Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder recently announced that the water supply for Flint, Mich. is again safe to drink and that he is ending the free bottled water program for the city, an announcement seen by many as signaling the end of the Flint water crisis. Testing now shows that the water system is in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper rule, which requires that at least 90% of the taps sampled have lead below the maximum allowable concentration of 15 parts per billion.
The crisis with Flint’s water supply system appears to be ending, but the city still faces a more serious and difficult one: a crisis of trust in government agencies and officials. And because of that, now is not the right time to end the free bottled water program.
Since 2014, Flint residents have been endangered, deceived, and disregarded by officials and agencies that are in place to represent and safeguard them. By the middle of 2017, 15 current and former officials were charged with crimes related to the crisis, including involuntary manslaughter. This has created a toxic relationship of distrust between Flint residents and government officials and agencies.
The Flint situation will not be resolved satisfactorily unless public agencies and officials are prepared to go the extra mile to provide residents a universal assurance of safety and to restore the confidence they destroyed with their earlier actions and decisions. At the same time, residents have to be willing to accept a practical, if not optimal, final resolution to the situation.
It now appears that Flint’s public water supply is safe to drink, as all of the city’s water mains are delivering water that meets and is well below EPA standards. At the same time, not all water entering private property is yet safe to drink; there are still about 12,000 service lines connecting the mains to private property that must be examined and potentially replaced. Even after this is accomplished, some private homes and businesses will still contain pipes that can contaminate incoming water with lead if they are old and extremely corroded, or if water sits in them for hours and is not flushed before use.
The city is not obligated to replace these pipes, as they are privately owned and it is not possible to determine if they were out of compliance before or after the crisis. (Many municipalities other than Flint face the same problem with residents’ water safety.) It’s also very expensive. Yet if the state and local governments were to replace the internal piping in Flint’s private properties with taps testing above EPA standards, it would go a long way toward restoring trust between officials and residents.
In addition, continuing to provide bottled water will give residents a comfortable alternative to the tap during and immediately after their water lines are replaced. This will ease fears of new lead contamination that can occur from flakes of corroded pipe being dislodged during pipe replacement and prior to adequate flushing. Continuing the bottled water program would also provide more time for the most skeptical residents to observe for a while the experience of their neighbors who have gone back to using water from the tap.
The state should also continue to provide health assessments for residents who have resumed using tap water, to help them redevelop confidence that the water is again safe. Once local and state officials agree that the safety crisis has been fully resolved, an independent expert team can be brought in to audit the situation and make recommendations for additional remedial action if necessary.
This process must be accompanied by complete transparency with regard to testing results and guidance for residents in interpreting the data. Residents must be helped to understand why the past conditions will not again materialize and redevelop confidence in the quality of water coming from their taps.
While Flint residents have every reason to be skeptical of their public officials, they will need to exercise some faith in the transition for it to be successfully completed. Residents must be willing, albeit cautiously, to return to normal use of their taps once their lines are replaced, and must be willing to accept a finding of “all clear” after appropriate testing of their homes.
City and state agencies and officials created this water crisis; now they must put politics aside and work together, with a level of zeal that equals the level of neglect that created it, to bring a proper resolution to the situation.
Thomas C. Granato is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is affiliated with The Expert Institute. He is a retired director of monitoring and research at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.