The Circumstantial Case for Flint River Water and Hot Water Tanks Leading to Flint’s Legionnaires’ Oubreak

Although the progressive community has been aware, for more than a year, of the water quality crisis in Flint that was created when the state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint from Detroit’s water system to a supply from the nearby Flint River, national attention is only now starting to focus on it. Today’s New York Times features an editorial denouncing the “depraved indifference” Governor Rick Synder’s administration showed toward Flint as the crisis unfolded.

The basics of what happened are clear. Water from the Flint River is much more corrosive than that from the Detroit water system (from Lake Huron). Even though this water leaves the Flint processing facility fairly clean and appearing to meet most standards, its corrosive nature results in the pipes in the aged Flint distribution system corroding. Both iron and lead leach into the water as a result of this corrosion, leaving the water with a reddish-orange tint and unsafe levels of lead. Children in the area have already shown elevated levels of lead in their systems. Sadly, lead damage is irreversible.

A bit of digging shows that the corrosive nature of the Flint River water comes from its high chloride content. [Note: free chloride ions (Cl) are distinct from intact molecular chlorine (Cl2) and have very different chemical effects in the systems being described here. For brevity, they will be referred to as chloride and chlorine, respectively.] That high chloride content very likely results from heavy application of salt to roads during winter and subsequent runoff of the salt into tributaries and the river. The Flint River has a chloride content about eight or nine times higher than Lake Huron.

Technical documentation of the Flint water crisis is almost entirely the work of a group of researchers directed by Professor Marc Edwards of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virgina Tech (frequently updated at their website, flintwaterstudy.org). As the Times editorial noted, the Snyder administration tried to dismiss one group of critics as “anti-everything”. That won’t work with Edwards, who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (often called a Genius Grant) in 2007 for his work on water quality.

One very simple and elegant study carried out by Edwards and his team is described in this post from August 24 of last year. The team took a clean-looking sample of Flint water and put it into a glass jar along with a piece of iron. The iron is present to mimic the effect of the Flint water coming into contact with iron pipes as it flows through the distribution system into people’s homes. An otherwise identical sample was prepared with water that came from the Detroit water system. After only five days, the jars looked dramatically different:

Flint water that has been in the presence of iron for five days takes on a reddish cast while Detroit water does not. Image is Figure 3 found at http://flintwaterstudy.org/2015/08/why-is-it-possible-that-flint-river-water-cannot-be-treated-to-meet-federal-standards/ by Dr. Marc A. Ewards and Siddhartha Roy.

Flint water that has been in the presence of iron for five days takes on a reddish-orange cast while Detroit water does not. Image is Figure 3 found at http://flintwaterstudy.org/2015/08/why-is-it-possible-that-flint-river-water-cannot-be-treated-to-meet-federal-standards/ by Dr. Marc A. Ewards and Siddhartha Roy.

The water in the Flint jar looks just like what we have seen in countless photos of exasperated Flint residents wanting something done about the poor quality of the water coming out of their taps. Leached iron by itself could well be the cause of this discoloration that is common in Flint. We will come back to this same study in a bit.

In addition to the dire issue of unsafe lead levels in homes (and subsequently documented in children) that received Flint River water, another problem may relate to the changed water source. Writing at Huffington Post earlier this week, Erin Schumaker documented an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in Flint. Remarkably, in a graphic created by Alissa Scheller, we see that the outbreak coincides quite precisely with the change in water source:

Huffington Post graphic depicting Legionnaires' Disease cases in Flint and their correlation with the water source. Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-water-legionnaires-lead-crisis_us_569d09d6e4b0ce4964252c33 Graphic by Alissa Scheller.

Huffington Post graphic depicting Legionnaires’ Disease cases in Flint and their correlation with the water source. Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-water-legionnaires-lead-crisis_us_569d09d6e4b0ce4964252c33 Graphic by Alissa Scheller.

How could there be a pathway connecting the water source to a Legionnaires’ outbreak? After all, the original outbreak for which the disease is named was the result of Legionella growing in the cooling tower for the air conditioning system of a large hotel. The victims then inhaled the bacteria as aerosols that migrated into the ventilation system from the cooling tower. Note that the “cooling tower” is actually quite hot and one of Legionella’s distinctive characteristics is its love for elevated temperatures.

There is a further problem for how Legionella could have been in the water system. This study by the Edwards team showed that the standard test for bacterial contamination came up empty on Flint water. No coliform bacteria were found in Flint water collected at several sites, including from several homes.

This same study, however, found a huge warning sign. Although fecal bacterial contamination was not found, they found that many samples collected around town did not have any detectable levels of chlorine. Chlorine is needed in water systems to prevent growth of bacteria.

