Flint was a ‘wake-up call.’ Did we learn from it?

By Ariel Wittenberg | 11/27/2019 01:15 PM EST

In April 2014, officials looking to save money in Flint, Mich., switched to a new drinking water supply source without updating its treatment.

The Flint, Mich., water plant.

The Flint, Mich., water plant. George Thomas/Flickr

Part of a series on the decade’s pivotal moments in environment and energy. Click here to read other stories in the 2020 Hindsight series.

In April 2014, officials looking to save money in Flint, Mich., switched to a new drinking water supply source without updating its treatment.

Changes in water chemistry from the new source, the Flint River, corroded old pipes throughout the city, and they began leaching lead, a neurotoxin, into drinking water.


Lead levels at the tap got to a high of 397 parts per billion — nearly 25 times the legal limit. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, also traced to the Flint River water, killed 12 people and sickened dozens. And Flint residents brought jugs of brown water to a community forum to show that the water wasn’t safe to drink.

It took nearly a year before state managers agreed to switch the city’s water source again.

Even after EPA in February 2015 notified the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that it had detected dangerous levels of lead in some homes, state officials continued to insist that "anyone who is concerned about lead in drinking water in Flint can relax."

The state only began distributing drinking water filters to Flint after a research team lead by a local pediatrician publicized a study showing that the number of children with high lead levels in their blood nearly doubled after Flint’s water source changed.

News of the crisis — which began garnering national attention in early 2016 after the city, state and country declared a state of emergency in Flint — raised questions about state and federal regulations on lead in drinking water as well as EPA’s oversight role as a backstop when states fail to protect residents.

"All you have to do is look at the faces of the people there who were poisoned," former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "That is murder by any other definition."

The scandal, which McCarthy called a "wake-up call," also highlighted public health risks posed by the nation’s aging infrastructure.


Water pickup sign in Flint, Mich. Photo credit: Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture
A sign indicates where to get water during the Flint, Mich., water crisis. | Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture

It would take years for Flint’s water to once again be safe to drink, even with a faucet filter.

But mistrust in the city flourished. When President Obama visited in May 2016, he drank a glass of tap water in an effort to convince people that "if you’re using a filter, if you’re installing it, then Flint water at this point is drinkable."

With the help of $170 million in federal funds, the city is working to replace all of its lead pipes by the end of this year.

Investigations by the House Oversight Committee and the EPA Office of Inspector General faulted both federal and state regulators for taking too long to act once they detected growing lead levels in Flint.

The crisis also spurred the Obama administration to renew its push to rewrite the lead in drinking water rule, last updated in 1991 and slammed by many for containing loopholes that enabled the Flint crisis.

In the meantime, Michigan wrote new regulations to strengthen sampling methodology and public outreach, as well as to replace lead pipes. Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who many panned for inaction in Flint, said the changes were needed because "the federal Lead and Copper Rule is dumb and dangerous."

Crystal ball

Corroded lead pipe being replaced in Flint, Mich. Photo credit: Ariel Wittenberg/E&E News
A corroded lead pipe being replaced in Flint, Mich. | Ariel Wittenberg/E&E News

The Trump administration proposed a new standard for lead in drinking water this fall.

For the first time, the federal standard would require taps at schools and day care centers to be tested. It also includes new requirements ensuring residents are informed when high levels of lead are detected.

But the proposal has been criticized for slowing the pace at which lead pipes will be replaced nationwide (Greenwire, Oct. 11). What’s more, a recent regulatory agenda from the Trump administration does not include a timeline for finalizing the rule.

In the meantime, new drinking water crises have popped up across the country — including in Newark, N.J., and New Orleans, leading advocates to wonder whether there really were any lessons learned from Flint (Greenwire, Nov. 8, 2018).

"It does make you ask why we are so resistant to learning from these cases everybody is horrified by, where everybody agrees large-scale harm was done, and yet we see it again and again," Yanna Lambrinidou, founder of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, said last year.

Congressional action on an infrastructure funding package could yield a change. Negotiations last year included funding for drinking water and lead pipe removals.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Flint, said he hopes lawmakers remember that "Flint is not an anomaly. Flint is a warning."

He added, "If we do something big on infrastructure, I just hope it happens before the lessons on Flint have faded into distant memory."