Ask the Experts – Flint Water Crisis

March 17, 2016

THG is pleased to introduce a new “Ask the Experts” column to our quarterly newsletter. In this section, we will collect insights from subject matter experts on noteworthy developments in the environmental arena.

In this first installment, we caught up with a few experts to hear their take on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, what the situation looks like as it falls out of mainstream media headlines, and what the larger implications might be for water infrastructure in this country.

The Experts

FewellBrent Fewell, Founder, Earth & Water Group, has over 30 years of experience in public policy, advocacy, and environmental law. A highly regarded thought leader on environmental policy and governance, Mr. Fewell has held positions as an environmental lawyer, a corporate executive, and as a federal official. As Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in U.S. EPA’s Office of Water (2004-2007) he oversaw the nation’s drinking water and surface water programs.  He subsequently served as the Sr. Vice President for Environment, Health & Safety at Suez Environnement where he managed regulatory compliance for SE’s U.S.-based subsidiary, United Water.

MehanTracy Mehan III, Executive Director for Government Affairs, American Water Works Association, is an expert across the entire spectrum of water policy. His career includes service as Assistant Administrator of U.S. EPA’s Office of Water (2001-03) and as a principal for the environmental consulting firm The Cadmus Group (2004-14). Mr. Mehan has substantial experience in state water and environmental issues. He directed the Office of the Great Lakes for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (1993-2001) and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (1989-92).

TobeyBruce Tobey, Partner, Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West LLC, and member of the firm’s Municipal Infrastructure Team focuses his practice on representing local and regional governments and private sector entities on public contracts, water law and governance. Mr. Tobey served as the Mayor of Gloucester, MA (1993-2002) where he worked to resolve solid waste, water and wastewater issues. He subsequently held positions at Aquarion Company and HomeServe USA, leading the company’s efforts to develop public-private partnerships with water and wastewater utilities. Mr. Tobey returned to local government as City Councilor for Gloucester (2006-2014).

A Brief Recap of the Flint Water Crisis

  • In April 2014, the City of Flint switched from purchasing treated water from the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to sourcing and treating water from the Flint River.
  • Corrosion control treatment was not applied, and the corrosive water from Flint River caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply. A series of problems linked to the new water source culminated with the confirmation of extremely elevated lead levels in drinking water, endangering public health and children in particular.
  • In October 2015, Flint switched its water supply back to Detroit and in December began additional treatment to facilitate the buildup of a corrosion-preventing layer in the cities pipes.
  • In early 2016, Michigan’s Governor declared a state of emergency in Flint, the Department of Justice and Michigan Attorney General opened investigations into the crisis, and President Obama signed an emergency declaration ordering federal aid to Flint. Eight lawsuits have been filed against government officials and four officials have resigned in the wake of the crisis.
  • In February 2016, Flint’s mayor announced that the city would replace all of its water service lines containing lead piping and hopes to do so within a year. The project is expected to cost up to $60 million and funding sources are not yet secured.

Questions for the Experts

Q1. What do you see as the most important developments in the Flint crisis now that it is waning from the mainstream headlines?

  • Fewell: “Although the crisis in Flint easily could have been avoided with better decision- making regarding water treatment, it serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of our nation’s water systems. We have the most advanced water delivery system in the history of humankind, but if those systems aren’t properly maintained or operated, they can have a devastating impact upon human health, the environment, and local economies. Our failure as a country to invest and recapitalize our water and wastewater systems is leading toward a national crisis.”
  • Mehan: “Clearly, the importance of corrosion control has been highlighted by this crisis. Moreover, the Flint case will intensify interest in EPA’s upcoming revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) and the recommendations of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council pertaining, among other things, to the phase out of lead service lines and a sharing of the responsibility for paying for it. There are approximately 6.1 million such lines in the country. The cost of replacing them all could approach $30 billion dollars. And this is on top of the $1 trillion needed to replace and expand drinking water infrastructure generally over the next two plus decades.”
  • Tobey: “I see two lasting results from this completely avoidable tragedy. First, it has generated an unprecedented and widespread awareness of our desperate water infrastructure crisis and its growing costs. A $1 trillion price tag may be hard to comprehend, especially when it doesn’t include the removal of the private lead services lines that are the issue here. But people are finally getting the message: as a nation, as an industry and as ratepayers, we need to pony up the substantial financial resources it will take to meet our drinking water needs.Second, the Flint tragedy has empowered every American like never before to demand accountability from every level of government that touches the operation of drinking water systems. No health threat arising from water supply issues will ever be allowed to go unaddressed again, and that is a very good thing.”

Q2. Beyond the community of Flint, how widespread an issue is lead contamination in drinking water? Do you anticipate that it will be the subject of continued attention as governments and residents investigate their own drinking water systems?

  • Fewell: “Lead service lines were commonly used in the U.S. until around the mid-1950s. There are still many older communities where those lead service lines still exist. Due to the increased awareness and concern over lead pipes and fittings, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and regulations, such as the Lead and Copper Rule, prescribe practices to minimize incidents of lead poisoning in our drinking water. The vast majority of communities are able to effectively prevent the leaching of lead from lead piping through the use of corrosion inhibitors, such as orthophosphate.”
  • Mehan: “The problem is primarily one of older cities and residential areas in places such as the Northeast and the Midwest but not exclusively so. Many of the lead service lines are on private property which adds a complicating factor in terms of financing ultimate removal.”
  • Tobey: ”While there are estimated to be more than 6 million lead service lines located throughout the Northeast, Midwest and older urban areas, they pose a manageable challenge so long as system operators do what they are supposed to: observe good, effective and required corrosion control practices. For that to be understood, a sustained national public education campaign is needed – every family needs ready access to sound and simple information about the water they drink and the challenges confronting the systems which serve them.That sort of effort will keep this issue alive and will force leaders at every level of government to find and fund solutions. And people need to understand and accept that every one of us will have to foot our piece of that cost – we all need to be a part of the solution. I learned as a Mayor that people will accept higher water and sewer bills if you explain why they are needed and then deliver the results you promised – the water industry needs to follow that same path.”

Q3. How does Flint fit into broader discussions of the water infrastructure funding gap? Could it be a catalyst for long overdue action on aging infrastructure or will it be out-of-sight out-of-mind?

  • Fewell: “It certainly is a reminder of infrastructure funding gap we’re facing as a country. For the first time, elected officials at the federal and state level are beginning to talk more about our water problems. We even witnessed an exchange during the recent GOP debate in Detroit, MI where the candidates were asked about the nation’s ailing water infrastructure. Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the recent introduction of Senate Bill 2606, sponsored by Senators Menendez and Crapo, which, if enacted, would lift the state volume cap on tax-exempt private activity bonds that could be used to upgrade and build new community water systems.”
  • Mehan: “While the immediate cause of the tragedy in Flint was the failure to implement corrosion control, clearly the societal goal of replacing lead service lines adds yet another costly item to the list of infrastructure financing needs facing the country.”
  • Tobey: “For better or worse, the Flint fiasco has kicked the door wide open on a national discussion of the water infrastructure funding gap, and there’s no closing that door.  The funding gap is already front and center in the season’s political debates, and I don’t see that changing, especially if every consumer of water – and that would be all of us – demands action and solutions, now and over the long term.Discussions of infrastructure investment have too often focused on highways, harbors and IT networks to the exclusion of the needs of our water and wastewater systems – I believe that has been forever changed by the newly widespread national consciousness of the adverse health impacts of failing water systems. It gives me hope that a long-overdue solution will finally be crafted.”