Fallout from Flint
January 21, 2016

How will lead crisis impact utilities?

 
A roiling water quality crisis in Flint, Mich. this week boiled over into a full-blown media firestorm, vaulting the issue of lead in drinking water into the public consciousness and likely placing new focus on the upcoming revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule.

“As we explore how the water quality problems could have been prevented, the near-term focus should remain on assuring safe and affordable water service to the people of Flint,” AWWA CEO David LaFrance said in a statement released this week. 

But Flint has already become an issue in the presidential primary campaigns, receiving attention during Sunday’s Democratic debate and in later comments from contenders from both major political parties. Even President Obama spoke about Flint during his visit to Detroit on Wednesday, saying that, "It is a reminder of why you can't shortchange basic services that we provide to our people and that we together provide as a government to make sure that public health and safety is preserved.”

The Flint problems began in April 2014 when the cash-strapped city began drawing its water from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from Detroit. The decision was implemented by a state-appointed emergency manager. Customers shortly thereafter reported taste and odor issues and tests for total coliform resulted in multiple boil water issues that summer. The situation grew even more dire when tests showed the water had become more corrosive, causing lead to leach into water at the tap. Public health officials in the city have reported increases in lead levels in children.

Rule revisions on deck

Flint’s crisis comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepares to revise the federal Lead and Copper Rule, with the proposal likely final in 2017. EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council has already recommended that revisions include a mandate that all systems implement a strategic plan for the complete removal of lead service lines with responsibility for replacement shared between the utility and its customers. It also said utilities should engage in more outreach to customers on lead, including assisting them with self-sampling and processing samples.

In his statement, LaFrance noted that, “The experience of Flint underscores the importance of public communications about lead risks. Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure.”

AWWA sent utilities public affairs advisories in October and November referring to the Flint situation and drawing attention to the Association’s lead resources, especially the 2014 document, Communicating About Lead Service Lines: A Guide for Water Systems Addressing Service Line Repair and Replacement. The document includes strategies and message points to help utilities talk to customers about lead risks, even if they don’t have a lead problem. AWWA’s drinktap.org site carries direct-to-consumer information on lead that utilities may reference.

Meanwhile, AWWA has commissioned a study to estimate how many lead service lines remain in the United States and the cost of replacing them. That information will likely be critical as utilities and regulators finalize the LCR and chart a path forward.

“The Flint situation has placed a spotlight on lead in drinking water, and utilities should be talking to customers about lead risks and the benefits of removing lead service lines,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA Executive Director of Government Affairs. “Whether or not the Flint problems stemmed from a misinterpretation of existing regulations, the situation underscores the need for utilities to be diligent in their lead mitigation efforts and in communicating with the public.”

Michigan section at work

In October, the AWWA Michigan Section worked with the Association to assemble resources related to lead and provided links on the section’s website. In the first week of January, the section convened a special summit of Michigan AWWA utility members, providing a forum to discuss the Flint challenges and impacts on water systems across the state. AWWA Regulatory Affairs Manager Steve Via provided a national policy overview.

Michigan Section Executive Director Bonnifer Ballard said the section will be mobilizing several volunteer task forces to assemble and organize additional Michigan-specific resources. It plans to develop a workshop on both technical and non-technical issues and communicate updates to ensure AWWA members in Michigan stay current as the situation evolves. The section board is in discussion about other actions to best support AWWA members.

On the ground in Flint

Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water supply in October, but it may take some time before the lead situation is fully controlled. The National Guard and state workers have been passing out bottled water and filters to residents. Last weekend, President Obama declared the situation an emergency, clearing the way for $5 million in federal assistance.

Michigan WARN – which stands for Water and Wastewater Agency Response Network -- has been in discussions with emergency management officials to discuss potential resource needs. The WARN could be activated to give laboratory, operator or other support if needed. The WARN system provides a method for utilities that have sustained damages from natural or human-caused incidents to provide and receive emergency aid and assistance from other utilities.

More headlines to come

Meanwhile, news from Flint is in virtually every major newscast and on the news and editorial pages of media outlets in North America and beyond. In a single day this week, AWWA answered media inquiries from Time Magazine, NPR radio, the Detroit Free Press, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Bloomberg, National Geographic and other outlets.

While the issue may ebb and flow in news cycles, it’s not likely to be extinguished anytime soon. There are already calls for congressional hearings and the State of Michigan is facing multiple class-action lawsuits.

As AWWA keeps members informed about the fallout from Flint, it is also identifying learning opportunities related to the event. There are already plans for a close examination of the incident at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago in June, including a session with Eric Rothstein, a member of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, who will discuss details on the group’s report, and a Tuesday technical session looking at Flint from the regulatory perspective. Speakers will include representatives from the EPA as well as subject matter experts on lead service lines and the Lead and Copper Rule.

“AWWA is committed to helping water utilities, elected leaders and customers in applying the lessons from the crisis in Flint,” LaFrance said.

To find AWWA resources on lead in drinking water, visit the Lead and Copper Rule page at awwa.org. 



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