The August 24 study linked above went into further detail on this issue, where it was found that in the presence of iron, the corrosive nature of Flint water destroyed the chlorine that was present. This result leads to a very damning conclusion:

The high rates of iron corrosion from using Flint River water as a drinking water source are damaging the Flint distribution system. The corrosion is also causing chlorine to disappear quickly, which may make it more likely for harmful bacteria to grow in the water. Furthermore, it is possible that with the existing unlined iron pipe system in Flint, and the relatively low water demand (due to declining population, loss of GM – which used a lot of water – as a water customer, and high rates), that it will very difficult to meet Federal standards for minimum chlorine levels no matter what is done to treat the water.

So it turns out that although the Flint treatment plant treated the river water sufficiently to kill the coliform bacteria, once the water left the plant, its corrosive nature in iron pipes means that there would be no residual level of chlorine to retain antimicrobial activity. This is especially bad in an aging water system, as the residual chlorine level would protect against low levels of bacteria introduced by failures in backflow control or small breaches in the system where surface or groundwater might be introduced into the system. In this same report, Edwards provides a link to reports of increased rates of water main leaks and breaks in Flint’s aging system.

But when we move to consideration of Legionella, the situation gets much worse. Traditional water analysis for bacterial contamination, especially the fecal coliform test, would not reveal the presence of Legionella. The particularly difficult nature of culturing this bacterium led to prolonged confusion over the cause of the 1976 Philadelphia outbreak that gave the disease its name. So yes, Legionella likely would be eliminated just as the coliform bacteria were eliminated at the Flint treatment plant, but any Legionella introduced downstream could survive due to the low chlorine content. Further, Legionella would not be inactivated by the corrosive nature of the water. As for whether Legionella would be present in the region, consider that the disease Pontiac Fever (named for an outbreak in 1968) in also a Legionella infection that fortunately is less lethal. Pontiac is only 36 miles from Flint.

When we go to the literature on routes of Legionella infection, we have this from WHO (pdf):

The most common route of infection is the inhalation of aerosols containing the bacteria. Such aerosols can be generated by contaminated cooling towers, warm water showers, humidifiers and spas.

Warm water showers, huh? This gets even more interesting when we look at the temperature profile for Legionella survival and information on the proper setting for hot water tanks. Consider this little nugget from energy.gov:

Although some manufacturers set water heater thermostats at 140ºF, most households usually only require them to be set at 120ºF, which also slows mineral buildup and corrosion in your water heater and pipes. Water heated at 140ºF also poses a safety hazard—scalding.

Savings resulting from turning down your water heater temperature are based on two components: reduced standby losses (heat lost from water heater into surrounding basement area); and consumption (from water demand or use in your home). Set too high, or at 140ºF, your water heater can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses and more than $400 in demand losses.

If you have a dishwasher without a booster heater, it may require a water temperature within a range of 130ºF to 140ºF for optimum cleaning. And while there is a very slight risk of promoting legionellae bacteria when hot water tanks are maintained at 120ºF, this level is still considered safe for the majority of the population. If you have a suppressed immune system or chronic respiratory disease, you may consider keeping your hot water tank at 140ºF. However, this high temperature significantly increases the risk of scalding.

And there we have it. A Flint home downstream of a discontinuity in the water system that introduces a small amount of Legionella would be at risk since the water would be likely to have insufficient chlorine to kill the Legionella. Further, if the household has its hot water tank thermostat set too low, the Legionella could thrive in the tank and then infect an immune compromised individual who inhales aerosols of the bacteria while showering.

Update 9 pm Friday Evening

MILive is now reporting that Legionella was found in the water supply of a Flint hospital in 2014, after the switch in the supply:

“After the City of Flint switched to the Flint River as its water source in April of 2014, we noticed an increase in the number of Legionella cases that were coming to McLaren for treatment, as well as those being reported across the county and at other hospitals,” McLaren spokeswoman, Laurie Prochazka said. “Because of that concern, and concern over the quality of water that we were receiving from the city, we began aggressively testing our water supply. An early test result indicated the presence of a low level Legionella.”

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
48 replies
  1. wayoutwest says:

    Great explanation of what caused and where the contamination in Flint originated. It’s a good thing that the iron/rust visible, but harmless, contamination was also caused by the chloride problem or the invisible lead poisoning might have gone unnoticed much longer.

    One question on the Legionella outbreak, did any of the other cities that have had outbreaks identify low chlorine levels as a primary cause of the growth of the bacteria.

    • Jim White says:

      .
      I haven’t done anything close to a systematic analysis, but virtually all the other outbreaks I’ve read about come from more of a point source like the original one in Philadelphia rather than from a more widespread distribution around a city.

