Understanding Flint’s Water Infrastructure Crisis: Water Infrastructure Inequality in America

The most recent research data (from EPA, CDC, MDEQ, Virginia Tech, University of South Carolina, and University of Massachusetts) who have been tracking the 2014-2016 Flint public health crisis, indicates that drinking water in Flint is now in the range of other U.S. cities in terms of lead, DBPs, and bacteria. It took a sustained effort by hundreds of State, Federal and City employees, and outside groups such as Virginia Tech, who have been working together to improve water quality since at least January 2016. Residents are still advised to use lead filters before using water for cooking or drinking because the state is still providing them free of charge, and also because we are realizing that water passing through lead service pipes should never again be termed “safe” in Flint or elsewhere.

Now that we are approaching the end of the Flint public health crisis, we must roll up our sleeves and deal with Flint’s water infrastructure crisis, which poses a major danger to Flint’s future. Herein we provide an overview of this evolving concern, and lay out some the key concepts and issues involved including:

  • Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?
  • Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?
  • Why should outside parties (i.e., U.S. taxpayers) help pay for Flint’s pipes?
  • Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.

 

Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?

Many people are probably wondering, how it came to be, that residents in the second poorest city in America were paying amongst the highest water rates in the world (Table 1) for water (throughout 2014-2015) that was not suitable for anything but flushing toilets.

Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.
Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.

Here are three reasons.  First, the Flint water system was built for 250,000 people and a projected growth in population, but by 2014 there were less than 100,000 left to pay and keep it up. Second, water moves very slowly through a pipe system with fewer people, which can actually make corrosion damage of pipes worse, and increase the rate of damage and costs for repair. Unlike highways which degrade faster the more, they are used, water systems can actually degrade more quickly with less water use.

Third, the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine,” does apply to water main repair.  Specifically, proactively replacing water mains before they fail, saves money, compared to fixing pipes as they break. Waiting to fix pipes when they fail endangers public health due to contaminants getting into the system, causes expensive water damage from flooding, creates a sense of unease due to water service and traffic interruptions, and requires payment of emergency contractors/overtime. It is easy to understand that waiting to fix pipes when they fail, can sometimes cost 3-10 times more than fixing the same pipe before it fails. Like many cities and towns in rural America that have come on tough times financially, Flint has had no choice but to stop proactive replacements, which dramatically increases the cost of running the water system.

Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.
Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.

Add it all up (reasons 1-3), and a “perfect storm” is created for higher water rates, which leaves some Flint residents paying more for their water bill than for their home mortgage. This, in turn, can create something we term “an infrastructure death spiral.” Specifically, at some point, the higher water rates begin to cause even more people to leave, which increases rates further (reasons 1-3), which makes even more people want to leave. At some point, the water system becomes financially unsustainable and water rates skyrocket out of control.

 

Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?

With the added costs of the new Karegnondi pipeline, required water treatment plant upgrades and the need for new staff, and with the water mains falling even further into disrepair, Flint’s already high water rates are projected to double over the next 5 years. If nothing is done that will obviously make a bad situation even worse. To stop or reverse an infrastructure death spiral, water rates must be made affordable, so that consumers and businesses will at least stop leaving Flint, and ideally want to start returning to Flint to increase its population and economic base. Even if Flint’s water is made as safe as other cities, without upgrades to the infrastructure and making water rates affordable, the Flint water crisis is not over.  If rates double in five years another financial and/or public health crisis will occur a few years down the road.

 

Why should outside parties (i.e., US Taxpayers) help pay to upgrade Flint’s pipes?

There are many other cities and towns in post-industrial and rural America, who face very high water rates and unsustainable infrastructure. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy. In other countries including Canada and Germany, cities are not allowed to go bankrupt, because the state or federal government will step in to help maintain a basic level of civilization including potable affordable water for all citizens.  For better or worse, in America, there is no general mechanism by which the state or federal government will intervene—cities and towns simply get the water infrastructure that they can afford.  And ironically, taking steps to get the water infrastructure you can afford (reason 1-3), makes water even less affordable, and pushes a community into a water infrastructure death spiral. We have argued that the U.S. model, which can work reasonably well if a communities population is either growing or relatively stable, needs to change now that some cities and towns have lost enough population to become financially unsustainable.

