It has been nearly a year and a half since President Obama declared a state of
emergency in Flint, Michigan. The water crisis made global headlines, and brought much needed attention to water security issues. Flint highlighted how devastating failing infrastructure and mismanagement of water resources can be to a community. Unfortunately, once the crisis was seemed resolved, media headlines and national outrage subsided. For many, Flint became just another story involving the consequences of poor decision making and failed accountability. This past week, however, Flint has made its way back into media headlines with some very interesting developments.
First, researchers confirmed that the high levels of lead found in the tap water of Flint homes resulted from poor water treatment. On July 19th , the American Chemical Society concluded in their Environmental Science and Technology Letters, that the majority of lead found in the water was due to the absence of orthophosphate treatment. Orthophosphates are chemical compounds derived from either the salt or ester of orthophosphoric acid. Most commonly, they are used in the water treatment process as a form of lead control in delivering tap water. As an additive, orthophosphate essentially serves as a binding chemical, coating the pipes delivering drinking water to prevent the leaching of lead from the pipe.
Scientists from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, unequivocally confirmed that the use of orthophosphate in the drinking water treatment process could have prevented the health crisis and contamination of hundreds in Flint. 3 The study’s lead scientist, Terri Olsen, an environmental chemist, stated that “the lack of [ortho]phosphate in the water was to blame for the dramatic release of lead in the system.” Their research used an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer to study lead residue levels in Flint pipes, demonstrating the effect orthophosphates would have had in preventing lead leaching from the pipes into the water supply, had the water undergone proper treatment.
In addition to this development, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed
that they would forgive the $20.7 million in debt owed by Flint to the federal government. In May, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality requested the debt be forgiven. The debt was incurred pre-Flint crisis from 1993 to 2004, as a result of four loans the city received from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Regardless of the debt’s pre-Flint crisis status, its forgiveness is anticipated to have a tremendous impact on completely replacing Flint’s waterworks as well as mitigation efforts from the disaster. EPA administer, Scott Pruitt, remarked that “Forgiving the city’s debt will ensure that Flint will not need to resume payments on the loan, allowing progress toward updating Flint’s water system to continue.” Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder, was very pleased with the EPA’s decision and believes that financially the forgiveness will allow “for state funding to be spent on high priority infrastructure needs that maintain recent water quality improvements and address public health concerns.”