      • scribe says:

        Nice work, Jim.
        .
        Anyone do an analysis on where the cases of Legionella took place? And perhaps a cross-reference to the direction of flow through the water supply system? My bet is it might be possible to suss out where the break is, though the grid-type layout of many water supply systems (to equalize pressure and flows) might thwart the analysis. Recall, the water-borne nature of cholera was proven by mapping where the cases in London took place, and then sussing out where the victims got their water. Turned out, they all got it from the same pump, which drew groundwater from next to some open sewers.
        .
        Also, interesting how the cases seemed to peak in the summer – at least one every August except 2010.
        .
        There are some things where well-run government has proven to be the best performer of certain tasks. Water supply and sewerage disposal are two of the most prominent, along with road building and maintenance (places where Snyder and his henchmen also fall down).

  2. orionATL says:

    this is an interesting set of connections. what the bar graphs show is peaking sharply around august + or -.
    .
    .
    .

    of particular interest to me is pinpointing the official negligence associated with the switch in water sources:

    – city water supplies are generally monitored closely. i believe epa requires a yearly report to each household/customer in any system on the quality of the water being delivered.

    – the effects of hard water on potable (non-agricultural) water systems is well known.

    – the effects of chlorine and its chemical kin and of other disinfectants on drinking wwter and on the pipes that deliver it are well and widely known.

    miss wiki relates the washington post’s major news story about this problem in washington d. c. from 2004, 12 years ago:

    [… On October 5, 2004, the Washington Post ran a front-page article reporting that cities across the United States were illegally manipulating lead testing results, such as discarding high readings or avoiding homes likely to have high readings.[16] A former EPA official described it as “widespread fraud and manipulation” on the part of water utilities.[16] That July, however, an EPA administrator told Congress that “we have not identified a systemic problem”.[16] Using data from the EPA, the Post identified 274 utilities that had reported unsafe lead levels between 2000 and 2004.[16] Some utilities defended their testing practices as being approved by state regulators; others argued that the lead was actually leaching from customers’ fixtures, not their plumbing.[16]

    Among the cities that the Post faulted through the EPA data were:[16]

    Boston,
    .

    where state regulators discovered that at least one quarter of the locations tested were not at high risk for lead contamination;
    .

    Detroit,
    .

    where the utility failed to test required high-risk homes;
    .

    New York City,
    .

    which reported lead falling to safe levels in 2000—but omitted 300 test results that would have marked the water as unsafe in 2001 and 2002 if reported;
    .

    Philadelphia,
    .

    which could not produce documentation for their decision to discard a high test result from 2002—despite being required by federal law to do so—that would have put the city over the EPA limit if it had been included;
    .

    Lansing, Michigan,
    .

    which discarded four tests that would have put the city’s water over the limit because the homeowners supposedly did not follow the proper directions in collecting the samples—even though the law prohibits doing so;
    .

    Ridgewood, New Jersey,
    .

    which removed “hot” houses from its testing after exceeding the safe limit in 2000;
    .

    Providence, Rhode Island,.

    where high levels were found in 2002, failed to inform the public as required and instead waited more than the legal limit of four months to test again;
    .

    Seattle,
    .

    where state regulators allowed the utility to miss a 1997 deadline to reduce the corrosiveness of its water by six years, allowing high lead levels to persist during that period;
    .

    Portland, Oregon,
    .

    where the city and state decided to launch a lead-danger educational campaign instead of building a treatment plant as required by law—and the EPA later suggested the utility drop urban homes with high lead levels from its testing and replace them with suburban homes with significantly lower levels.
    .

    The Post article led the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York to open an investigation into the city’s drinking-water lead levels.[35][36] Regulators in Michigan and Oregon also investigated utilities singled out by the Post in those states.[36] Senators James M. Jeffords and Paul S. Sarbanes called for the EPA to impose tougher standards; Jeffords and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for an investigation of the EPA following the Post’s findings.[37]
    .

    Seattle
    .
    had already suffered widespread lead contamination in its public school system in 2003. One parent, a scientist who had initiated the investigation there, said “we continue to suffer from an epidemic of lead complacency” nationwide.[38]

    The EPA said that between 2003 and 2005, only four large water systems had unsafe lead levels: Washington, DC; St. Paul, Minnesota; Port St. Lucie, Florida; and Ridgewood, New Jersey.[27]
    .
    .
    note that two of the cities were in michigan.

    miss wiki notes: “Regulators in Michigan and Oregon also investigated utilities singled out by the Post in those states.[36]”

    note also: “] Senators James M. Jeffords and Paul S. Sarbanes called for the EPA to impose tougher standards; Jeffords and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for an investigation of the EPA following the Post’s findings.
    .

    in other words, with regard to negligence, prior to 2014, there must have been mountains of paper in michigan state and local offices dealing with water purity problems and illustrating what could happen to a large city’s water system in the state.

    in addition there would have had to be water system experts on staff and as consultants who would have warned verbally of the possible consequences of hard water use in a water supply system with lead and cast iron pipes.

    so which individual (s) in michigan governments made the decision to turn a blind eye to this history and this widespread technical knowledge.