But in the meantime, what makes Flint different?  Why should Flint receive a major influx of infrastructure funding from the state or federal government to upgrade its infrastructure, when other cities such as Detroit and rural American towns do not? The major reason is that Flint’s infrastructure was damaged, by the failure to follow federal corrosion control laws. More than a year ago we noted that this failure to install corrosion control caused major damage (perhaps hundreds of millions) to Flint water mains. Because it is now acknowledged that both the State and U.S. EPA knew about this problem, and did not act to prevent further damage to the mains, it is our belief that these entities “own” part of the problem. Hence, we strongly disagree with those who assert, that because Flint’s water quality has improved markedly over the last year, that the U.S. taxpayer should not pay to help with Flint’s the infrastructure problem.   Instead, at best, the man-made disaster will logically morph from a public health crisis phase to a water infrastructure crisis phase, and it is morally and ethically important that the State of Michigan and the Federal government continue to assist Flint with funding. We have repeatedly gone on record supporting Michigan’s congressional leadership, governor Snyder, and others, who have lobbied for federal Flint infrastructure funding.

 

Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.

Once the money is allocated, all parties have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that it is spent, to provide Flint residents with the brightest possible future. There will be a rigorous debate about prioritization and the resultant impacts on public health and affordable water.

It is useful to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a fixed sum of money (say $170 million) is allocated to Flint’s recovery, and residents have the freedom to decide how to spend 100% of the funding for either bottled water, lead/galvanized iron service line replacement, or water main upgrades.  What are the implications for consumer confidence, public health and affordable water for each choice?

Bottled water. If all the money was spent on bottled water, given estimates that this would cost $10 million per month, Flint residents would enjoy bottled water for 17 months. But water rates would double in 5 years, main breaks would continue, and all problems with lead and galvanized iron service lines would also remain.

Lead/Galvanized Iron Pipe Replacements. Unfortunately, the lead or galvanized iron service lines that connect the home to the water mains, have little or nothing to do with Flint’s high water costs, or the reason that such costs are projected to double. If $170 million is spent on lead or galvanized iron service pipe replacement, there would be a long-term public health and psychological benefit from having the lead and old iron out of the system. There would be somewhat fewer complaints of red water from iron.  But lead and red water problems would not be completely eliminated, because there is still lead in the home plumbing from brass or solder, and there is still unlined iron pipe waters. The water rates would still likely double over the next 5 years.

Water main replacements.  By investing only in water main upgrades, we would help get water rates and main breaks under control, because in some cases every dollar spent could save 3-10 dollars in future costs. From a financial perspective, this would have the greatest impact.  But under the hypothetical example, it would also require giving up bottled water and would leave the lead/galvanized pipes in the ground.

Obviously, in an ideal world, there would be funding for everything, but the false/hypothetical example does illustrate that the decisions are not easy, and will have implications that will impact Flint for generations to come. Even under the constraint of $170 million total (which is also false because there will be a negotiation as to what is appropriate), perhaps a hybrid solution would be best in which bottled water was purchased for a few months, lead pipes are replaced or purchase of water filters is continued, and the rest of the funding is used to help reduce Flint water rates via water main upgrades.  In many ways, the public health crisis was easier to deal with, because there were fewer options available to appropriately protect people, and there were fewer tradeoffs.

Nonetheless, this example gives you a broad outline, of problems that will be faced, now that we must, to squarely address Flint’s water infrastructure crisis.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

Overwhelming Support for FlintWaterStudy’s stand against the ES&T Editorial

We want to thank the 100+ colleagues who have directly communicated support for our belief, that professors must not be bystanders if they witness an environmental crime, especially when a vulnerable population is being harmed. Our motivations and actions to help expose the Flint Water Crisis were called out by the new editorial in ES&T Crossing the Imaginary Line.

As exemplified by the letter below, the overwhelming consensus is that:

“The researchers at VaTech have done exactly the right thing: morally, ethically, and professionally.  They took brave action not to be Hollywood heroes but because it was their responsibility as engineers to society.”

Even accounting for a selection bias, it is clear that the Editor-in-Chief of ES&T did not obtain the “full support of our community” before Crossing the Line and writing his regrettable critique.

Exemplary letter of support from Dr. Patricia Maurice at the University of Notre Dame:

Download (PDF, 32KB)

 

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public — but not if it threatens our research funding?

We appreciate the ES&T editorial CROSSING THE IMAGINARY LINE that puts in writing concerns some colleagues have about the actions we took to address an urgent environmental injustice in Flint, MI. Crossing the line from researcher to activist is the oldest academic ethical dilemma in the book, and we agree that it needs to be more openly discussed.

The editorial states that the decision “of speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system may be the product of a culture where idealism, personal responsibility, and Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities conspire to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice.” It argues that if academics become “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research,” and that because funding is “too precious to lose such action should be avoided because it “exposes the community to potential retaliation” in the form of budget cuts.

The editorial’s proposed solution?

We should “do a better job teaching our students… to push back when faced with injustice” and “protect ourselves and our institutions by seeking out…full-time activists…<rather than>…risking our standing as researchers.

No one understands better than us, the appeal of offloading unpleasant academic ethical obligations to others, but we must not ignore that someone else will pay a price for doing so.

