Today the FBI announced that it’s joining a U.S. criminal investigation into the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Federal prosecutors are working alongside the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the EPA to determine if any federal laws have been violated.
The trouble began in April 2014, when — in an effort to save money amidst a financial emergency — the state of Michigan changed Flint’s water source Lake Huron to the Flint River, until a new supply line to the lake could be completed. Flint residents soon complained about the look, taste, and smell of the water, and a boil-water advisory was issued four months later after fecal contamination was found. However, officials repeatedly assured them the water was safe and met federal standards.
Studies said that the river water contained abnormally high levels of E. coli, trihamlomethanes, lead, and copper. The number of diagnoses of Legionnaire’s disease has spiked in the Flint area since the water source switch, and a local hospital reported that the number of children with elevated lead levels had doubled. The local General Motors plant stopped using the water in October 2014 out of fear of corrosion and instead purchased it elsewhere.
In the months following the switch, the Flint River water began testing high in chloride levels, which caused it to be highly corrosive — and corrosion causes lead water pipes to leach into the water. The governor helped deliver water filters to residents in summer 2015 — this was not publicized by the governor’s office, though, and the group of pastors that helped distribute the filters claimed that they were asked to keep quiet about it.
County officials issued a statement on Oct. 1, 2015, urging residents not to drink the water until it was checked for lead, or unless they had a filter. The next day Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced a $1 million initiative to purchase filters for Flint residents, as well as state-funded testing of the water in Flint schools, but the plan did not include switching back to Detroit’s water supply.
Gov. Snyder announced on Oct. 8 that Flint would switch back to Detroit’s water supply. The state would provide at least $6 million and the city had to cover $2 million.
Don’t forget that the existing water pipes are still corroded from the Flint River water.
Meanwhile, a Nov. 2015 report from The Flint Journal-MLive.com states that the city disregarded federal rules which required it to find homes with lead plumbing for testing — this move could have caused months’ worth of underestimation as to the extent of toxic lead seeping into tap water used by Flint residents. Certified documents filed by city water officials said that Flint only tested tap water from homes where residents were at the highest risk of lead poisoning; however, records obtained by The Flint Journal-MLive show that these water samples were almost all from houses with underground plumbing made of copper, galvanized steel, or unidentifiable materials. Flint’s Utilities Administrator said that records of the material in individual service lines were not readily available or did not exist.
The governor has apologized for the way that the state handled the situation, and has signed legislation approving $28 million to ease the crisis and extended a state of emergency in Flint until April 14. He also appointed a special prosecutor and investigator to determine if any crimes have resulted from this matter.
The regional Environmental Protection Agency chief in charge of the area encompassing Flint, Susan Hedman, said last month that her department was aware of Flint’s contaminated water issues as early as April 2015, but these concerns were not publicized since the state insisted that such controls were not legally required. Hedman later resigned her post, which took effect yesterday.
So, what happens now?
A researcher at ETH Zürich in Switzerland has developed a new water filtration system which is very good at removing various toxic heavy metal ions and radioactive substances from water. The researcher stated in an interview that cheap, efficient nanotechnology initiatives such as this could help the people of Flint.
An energy bill (S.2012) is currently awaiting a vote, likely today, in the U.S. Senate. It contains an amendment sponsored by Michigan’s two Democratic Senators, which aims to provide Flint with $600 million to help replace pipes and provide health care. The bill contains over 200 other amendments, and needs 60 votes in the Republican-led Senate in order to pass. Its success is uncertain.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver will be holding a press conference today to call for the immediate removal of Flint’s corroded lead water pipes.
Additionally, a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court is seeking over $150 million to refund Flint residents and businesses for their water bills during the time period where their water supply came from the Flint River. The lawsuit will seek class action status.
The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing on the Flint water situation tomorrow. The EPA’s acting deputy assistant administrator in its Office of Water has been invited to testify, along with an EPA researcher who blew the whistle earlier in the timeline.
Hopefully, these actions will dissuade local and federal officials from playing the “But it’s not MY fault!” game in the future.