hydrants and an extensive billing and collection system, according to the city. The system serves about 700,000 Detroit residents and 4 million people in southeastern Michigan.

Detroit Under Water

Detroit is under water. While the city navigates potential bankruptcy, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is owed $89 million in delinquent bills, including more than $43 million from an estimated 80,000 residential accounts. As of March 6, according to the DWSD, 165,000 out of 323,900 of Detroit’s business, school, and commercial accounts were overdue, and more than 154,000 of 296,000 residential accounts were similarly delinquent. Detroit Public Schools, which has been ravaged by budget cuts for years, owes $2.2 million. Other communities, such as economically devastated Highland Park, which is being sued by the DWSD for a $17.4 million water and sewerage debt, is among many examples.

All the red on DWSD’s balance sheets, seen through the lens of the greater Detroit bankruptcy, is considered as a significant liability by Detroit’s financial managers. As a result, Detroit may be forced to privatize DWSD in order to rid the city’s financials of ‘bad debt’ and raise cash in advance of bankruptcy. As Detroit’s official investment banker, Kenneth Buckfire, said during the bankruptcy hearings, “The only way is to sell it [the DWSD] or privatize it. Several private equity firms have expressed interest, but only if they can charge higher rates.”

In Detroit, as in many other municipalities across the country, water utilities incur largely fixed costs. Regardless of whether or not customers pay for their service, the water company or provider still incur the same costs. Detroit, which has seen nearly a million residents leave since 1950, has not adapted to the shrinking population, and as a result water bills have increased, leaving Detroit residents, 38% of which live below the poverty line, with a greater share of the financial burden.

But water isn’t free, and Detroit’s infrastructure is exacerbating the problem. Like that of nearly all large American cities, much of Detroit’s water infrastructure was laid more than 75 years ago, and it is crumbling. When a water main breaks or infrastructure fails, hundreds of thousands of gallons are wasted in Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods. Without infrastructure upgrades, the city will continue to waste water and money servicing parts of the system that are unused in areas uninhabited.

While facing bankruptcy restructuring, Detroit is in no position to bear the financial burden it needs to construct and upgrade its water delivery system to be more efficient and fit its needs.