by Curt Guyette
Despite claims by city and state officials that the water supply in Flint is safe to drink, a recent analysis by independent researchers shows that city's drinking water is contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead and others metals.
Researchers at Virginia Tech studied water samples from more than 275 homes in Flint over the past several weeks and have concluded that, unless run through a filter designed to capture toxic heavy metals, the water is unsafe for drinking or cooking.
That judgment, reached after a group of residents collected water samples from 277 homes and sent them to VT for analysis, stands in stark contrast to the position held by city officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which maintain that the water is safe.
MDEQ officials declined to comment when contacted by the ACLU of Michigan seeking comment for this story.
The Virginia Tech team, which worked in conjunction with Flint citizens and the ACLU of Michigan to gather the samples, is much less reticent.
"On the basis of these facts, we consider MDEQ's position to be both unscientific and irresponsible, and we stand by our recommendations to Flint consumers, that they immediately reduce their exposure to high lead in Flint's water by implementing protective measures when using tap water for drinking or cooking," according to a post on Virginia Tech's Flint Water Study web site.
The findings raise a compelling question: If data collected by Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards and his team at VT are correct, why do the city and state continue to assert that Flint is in compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements regarding lead and copper levels in the city's drinking water?
An ACLU of Michigan investigation running concurrent with the water sampling has uncovered a number of problems with the city's testing procedures, which were conducted with state oversight. The flawed measures helped assure that the city could be able to claim compliance with federal regulations.
Failure to follow federal testing procedures
Federal compliance monitoring consists of two six-month sampling rounds. From June 2014 through December 2014, the city tested 100 homes. By law, the same 100 homes were supposed to have been sampled again during the second six-month round of testing, which began Jan. 1.
According to the "90th percentile test" used to determine compliance, if more than 10 percent of those samples are above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, the city would fail to meet the lead action level, and would be required to immediately alert the public to the problem and start taking steps to reduce lead in water.
Documents obtained by the ACLU through Freedom of Information Act requests show that the second round of testing ended with only 71 samples collected by the city, instead of the 100 minimum previously required. In response, the MDEQ decided after the fact that, because Flint's population is less than 100,000, the 71 homes tested would be sufficient.
Of the 71 homes that were sampled in 2015, only 13 were from the previous list. According to Edwards, who reviewed the documents obtained by the ACLU and helped provide analysis of the data they contain, doing so violates the federal law dictating how sample sites are selected.
Moreover, all of those 13 homes showed low levels of lead during the initial round. None of the homes with lead above the action level were selected.
"This is called the 'cherry picking" of sites to find low lead, and it is against the law," Edwards said.
Zeroing in on Flushing Road
On June 25, five days before the deadline to complete the collection of second-round testing samples, the MDEQ's Adam Rosenthal sent an email to utilities manager Mike Glasgow, alerting him to the problem.
"We hope you have 61 more lead/copper samples collected and sent to the lab by 6/30/15, and that they will be below the AL [Action Level] for lead," wrote Rosenthal. "As of now with 39 results, Flint's 90th percentile is over the AL for lead."
What happened during those final days that allowed the city to claim that the final 30 homes tested under the allowable limit?
For one thing, it zeroed in on a single section of Flushing Road on Flint's northwest side. Seven homes – nearly 25 percent of those tested at the end of June – were clustered together on Flushing. Residents interviewed by the ACLU of Michigan said they were approached and asked to have their water tested. One of the residents said that person was a neighbor who works for the city's water department.
As with the other homes tested during that span, the Flushing Road homes came in well-below the action levels.
Why would the city focus on that particular street?
Among the documents obtained by the ACLU of Michigan through its FOIA requests is a map showing projects undertaken in recent years by the city. Close inspection of the map revealed that in 2007 the city replaced a long section of water main along Flushing Road.
According to Edwards, that's significant for two reasons. One is that, as explained in a recent peer-reviewed paper, water mains with iron corrosion also tend to have more lead in the water. The other is that it's common practice to replace lead service lines when a water main is replaced.
Given the fact that the city is supposed to have targeted only high-risk homes, the VT researchers say they are confounded by the fact that their testing has revealed a situation much worse than the city and state claim.
The researchers are demanding answers as to why that is.
"In our experience, following the EPA site selection criteria targeting homes with the highest risk for lead, the MDEQ sampling should have found much worse results than our sampling. Instead, MDEQ is asserting that the lead levels in Flint are much lower. Hence, we call on the U.S. EPA and others, to conduct a detailed audit of the 2014 and 2015 LCR sampling round overseen by MDEQ in Flint, to determine if it was conducted consistent with requirements of the law."
We believe that the evidence uncovered in our investigation so far only adds impetus to that demand.
An expanded version of this story can be found at aclumich.org/democracywatch.
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org.