State, feds concerned over ability of Flint to treat drinking water
By Gary Ridley, originally posted on July 29, 2016
FLINT, MI – State and federal agencies say they are concerned about the city’s ability to safely treat its drinking water supply.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality each sent letters this month to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to address their worries.
The letters came just days after Flint’s Interim Utilities Director JoLisa McDay testified this month that the city still has not enacted optimized corrosion control treatment of its water supply. McDay’s statements on corrosion control came during a July 7 deposition stemming from a lawsuit involving city residents’ access to bottled water and filters.
In January, the EPA issued an emergency administrative order that required the city to submit a plan and schedule to the DEQ within 14 days for optimal corrosion control and water quality parameters for the city’s water system.
Six months later, state and federal agencies continue to express concern over the city’s operation of its water system.
During her deposition, McDay testified the city submitted a request for proposal to secure bids to hire a contractor to optimize its water system, but a contract has yet to be awarded.
An undated RFP issued by the city sought bids by April 14 for engineering services that would include assessment of the city’s corrosion control plan and development of an optimization plan.
As of this week, the city’s purchasing department said no contract has been awarded.
“The City of Flint was involved in the review process and a highly qualified firm was selected to perform services that include optimizing corrosion control,” McDay said in a July 27 statement issued by city spokeswoman Kristin Moore. “The City has taken all of the necessary actions to have the work begin but Flint must wait on approval of the contract by the MDEQ. Flint is actively working to comply with the order.”
Moore said McDay declined to identify the company selected for the work, citing ongoing litigation.
The RFP and resulting bids were not posted on the city’s website among the other various RFPs issued by Flint.
The DEQ said it is not holding up the process and claims it didn’t even learn about the proposed contract until earlier this week.
“There has been no delay caused by the DEQ on this matter,” interim DEQ spokeswoman Tanya Baker said. “Both the DEQ and EPA requested a copy of the RFP contract several times over the last couple months, however, it wasn’t until Tuesday, July 26, that the department received a copy of the contract.”
She added that DEQ staff met with the city’s new engineer, Mark Adas, July 26 to discuss the contract and ensure it included the essential elements established by the RFP design team.
The contract has not yet been forwarded to the City Council for approval, according to Moore.
But Baker said it is the DEQ’s understanding that the contract is currently scheduled to be considered by the city council’s finance committee next week.
Despite the delay, EPA officials said their staff is working with the city to ensure Flint is working toward fulfilling the requirements of the agency’s emergency order.
“Since EPA issued an emergency Safe Drinking Water Act order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan on Jan. 21, 2016, agency staff have met regularly with city and state officials to ensure timely compliance with the order to address the serious drinking water problems in Flint,” EPA spokeswoman Allison Nowotarski said. “EPA continues to focus on ensuring that progress is made to comply with the emergency order and is committed to making sure the water in Flint is safe to drink.”
However, McDay was critical of the assistance the EPA is offering the city.
“To date, the EPA has not provided the city with their corrosion experts to resolve the matter of adjusting pH in the distribution system,” McDay said. “Time after time, Flint is told to await the work of the firm that will optimize the system. This is deeply concerning as Flint has been waiting for years for water quality that they can trust.”
But the EPA claims it has actively assisted the city in its recovery from the ongoing water crisis.
The agency further called on the city to begin working with a third-party company as soon as possible to ensure long term compliance with its emergency order.
“EPA’s Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force, which includes EPA experts, has provided the City of Flint with consistent and thorough technical assistance to address issues related to the city’s drinking water plant and optimization of the system, including a number of recommendations to maintain pH levels,” a statement from the agency said.
McDay testified this month the city is currently not using any chemicals to maintain the pH of the city’s water supply.
Scientists use pH as a rating scale to express acidity or alkalinity. A reading of seven is considered neutral, while lower numbers indicate increasing acidity.
The water’s pH can change the effectiveness of corrosion control chemicals.
Despite concerns regarding the city’s water treatment process, chemicals are being added to the water to stop corrosion.
McDay testified this month the city was adding phosphoric acid to the system to help prevent corrosion of lead pipes and other infrastructure in the city.
Phosphoric acid is an orthophosphate, which can help build a protective layer on the city’s pipelines to prevent lead from leaching into the water supply.
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards said the phosphoric acid being used by the city is effective in a wide range of pH results.
“Phosphoric acid works over a fairly broad pH range,” Edwards said. “At least pH 7 to 8, and recent data shows it works at even higher pHs.”
In a July 26 letter to Weaver, DEQ director Keith Creagh said his agency has “serious concerns” about the operation of the city’s water system, particularly its ability to add chemicals to boost chlorine and control pH.
“A sodium hydroxide feed system was permitted by the DEQ for this purpose,” Creagh wrote regarding the city’s inability to control pH. “To date, it has still not been installed, and there does not appear to be any urgency on the City’s part to complete this project.”
Creagh’s letter came one week following the EPA’s own letter to Weaver after the city ran out of chlorine tablets, which are used to ensure disinfection of Flint’s two water storage reservoirs.
“There are few things more important to running a drinking water system than maintaining adequate disinfection, especially in the summer months,” EPA Water Enforcement Division Director Mark Pollins wrote in a July 19 letter to Weaver. “Therefore, we were very concerned to learn that on Friday, July 16 the City ran out of chlorine tablets for the pellet chlorinators, resulting in no additional chlorination being available at either of Flint’s reservoirs.”
The EPA contacted the DEQ on the situation and the city was able to borrow chlorine tablets from other neighboring water systems.
“The lapse in ability to add chlorine at the reservoirs, and the fact that no actions to secure pellets appear to have been taken until EPA elevated the issue and MDEQ intervened, demonstrate a continuing need for the City to take stronger action to effectively manage the drinking water system,” Pollins wrote.
Following the EPA’s letter McDay said “the facility always maintained supplies of chlorine on site to be administered to drinking water as needed.”
A statement issued by Moore also said the city had other things in place outside of chlorine tablets, if needed.
“While there may not have been chlorine tablets on hand … there was always bleach on hand in liquid form that could be administered if needed,” Moore said. “Therefore, there was no danger present to public health … There was no lapse in operation for the chlorine system at the (water treatment plant.)”
The city was thrust into the national spotlight after elevated blood lead levels were discovered in some Flint children after the city changed its water source from Lake Huron water purchased from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014, a decision made while the city was run by a state-appointed emergency manager.
State regulators didn’t require the river water be treated to make it less corrosive, causing lead from plumbing and pipes to leach into the water supply.
Residents are still being advised not to drink the tap water unless it is filtered as elevated lead levels continue to be detected around the city.
“I don’t know if they have an official plan yet, but they are doing the best corrosion control in the U.S. right now,” Edwards said of the city’s water system. “The extra inhibitor was recommended by EPA’s best corrosion experts, and they have implemented that.”