    • orionATL says:

      as for a possible source:

      how about the water trays at the bottom of room air conditioners sitting in windows? under certain circumstances they can throw water in the form of droplets back inside a room.

    • Jim White says:

      .
      Oops. Hard water is not corrosive (pdf):

      Limestone (calcium carbonate) and dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) in the soil neutralize the acid and the water is usually alkaline—pH between 7 and 8—and “hard” due to the carbonates. If there is no limestone or dolomite, the groundwater will remain acidic with pH values between 6 and 7.
      Water that contains calcium or magnesium salts (hard water) is less corrosive, because the minerals that cause hard water tend to coat and protect the inside of pipes. Soft water that contains sodium salts does not coat the pipes and consequently is more corrosive.

      • orionATL says:

        thanks.

        yes, the magnesium and calcium componds in water make it “hard water”. this is what makes soap hard to lather, scale show up in your coffee maker, and drives you to call the culligan man.

        flint river water is hard. many public water systems soften water for their customers. does flint?

        fun look at michigan’s river system.
        http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/MIwatershed.html

        • P J Evans says:

          Every place I’ve lived water softening was done at the customer level, whether through a company like Culligan or through a customer-owned-and-maintained softener.

          • orionATL says:

            maybe its the size of the systems that determine whether water is softened by the watervutilitu.

            where i’ve lived these last many years it has been utility softened.

            but, where i was raised the water was so hard you’d use half a bar of soap just to lather up. :)

            • orionATL says:

              i will add that where i was raised the water system was private, one-family private. all water came by pump and pipe from a springhouse 100 yds from the house. :)

            • P J Evans says:

              I’ve heard my parents talking about water so hard you needed a cold chisel to get it out of the tap (Kansas and Oklahoma). That was an exaggeration – but the water a lot of places west of the Mississippi is hard. I had a quarter-inch of hard on the inside bottom of my tea kettle, in Pasadena (CA).

              (I can’t imagine a water system doing whole-system softening.)

        • orionATL says:

          re #7 at bottom

          map of michigan rivers:

          what amazes me, given where i’ve lived all my life, is the low “fall” of these rivers.

          one river falls 50′, yes, that’s feet, in 75-100 miles.

          if i remember correctly, the flint fiver has better fall but it ain’t much.

          i guess that’s what happens when you’ve got run over by a 2 mile high glacier.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    Here, a Guardian article to the effect that “gaming” of the test methods for lead content in water is widespread in the US. “They show that several cities have advised residents to use questionable methods when conducting official tests for lead content. These include encouraging testers to run taps for several minutes to flush out lead from the pipes or even removing the filter from taps. Such methods have been criticized by the EPA for not providing accurate results, with the agency telling authorities not to use them.” So, how can we know that even a “safe” system really is safe? (Best explanation I’ve seen yet, Jim, thank you.)
    .
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/22/water-lead-content-tests-us-authorities-distorting-flint-crisis

  4. bloopie2 says:

    A couple questions.
    .
    You state, “Children in the area have already shown elevated levels of lead in their systems. Sadly, lead damage is irreversible.” What are the numbers on how often elevated levels of lead lead to lead damage? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.) Should we expect to see a lot of it, down the line, in Flint’s children?
    .
    If it’s the corrosive water that’s at fault here, does that mean that all those old/iron/lead water mains (which many US cities have) are safe, so long as the water passing through them is not corrosive?

    • Jim White says:

      .
      CDC says there very well may not be a safe level when it comes to toxic effects on kids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=10

      On the second question, I’d turn it around a bit. Corrosive water definitely makes the old systems more toxic and problematic. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say they are safe. For example, the link in the post on Flint’s system having an elevated level of leaks and breaks predates the switching of sources. These old systems have lots of problems before you make them lots worse with corrosive water.

  5. Rayne says:

    Thank you very much for this post, Jim. I have a college-age child living in Flint half the year while attending college. The school sent a memo saying they were testing drinking water for lead and bacteria, but the memo says nothing at all about testing shower+toilet water.

    May well explain the “late summer colds” and “allergies” my kid and others suddenly developed this past two years while on campus.