FLINT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE CRIME SCENE

Before we crossed the line in Flint, every viable alternative to work within the system had been exhausted. Citizens’ concerns had been ignored, an EPA whistleblower had been silenced and discredited, and EPA knew federal corrosion control laws were being broken and did nothing. Michigan employees even told Flint residents that EPA would not be helping them with their problems. One child was already confirmed to have been lead poisoned from elevated lead in the water and there was every reason to believe the entire city was in danger from lead and bacterial risks, like Legionella. Erin Brockovich herself engaged in Flint and “no one listened to her.”

With full knowledge of the above facts, after 4 months of close collaboration with Flint residents, we honored our sacred obligation to the public according to the First Canon of Civil Engineering, which states: 

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Under this canon an engineer is expected not only to protect the public in his or her own work, but also to take action if he or she has knowledge that any other person’s actions may undermine the public welfare.

At no point does the ES&T editorial acknowledge our over-riding ethical obligation as academics and engineering professionals. Rather, it denigrates our act of “speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system,” as a departure from the true path of the “dispassionate researcher” because of “youthful idealism” or “Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities.” The author of the editorial believes that a “mature idealist” would find other outlets to reduce the likelihood that they “might just step over the imaginary line” to activism.

The author allows that researchers could speak out, if a “last resort” threshold is exceeded. Because it was unclear as to whether the author believed that threshold was exceeded in Flint, we asked for additional information, and he responded:

From everything I have been able to learn it does indeed look like a criminal activity and, as a citizen, I’m glad that someone stepped in to help. I am just not convinced that it has to be an academic. In fact, for the reasons related to incentives and other expectations from the people who pay our salaries that you have pointed out previously, we seem like a poor choice as watchdogs for the oppressed. If it is mainly a question of being able to speak truth to power, Erin Brockovitch and others who do this full time seem like they would be better watchdogs.  

Let’s put aside the fact Erin Brockovich had already been involved in Flint and no one listened. Even with knowledge of criminal indictments, 12 deaths from Legionella, and entire neighborhoods of children with elevated blood lead, the editorial author is not convincedan academic should have stepped in.

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A NEW FIRST CANON FOR AN ERA OF PERVERSE INCENTIVES?

A close reading of the editorial proposes that our obligations as faculty under the First Canon of Civil Engineering must be modified to better reflect the modern reality of perverse incentives in academia. Since funding from government agencies is now “too precious to lose,” our new over-riding obligation is to protect funding flowing into academia. And even if a researcher believes their “last resort” threshold has been achieved, they should only act after obtaining “the full support of their <academic> community.”

The editorial then provides a hypothetical example: If a researcher at the University of Wisconsin were to expose childhood lead poisoning caused by corruption in the state administration, following our research model to reveal the crime “exposes the <academic> community to potential retaliation from vindictive politicians: I hesitate to imagine what Governor Scott Walker would have done to the already reduced budget of the state’s university.” In classic bystander fashion, the example is willfully silent regarding the tragic fate of children in Wisconsin if academics fail to fulfill their professional ethical obligations and stop a crime. To resolve the unstated dilemma, one must answer the question: To whom are we most loyal– the public welfare or our research funding?

The real danger of putting the academic community or institutional loyalties above the public welfare is captured in an EPA e-mail we obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, in which an EPA employee wrote “I am not so sure Flint is a community we want to go out on a limb for.” By that point, EPA had debated the issue of whether to uphold Federal law in Flint for 10 months. For those amongst us who have doubts about where our loyalties must lie, and whether “Flint is a community we want to go out on a limb for,” the first Canon is there to remind us that public safety, health and welfare is paramount and that we must intervene. It is an ethical imperative.

The author of the editorial told us it was written because he believes “that this is a conversation that we need to have as a community.” However, following the approach described in the editorial to teach our students that they must honor the First Canon and risk their untenured professional careers and livelihood to “push back when faced with injustice,” while at the same time arguing this obligation does not apply to tenured academics because our funding is “too precious to lose” is the very definition of cowardice. It sends a mixed message to our students – the future leaders of our field – and the public, confirming society’s worst fears that academics have misplaced their priorities. The editorial completely undermines the rationale for having academic tenure in the first place.

DID UPHOLDING THE FIRST CANON IN FLINT REALLY JEOPARDIZE THE SOCIAL CONTRACT?

A key premise of the editorial is that if academics become “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” Let us examine how our actions in Flint actually did play out in this regard.

Contrary to the hypothesis of the editorial, we believe that our work dramatically strengthened the social contract between scientists and society. “Flint” has drawn many under-represented students to environmental engineering because it provides a clarion call that they might do science in service to their communities and a shining example that we do not exist solely to secure research funding. “Flint” proved that professors have specialized and socially-relevant expertise and that they can work directly with communities to tangibly improve the lives and well-being of real people. “Flint” has secured billions of dollars in new congressional funding for water infrastructure and over $600 million in disaster relief funds for Flint residents to right a wrong that we helped to expose. Further, “Flint” has probably done more to advance the cause of declining American infrastructure than the “full support” of the academic community could ever have– decades of failing grades from ASCE serve as case-in-point.

