Students Reveal How They Broke the Lead Contamination Case in Flint, Mich.

Mar 1, 2016

Photo credit: Flint Water Study/Facebook

By William Rhoads, Rebekah Martin and Siddhartha Roy

Our team of more than two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech has spent much of the past year analyzing and publicizing unsafe drinking water in Flint, Michigan.The Conversation

Our “open science” research collaboration with Flint residents revealed high levels of lead, Legionella and damage to potable water infrastructure due to a failure to implement corrosion control treatment.

Despite Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) messages that the water was safe, we fought to educate residents about severe public health risks. That work led to a declaration of a public health emergency, first by the city of Flint and later by the state of Michigan and President Barack Obama; garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for Flint residents; and informed a national debate on “safe” drinking water in America.

Our work, by any measure, succeeded. But at the same time, this experience has forced us to confront broader questions.

We have learned that as well-trained scientists and engineers, we can be agents for positive change. However, we have also learned that many obstacles make it hard to do good science—not only in crisis situations, but every day.

By now the details of Flint’s water crisis are well-known.

In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager decided to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit, and instead to treat and distribute Flint River water to city residents.

The MDEQ, which was responsible for ensuring that Flint’s water met federal standards, violated federal regulation when it did not require the city of Flint to properly treat the water—which we now know is highly corrosive—to minimize leaching from lead pipes.

Citizens in Flint could smell, taste and see that their water was contaminated almost immediately following the switch. But when they tried to bring their concerns to public officials’ attention, they were ignored, dismissed and ridiculed.


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5 comments on “Students Reveal How They Broke the Lead Contamination Case in Flint, Mich.

  • @OP – In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager decided to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit, and instead to treat and distribute Flint River water to city residents.

    It is a regularly beaten drum in US politics, that political appointees are required in order to get rid of all that health and safety and sciency “red-tape”, which is so inconvenient to cowboy operators, in requiring then to bother to train people to do a proper job, and spend money to meet professionally derived specifications.

    Despite Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) messages that the water was safe, we fought to educate residents about severe public health risks. That work led to a declaration of a public health emergency, first by the city of Flint and later by the state of Michigan and President Barack Obama; garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for Flint residents.

    This is the classic case of “cheap” political decisions, made by corner-cutting science illiterates with attitude, costing millions, and endangering many people!

    It reminds me of past comments from green campaigners in the UK, who pointed out the cynical activities of the Westminster “Department OF the Environment”, illustrating that it was “the Department OF the Environment”, NOT “the Department FOR the Environment”.



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  • 2
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    The case of the Flint water contamination crisis is one that was created mainly by negligence and total disregard of public health issues by the offfice of the State of Michigan. Facts and the timeline of events show that Governor Rick Snyder had been warned by his own staff of the situation and did everything he could to ignore it and avoid spending the money needed to fix the failing infrastructure problem.

    Meanwhile, big corporations in Michigan are getting huge tax breaks which is costing billions to the State which then proceeds to turn around and beg the Federal Goverment for financial aid. Governor Snyder is currently the object of a class-action lawsuit and frankly, I hope he gets clobbered for his criminal behavior.



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  • To my amazement I don’t see the word ‘fraud’ anywhere….. That’s what the officials committed when they rigged their sampling procedures and excluded samples, known to be lead laden, from their reports.



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  • a science teacher responding to the question, how do you know if you shouldn’t drink the water, her reply simple, but has helped me many times from being sick, if you can smell it, taste it & after a day in a container see it then don’t drink it, it’s not clean water, travelling in the nth east of Australia, I stopped my children from drinking the water from a community reservoir, then finding the next day the zinc mine had found its product leeching into the water. when we travel nth now we take water from home & we purchase it



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  • Looks like this is going to turn into another case of “blame the Republican administration rather than the 100% Democrat and union controlled locality/municipality” as was done by the media post Katrina.

    The City of Flint (council/board) had already been moving toward changing Flint’s water supply to save money MONTHS prior to an emergency manager being appointed by the State. IOW, it was a matter of coincidental timing; the State appointed an emergency manager, who then merely took the recommendation/proposals of the City of Flint who had already explored switching Flint’s water supply to the local river and tentatively approved it.

    What often gets neglected is that this is a city with almost intractable corruption and incompetence like your Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, so on and so forth. 100% controlled by labor and Democrats for 40+ years. As with Detroit, they had more than one decade of warning about the imminent trend toward insolvency, and to do something to prevent it. Instead, they took the path of prolonging and stalling the inevitable, so that the unions and heads of various city departments could fleece whatever was left of the city’s treasuries while they still could. Lots of criminal conduct by local officials, as we always find in these cases of a Democrat-controlled city going bankrupt.

    The population there doesn’t get a pass merely because they are too uneducated (by their own choice) and dysfunctional to know when they are being pandered and lied to; someone deserves the assist for continuing to elect these incompetent or corrupt (local) leaders again and again.



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