  6. Rayne says:

    Jim — I’m wondering about seasonal run-off from agricultural use — specifically potash (potassium chloride) — given the Flint River’s origin in Lapeer County is very rural. Have you run across any mention of K fertilizer-based chlorides in the water?

    • Jim White says:

      .
      Just the general observation that fertilizers are also sources for a number of salts in runoff. There are probably lots of studies out there, but I haven’t followed them. I think there’s also been a big push to analyze fertilizer runoff around here, too.

  7. wayoutwest says:

    A number of things become clear with Jim’s explanation of the cause of this contamination especially the lead. The water from the Flint River met all EPA standards when treated and delivered to residents except the iron/rust clouding and the high chloride content was not flagged by the EPA or state regulators as a problem.

    The lead contamination was not from the river source, treatment facility nor from the city mains that deliver the water to residences. I don’t think there are many if any lead pipes in the system, I could be wrong, but probably the lead source is residential plumbing which is not the responsibility of the city, state or the Feds. There are already EPA warnings about old residential plumbing with lead solder joints and lead solder is no longer allowed in residential plumbing.

    The EPA and state scientists are certainly responsible for their failure to recognize this well known chloride reaction problem especially in a state that uses so much salt on their roads such as Michigan.

    The city and state reaction to the problem was typical delay and discredit but attempts to portray this tragedy as willful or intentionally negligent may be overblown.

    • Jim White says:

      .
      Gosh. Wouldn’t that just be dandy if we can blame only the impoverished people of Flint for this huge clusterfuck?
      .
      Before you go granting “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards to all the people who made horrible decisions, be aware that municipal water systems aren’t all completely lead-free in their construction. orion and others have already posted links to many stories on cities gaming the system on lead testing, but take a gander at another link where lead is discussed. Here, the CDC goes to lengths to describe precautions to be carried out in homes when there is lead in the water BEFORE it gets to the household plumbing system. Note also that this piece goes into detail of how it was already known that corrosive water will make a questionable system much worse. So, no, we don’t have just an unfortunate occurrence where those poor folks couldn’t afford proper plumbing. They were poisoned, and professionals up and down the decision pathway should have known better.

      • wayoutwest says:

        I’m not trying to blame the victims, it’s just a fact that the house plumbing is the owners responsibility and if it is true that authorities used this water knowing the effects on lead in the system then I agree with attacking and blaming them. That hasn’t been shown to be true, yet and unless someone discovers evidence that they were warned about this problem before or soon after the switch was made this crisis has to be viewed as the incompetence or corruption of our regulatory agencies, state and federal.

        I don’t trust or support the regime operating outside of democratic control in Michigan but their attempts to cut costs is their legal mandate. The class action lawyers will be or are lining up for a feeding frenzy in Flint so that flawed cost cutting will probably cost more than it tried to save and more importantly children were harmed, hopefully not severely.

    • scribe says:

      Sorry, pal, but a hell of a lot more lead was used in joining cast-iron water supply pipes in the streets than was ever used in residential applications. Lead-based solder was the state of the art at the time most of the municipal water systems in the US were built – the first half of the 20th century. The present polymer-based “soft” joining systems contain no lead, but are not coming into use in existing systems for two simple reasons: money and service interruptions.

      No one is ripping out existing water mains and replacing them except when they break. Even then, the only thing that gets done is the break is cut out of the pipe and a new section is patched in.

      It costs a boatload of money to replace a water main in an existing city. Moreover, there will be service interruptions – do you want to be the pol who tells people that they won’t have running water for a week or two while their street is dug up, the pipe pulled out of the ground and replaced and then refilled? And the other buried utilities – electric, telephone, cable, gas – are usually laid above water supply lines (with the exception of sewers, which are usually laid deeper than water supply lines, for obvious reasons). So all those other utilities also get interrupted.

      Very popular.

      About 20 years ago, I litigated a case involving sewer billing in which the municipality I represented had spent some money to fix its sewers and reduced its flows substantially. (The suit was over the sewer plant manipulating billing to favor other towns that hadn’t fixed their systems, trying to increase our bill.) The project saved the taxpayers millions over the last 20 years and NO ONE NOTICED.

      And no one noticed what was going on in Flint until the water turned brown. Only after a year or so of minorities complaining did the noise get loud enough for TPTB to even look.

      • P J Evans says:

        I’ve seen stories about companies that do interior coating of pipes. I don’t remember the coating material – it’s been some years since I read them – but I seem to recall that it was in part intended to provide a barrier between the pipe and the contents.

  8. orionATL says:

    in 1986 congress laid down the law (weelll, sort of) about lead in water supply, even VA water supply (can you believe gov actually acted to protect veterans?) :

    URL
    how about this gov url? christ a’mighty.

    until ’86, a 60/40 tin-lead solder was used to join together the copper pipes and fittings in your house plumbing if you had copper water supply plumbing. if you had galvanized pipe for your water supply, lead wasn’t used.

    some very old houses also had lead supply pipes 3/4 to 1″ in diameter leading from the county/city supply pipe to the meter in your basement or your internal piping.

    these points of lead infiltration into your home were considered harmless because

    – it was convenient to think so :)

    – most water had enough minerals to quickly cover over the lead after it had been melted to solder the pipes and fittings together.

    • scribe says:

      As a kid I made some nice money ripping out soft lead lateral piping leading to abandoned farmhouses and selling it to scrapyards. At 40 cents a pound back then, lead pipe added up to some serious coin pretty quickly. Problem was carrying it out one backpack load at a time.
      .
      The soft lead laterals were used because they were flexible, easily fixed and so on.
      .
      The other angle on governments cheating on testing their water isn’t getting enough attention: if the water going into the system is substandard and needs treatment, you suddenly run into multi-billion dollar problems. Building a new state-of-the-art treatment plant for a moderate-sized city can easily cost a billion dollars. Protecting the watershed means buying land, which is often quite expensive lakefront property. NYC ran into this problem with their reservoirs in the Catskills a few years back and fudged on it, dodging the need to add treatment (most of their water is rainwater from the reservoirs, treated lightly if at all) by getting waivers (IIRC) and buying out many if not all of the remaining landowners whose property drained into the reservoirs. In other words, they manipulated paper instead of treating the water.
      .
      The incentives to cheat are huge and the downside next-to-nonexistent. No surprise there’s cheating.

      • orionATL says:

        no, no surprise at all. and land in watershed quantity gets expensive in a, hurry.

        i suspect there’s cheating on the billing side as well as the treatment side.

        it has bugged me for a long time that where i live all but an initial small allotment of water is tied to a steep sewer usage charge. so if i’m watering my gardens, especially in a dry year, i get charged for that as if i were spending hours on the crapper. elsewhere i’ve lived you could get a portable meter from the town and hook it to your garden hose. meter reader comes by in september and reads it. here, i was told, only lanscape/nursery businesses get that break. another hidden tax from the pols that scream “honest, i’d rather feed my kid to a crocadile than raise your taxes another penny.”

  9. orionATL says:

    what oligarchy looks like from down below deck:

    getting fucked over by your government and being powerless to do anything about it.

    [… To justify the switch to the Flint River, emergency manager Jerry Ambrose regularly cites the high cost of buying water from Detroit. But if the city is saving $12 million a year, that windfall hasn’t been passed along to the city’s residents. The average household water bill is $140 a month, according to a 2014 analysis by The Flint Journal. The steadily rising costs have been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit since 2012.

    For many of the city’s low-income residents, the water bills are so expensive, it’s impossible to buy additional water. In February, resident Jean Pugh was hospitalized for two nights for dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and nausea, which she believes was caused by tap water. But her $683-a-month fixed income barely covers the rent and utility bills. She lives alone, yet her monthly water and sewage bill is $70 to $80 — on top of a gas and electric bill that can run as high as $300.

    Sometimes she receives store-bought jugs from a friend or from her church, Antioch Missionary Baptist, where each week one of the deacons warns the congregation not to drink the city water..] .

    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/3/flint-residents-find-state-water-control-hard-to-swallow.html

    looks like the water switch to the flint river was made despite officials knowing the severe health risk in order to put the $12 mill thus saved into the city’s general fund and use it to pay for other things. further, it looks like the rising water bills are a clear case of a highly regressive covert tax.

    • Rayne says:

      orionATL — Sorry, your links at 6:48 and 6:52 aren’t working. Any chance you can screensnap the content and post to a blog or Google Docs page to share?

      Re 7:17 — Yeah, a regressive tax, and I wish I knew more about the process by which some geniuses decided to run pipe 60 miles east to Lake Huron instead of running pipe 33 miles north along I-75 to Saginaw.

      Saginaw has a water plant large enough to serve a city of +65K, (3) General Motors foundries, and a number of other GM manufacturing facilities. After a population crash in the city between 1998-2008 (now about 35K), the plant serves only (1) casting facility, though two parts plants remain active under different ownership. The water plant draws from Lake Huron north of Bay City, away from urban+industrial pollution. No additional intake to be built, just attach to existing system. So why the push to put in 60 miles of pipe?

      • orionATL says:

        re #25

        yeah, i know. these was the url from hell. i posted it twice because when i tested the first one it wouldn’t. the second one did. i just tried the second one again from the emptywheel page as it appears on my screen and it worked again. let me just copy the article headings:

        EPA
        national service center for environmental publications
        “what is the lead ban”

        “on june 19, 1986 congress enacted the safe water drinking act…. “

    • Rayne says:

      jo6pac — These man-made disasters are personal for some of us. They afflict human beings — like my kid. The next man-made disaster could be one that directly affects you, and then it’s no longer a case of ‘why care,’ it’s one you hope people like us will dig into and ask the right questions of the right people so they will be held accountable, if not make things right.

      And in some respects, even this disaster affects you personally if you are one of the 99%. You can’t get lost in the crowd. For the last nearly two years, my kid has had a host of illnesses never previously experienced. They’ve been too easily written off as colds, allergies, infections, so on, except that these things clear up when they aren’t in Flint. Their treatment requires medical resources, draws down on insurance, and when thousands of people have a very similar or worse experience, they change the cost of health insurance and affect overall health data, not unlike the greater number of deaths in France due to flu+weather changed life expectancy data. It affects your overall health costs.

      Not to mention what additional monies will be required from the federal government to deal with this mess tactically. That’s ‘why care’ even if it isn’t your kid you’ve nurtured for years that Michigan’s current government poisoned.

      Oh, and if some day you need a new knee or a hip, my kid may likely have designed and manufactured it. Imagine what my kid could do for you if they weren’t poisoned. That’s ‘why care.’

  10. orionATL says:

    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/3/flint-residents-find-state-water-control-hard-to-swallow.html
    .

    “… In the fall the local General Motors plant stopped using the river water out of fear that the chemicals would corrode car engines. After the January letter about THMs, trust in the water quality evaporated. Schools, government buildings and the children’s museum blocked access to or posted warning signs above water fountains. Head Start began distributing bottled water to its preschool students….
    .
    … Meanwhile, residents continued to receive astronomical monthly water and sewer bills — Flint’s rates are about eight times the national average — for water that many deemed undrinkable…. ”
    .

    “.., Flint is governed by a state-appointed emergency financial manager. He has unprecedented authority to, for example, single-handedly decide where the city’s water supply comes from or ignore City Council resolutions. In response to the vote, Flint’s emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, called the decision “incomprehensible” and indicated that the Flint River would remain the city’s source….
    .

    … “This is a prime example of what dictatorship looks like,” said Nayyirah Shariff, a member of the Flint Democracy Defense League who has been helping to organize residents in response to the water crisis…. ”

    this article has a picture of jerry ambrose. extraordinarily, he bears a remblance to the grinch.
    .

    • orionATL says:

      so gm stopped using water for fear of corrosion in its product?

      o. k. , water in means water out. right? or did gm have a gigantic storage lagoon behind its plant?

      so where was gm flushing its used water previously? into the flint river? nice, not-salty lake water used at the gm plant and then flushed into the river? what if anything might have been in that water that could have contributed to problems with flint river potability?

  11. Jim White says:

    .
    See the update. It has just been reported that Legionella was found in the water supply of a Flint hospital after the switch of water sources.

    • orionATL says:

      thanks, i saw that. a hospital is a perfect place to incubate legionnella.

      but the the persons’ age, their medical condition, and where they likely were when they first contacted legionnaires is of interest. if all were in the hospital, especially in the peak period of june, july, august, then there. if not, where else and what contributor.

      i read an estimated 10-50,000 cases in u. s. per year. most are, apparently, trivial. but legioneaires’ disease is a version of pneumonia and can wreck havoc on a weakened immune system.

  12. martin says:

    note to self..

    1. Never again curse having to keep copper WELL pipes warm during winter freeze.
    2. Never again denigrate the portion of Michigan’s Manistee forest I live in as “the land that time forgot”.
    3. Thank your lucky stars your water is clean, plentiful and you don’t pay a dime for it, except for yearly filter change.
    4. Remember the taste of city water in Coos Bay Oregon, due to end of summer reservoir level. Gak.
    5. Weigh the cost/benefit ratio of decision to leave your little less than perfect abode in favor of the southern Oregon coast. Tsunami threat, drought, high water/electric bill vs Manistee isolation, cheap elec/water..no brainer. Dying alone notwithstanding.
    6. Last but not least.. pray for guillotine accountability for scumbag Michigan bureaucrats who slink under the closest rock to escape from the sunlight of inevitable virtual tar and feathering for foisting capitalistic reasoning upon decisions that have forever damaged children and adults alike..not to mention death.
    Frankly, I can’t fathom why these scumbags heads aren’t rolling in the basket as I type. If it were my children with lead poisoning.. these scum sucking murderers would already be disappeared.