Furthermore, rather than retaliating, Governor Snyder himself has repeatedly and publicly thanked us for exposing the injustice that occurred under his administration, freed up millions of dollars in State funding for University based research to assist in the recovery, increased funding for his state environmental regulatory agency, and is fighting for an improved Lead and Copper Rule that will set a model for the nation. Thus, upholding the professional obligations of the First Canon had the exact opposite effect of the fears expressed in the editorial. It led to not only immediate help for the Flint community, but also real research dollars to address critical knowledge gaps linking deteriorating infrastructure, corrosion, and public health. The real danger to the social contract arises from following the editorial’s misguided logic.

OBTAINING THE FULL SUPPORT OF OUR COMMUNITY?

Exactly how would one obtain “the full support of their community” before crossing the line? The author of the editorial could not answer that question when we asked. In fact, as evidenced by the fact he would not acknowledge the “last resort” threshold was met in Flint, having such a requirement would guarantee that environmental crimes would continue indefinitely.

The conversation that we should be having is how to give professors the “full support from their community,” to deal with the personal and professional trauma inherent to upholding their professional ethical obligations, such as what we experienced in Flint and previously in Washington DC. The editorial does provide an excellent example of what can be expected for those of us who “cross the line.” Specifically, some in our community will express disapproval due to their unease, “petty jealousy” and “legitimate concerns” over “potential retaliation” to our community’s all-important research funding. Such disapproval usually occurs behind the scenes and we sometimes learn of it second hand, but occasionally the message may be delivered directly, in person or in writing.

We fully expected to be attacked by the agencies who were perpetrating the environmental crimes in Flint and DC, but to be publicly called out by our own community, as exemplified by this editorial in such a prestigious environmental journal, is the type of “support” that creates permanent scars and discourages others from upholding our first fundamental Canon. Especially our students.

In the end, the ES&T editorial provides an unintentional, yet devastating, self-indictment of cowardice and perverse incentives in modern academia. We not only reject its central argument, but remind professors of their obligation to protect the public if they are witnesses to a crime in progress. Never wait for, or expect, the approval of your community, especially from conformists who hold positions of greatest academic power. The personal and professional peril is great, the critics are numerous and vocal, but staying silent is to be complicit in perpetrating injustice. And no matter what may come of the rest of our lives or careers, we are certain of one thing: Flint was a community worth going out on a limb for, and by upholding a just cause, we enhanced the social contract between academics and the public.  

Signed

Dr. Marc A. Edwards

Dr. Amy Pruden

Mr. Siddhartha Roy

Mr. William J. Rhoads

No Surprise: CDC Epically Botches East Chicago IN Lead Poisoning Response

For more than a decade, I have been working to expose corruption, scientific incompetence and unethical behavior in the lead poisoning prevention branch of the U.S. CDC/ATSDR.  My colleagues Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, Ralph Scott (deceased) and Paul Schwartz also volunteered their lives to expose this wrongdoing.  Ralph even lost his job for his role in this important endeavor.

For several years, we have warned, that if these agencies will not admit or learn from their mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them (e.g., Emory University (CDC territory) earlier this year and Johns Hopkins last week).

Not only did scientific misconduct at CDC, help make the events in Flint, MI inevitable, it now appears the same incompetent and unethical actors helped perpetuate the emerging East Chicago IN disaster.

Reuters reports:

Five years ago, a unit of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 19-page report that all but ruled out the possibility of children here getting lead poisoning. (http://bit.ly/2dAYVOt).  In its January 2011 report, ATSDR said it reached “4 important conclusions.” Among them: “Breathing the air, drinking tap water or playing in soil in neighborhoods near the USS Lead Site is not expected to harm people’s health.” ATSDR’s report was built on flawed or incomplete data, a Reuters examination found: The assumption that residents weren’t at risk was wrong, and many of the report’s key findings were unfounded or misleading.

CDC’s report was built on “flawed or incomplete data”  and their key findings were “unfounded or misleading?” Sound familiar?

Thankfully, ATSDR has some new leadership, that as far as I can tell, is reasonably scientific and trustworthy in its thinking. But CDC has never accepted responsibility for its historic betrayal of the public trust in Washington D.C..  They are completely incapable of admitting or learning from their mistakes, which were unfortunately all too common at their lead poisoning prevention branch.  CDC should apologize for their latest fiasco, but based on their past actions, they are incapable of either feeling or expressing remorse.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards