Flint’s water system no longer has levels of lead exceeding the federal limit, a key finding that Michigan state environmental officials said Tuesday is good news for a city whose 100,000 residents have been grappling with the man-made water crisis.
LANSING, Mich. – The 90th percentile of lead concentrations in Flint was 12 parts per billion from July through December — below the “action level” of 15 ppb, according to a letter from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to Flint’s mayor. It was 20 ppb in the prior six-month period.
Flint’s lead levels are again comparable to other similarly sized U.S. cities with older infrastructure, state officials told The Associated Press ahead of an official announcement.
“This is good news and the result of many partners on the local, county, state and federal levels working together to restore the water quality in the City of Flint,” the department’s director, Heidi Grether, said in a statement. “The Flint water system is one of the most monitored systems in the country for lead and copper, and that commitment will remain to ensure residents continue to have access to clean water.”
Residents, whose mistrust in government remains high nearly three years after a fateful switch of the city’s water source in April 2014, are being told to continue using faucet filters or bottled water because an ongoing mass replacement of pipes could spike lead levels in individual houses. The replacement of the lines is expected to take years.
Flint’s public health emergency began when officials failed to properly treat lead lines for corrosion while the city was under state management.
State officials acknowledged the lead problem in October 2015. Lead from old pipes leached into the water supply because corrosion-reducing phosphates were not added due to an incorrect reading of federal regulations.
Elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin, were detected in children, and 12 people died in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that experts suspect was linked to the improperly treated water. An ongoing investigation has led to charges against 13 current or former government officials, including two managers that Gov. Rick Snyder appointed to run the city.
Snyder has apologized for the crisis that has largely been blamed on his administration.
“The remarkable improvement in water quality over the past year is a testament to all levels of government working together and the resilient people of Flint helping us help them through participation in the flushing programs,” he said in a statement. “There is still more work to do in Flint, and I remain committed to helping the residents recover and restore their city.”
While it is important for cities to be below the federal limit, experts say there is no safe level of lead and the crisis has exposed gaps in a monitoring system that can mislead individual homeowners and renters into thinking their tap water is safe when only some homes with lead pipes are sampled.
Michigan’s letter to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver was reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before it was sent. Because the city exceeded the federal limit in the first half of 2016, it must continue replacing at least 7 percent of its lead service lines by June 30.
While the requirement may be discontinued if the water supply is at or below the limit in the next monitoring period, the state said it would continue supporting Flint’s plan to replace more pipes. The state has allocated $27 million for the project.
Tuesday’s announcement means the state will soon stop providing a credit on customers’ water bills. It has been partially covering their bills dating to April 2014.
The Flint water crisis is an ongoing drinking water contamination issue in Flint, Michigan, United States, that started in April 2014. After Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (which was sourced from Lake Huron as well as the Detroit River) to the Flint River (to which officials had failed to apply corrosion inhibitors), its drinking water had a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger.
The Flint River water that was treated improperly caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin. In Flint, between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems. Due to the change in water source, the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels may have risen from about 2.5% in 2013 to as much as 5% in 2015. The water change is also a possible cause of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the county that has killed 10 people and affected another 77.
Several lawsuits have been filed against government officials on the issue, and several investigations have been opened. On January 5, 2016, the city was declared to be in a state of emergency by the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, before President Barack Obama declared it to be in a federal state of emergency, authorizing additional help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security less than two weeks later.
Four government officials — one from the City of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and one from the Environmental Protection Agency — resigned over the mishandling of the crisis, and one additional MDEQ staff member was fired. There has also been thirteen criminal cases filed against local and state officials in regards to the crisis.
Governor Snyder issued an apology to the citizens and promised to fix the problem, and then sent $28 million to Flint for supplies, medical care, and infrastructure upgrades, and later budgeted an additional $30 million to Flint that will give water bill credits of 65% for residents and 20% for businesses. Another $165 million for lead pipe replacements and water bill reimbursements was approved by Governor Snyder on June 29, 2016. A $170 million stopgap spending bill for repairing and upgrading the city of Flint’s water system and helping with healthcare costs was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 8, 2016. The Senate approved it the next day. $100 million of the bill is for infrastructure repairs, $50 million for healthcare costs, and $20 million to pay back loans related to the crisis. On January 6, 2017, Governor Snyder signed a bill that accelerates the public notice requirement for lead in drinking water to 3 business days, from the previous time of 30 days.