The Flint tragedy: a collective fail

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I recall sitting in an association’s seminar last year listening to the presenter talk about the potential perils of the city of Flint, Michigan’s water system. How, in effect, it was poisoning a community. Yet more than a fair share of PowerPoint slides were memes and jokes about why not to live in Flint. To me, not so funny.

What is laughable to me, in a tragic sense, is how a nation has failed a city—from the federal, regional, down to state and local levels. Please forget the charity PR and celebrity donations of bottled water and superficial support, because let’s be honest, WTF is that going to solve? People, this is an infrastructure problem! Let’s not put a Band-Aid on this issue.

Some of the industry is coming together to get involved by doing such things as donating plumbing fixtures, filtration equipment, and lending expertise on the subject.

Cause and effect

The switch from Lake Huron water to the Flint River as the town’s water source has exposed a number of problems, the biggest being lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger. Lead from the highly corrosive Flint River is leaching out of the God-knows-how-old piping/distribution system into the water supply. As a result, more than 10,000 residents had high readings of lead in their blood and have experienced a number of health problems. There also have been reports of Legionnaire’s disease in the county that has accounted for 10 deaths and another 77 taken ill.

What started in April 2014, probably even before that, if you ask me, is only now being discussed as a state of emergency by the federal government. Almost two years later, on January 5, 2016, the city was declared to be in a state of emergency by the governor of Michigan, before president Obama declared the crisis a federal state of emergency, getting FEMA and Homeland Security involved. And, as a matter of fact, four government employees have resigned over this tragedy. FAIL!

Two years later? Where was the local water utility? Who was testing and monitoring the Flint water supply after it had made the switch over to the river water?

A professor and his research

One such leader on the subject, Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech—whom I have heard speak on a few occasions—spearheaded research, which led to some pretty frightening research as it pertained to Flint’s water supply. Volunteer teams led by Edwards found that at least a quarter of Flint households have levels of lead above the federal level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) and that in some homes, lead levels were at 13,200 ppb.

“It was the injustice of it all and that the very agencies that are paid to protect these residents from lead in water, knew or should’ve known after June at the very latest of this year, that federal law was not being followed in Flint, and that these children and residents were not being protected. And the extent to which they went to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered,” said Edwards.

As efforts are made to rectify the situation in a responsible manner, Flint has plans to join the Karegnondi Water Authority after a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint is completed in June 2016.

Finally, could the lack of expedient attention to this matter be because Flint is predominantly black and poor? Or could this a matter of NIMBY—not in my backyard? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that we need to do a better job of taking care of each other in times like this. As an industry, can we do better?

John Mejm_picxsenbrink is president and co-owner of Mechanical Hub. He has been covering the trades for more than 17 years and has been covering the plumbing & heating industry for more than 12 years. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMesenbrink and follow Mechanical Hub @Mechanical_hub.

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