Flint task force member urges water professionals to 'go above and beyond' in lead testing
June 21, 2016

Chris Kolb, a member of the Flint Advisory Task Force that investigated that city’s lead-in-water crisis, today urged water professionals to go above and beyond the USEPA’s minimum standards when testing for lead in water.

Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd at ACE16 in Chicago, Kolb noted that the Lead and Copper Rule sets the action level for lead in water at 15 ppb. In Michigan, the governor has proposed the action level be reduced to 10 ppb.

“The federal regulations are the floor. They’re the minimum,” Kolb said. “You can go above and beyond….and that’s where Michigan is going now.”

In the Tuesday keynote session, entitled “An Exploration of What Happened in Flint, Michigan”, AWWA CEO David LaFrance asked Kolb a series of questions about the crisis and the path forward for the still-impacted community of just under 100,000. Kolb is a former state representative in Michigan and president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

LaFrance noted that AWWA has endorsed the National Drinking Water Advisory Council recommendations that utilities create plans for engaging customers to remove all lead service lines in their entirety from their systems. LaFrance asked Kolb about the “ownership issue” of lead service lines and how he proposes that utilities, the EPA, operators, states, and others, go about funding removal.

Kolb called that “the billion dollar question” and said that in Michigan, each community must identify how to remove all of its lead service lines within 10 years.

“I think it’s doable,” Kolb said. “It’s finding the funding source. Yes, there is this public/private divide of the line. But the Lead and Copper Rule says our requirement is to go all the way to the tap, and that should be our focus point.”

Kolb said there are many financing mechanisms, including low-interest loans. “There are a whole lot of ways we can finance it, but it’s going to have to be affordable. It’s going to have to be equitable, and it has to be sustainable. There’s no easy solution out there. It costs money, and it’s going to be where our priorities as a society are. You can pay me now, or you can pay me a whole lot more down the road.”

In March, the five-member Flint Water Advisory Task Force issued a scathing indictment of the state’s response to the Flint crisis and accused officials of “failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.” 

For 18 months beginning in April 2014, anti-corrosion chemicals were not used in Flint after it temporarily switched water sources to the local river. At the time, the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Blood tests later revealed dangerously high levels of lead in the blood of some of the residents of the impoverished city. Children in particular can suffer serious effects including lower IQs and behavioral problems. There was also an increase in cases of Legionella in the area.

In an interview with Connections prior to the keynote session, Kolb said the task force clearly placed blame for the crisis at the feet of the state-appointed emergency manager.

“The keystone failure was not adding the corrosion control treatment to a highly corrosive water source,” Kolb said. “It was clearly the real key to everything that happened. The state’s interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule lead them to advise Flint to not add corrosion control treatment.”

Kolb said he thinks Flint can recover from the crisis, but that the consequences of the state’s failures will be long-lasting.

“Flint will recover, but it will take years,” Kolb said. “It will take a lot of financial resources being dedicated to the city of Flint. There will be decades of monitoring, especially for children exposed to high levels of lead. The state is committed to removing all lead service lines in Flint, committed to providing health and nutrition benefits to the families of Flint, and making sure the community has everything it needs.”

The crisis has had a far-reaching effect on the water sector, Kolb said.

“It obviously something that has caught everyone’s attention in the water industry,” Kolb said. “It’s what people are talking about, and I hope it will make them rethink their corrosion control treatment...and make sure they are taking samples from the highest-risk homes and adhering to the right sampling and methodology.”