  13. bmaz says:

    To WayOutWest at 20 above: Well, “knowingly” is most commonly a criminal term of art. The more relevant standards to this case would be “intentional” and “reckless disregard”. While you are correct that intentional has not been factually established – yet – it may well be when investigation and discovery mature. That aside, even from the current facts, a pretty healthy claim of reckless disregard can be made out. So, I don’t really subscribe to the “Golly, we just don’t know yet” view all that much. Your mileage may vary, but I think the legal liability is a lot greater than you let on.

    Also, what Scribe said above.

    • orionATL says:

      if intentional or reckless disregard are ducked somehow, i would hope at least negligence would apply. maybe even criminal negligence, qc. :)

    • wayoutwest says:

      I don’t know much about the laws involved here or liability but whatever legal remedies are imposed will only further drain limited local resources. Treating this as a political/partisan opportunity, as some people are, won’t do much to help the people of Flint or any of the other economically devastated cities of the Midwest. There is probably not much that can be done for these cities in the age of austerity and deindustrialization.

      If Orion’s information is valid then the ultra conservative Michigan regime was working hand in glove with the liberal, Obama run EPA to at least cover up these problems and likely in the implementation of the program from its inception.

      • Jim White says:

        .
        What a coincidence! Once again, your pretend lack of partisanship leaves all those poors up shit creek, because there’s just nothing we can do in the age of “austerity and deindustrialization”. Just like the hardcore right-wing position. I’m shocked!
        .
        Breaking news: austerity is a right-wing creation that does nothing but funnel money up from the have-nots to the haves at an even greater rate. Deindustrialization? The right-wing quest for ever lower salaries drove manufacturing offshore, killing a middle class that was thriving. And now we just can’t do anything about it, because the 60 or so families that own the bulk of assets in the US don’t give a shit about the poors.

      • Rayne says:

        wayoutwest — This?

        Treating this as a political/partisan opportunity, as some people are, won’t do much to help the people of Flint or any of the other economically devastated cities of the Midwest.

        Fuck you.

        It is both political and partisan. This financial crisis in Flint would have been handled COMPLETELY differently by a Democratic governor and state legislature, which in turn would have resulted in a COMPLETELY different handling of the water crisis.

        But because this state has increasingly chosen to believe anti-tax entities, corrupt banksters, and their fundamentalist puppets (read: MI-GOP) we are stuck with ‘universal fascist’ policies subscribing to ‘creative destruction’ where and whenever they can get away with it. They reject public investment, allowing corporations instead to squat-suck-resources-flee without paying for the infrastructure they demand-use-abuse-discard. This is an ideology, a governance philosophy, and while the Democratic Party isn’t immune to it (hello, Andy Dillon, you DINO whore), in this state the MI-GOP embraces and swears fealty to it.

        Stuff your fake “above it all” attitude. You’re part of the problem because you cannot identify with the people affected and their politics. And yeah, the political is personal. This bloody well is personal.

  14. orionATL says:

    it’s morning in america:

    – an excellent cnn-in-writing report featuring individuals who challenged flint wster safety and politicos and govt officials who defe ded its potability:
    .

    http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/health/toxic-tap-water-flint-michigan/index.html

    .

    .
    an article from fed gov perspective mentions epa employee miguel del toral who, while investigating water quality problems, gave a copy of an epa document to a flint citizen-actvist:

    http://www.govexec.com/management/2016/01/epa-accused-inaction-michigan-water-crisis-loomed/125231/
    .
    investigation of the flint water quality coverup can (and already has) started from a number of points, but starting with del toral and working outward for documents and interviews would involve all the parties who generated the unsuccessful coverup – former mayor, emergency administrator, michigan dept of environmental quality, governor’s office, and epa.
    .
    – efforts to discredit and discipline epa employee del toral.

    – interviews with city water and sewer dept employees. water does come into one’s house in a city without lots of water specialist employees being involved in getting it there.
    .
    – early efforts to suppress and discredit citizen activist complaints about water quality.
    .
    – efforts to discredit virginia tech water quality specialists.
    .
    – cooperation between mayor’s office and emergency manager.

    .
    – cooperation between flint emergency manager and michigan deq.

    .
    – deq and governor.
    .

    – cooperation directly between emergency manager and governor’s office.
    .
    – documents indicating flint river water source decision was made by emergency manager in order to use money saved to pay city bills despite knowing the health consequences.

    .
    – documents associated with keeping water and sewer bills high (maybe to drive some lowlifes out of town ala new orleans?)
    .

    – documents indicating governor’s office and emergency managers throughout michigan used similar harmful cost-cutting, quality-of-life, hidden-tax measures to boost emergency manager reps.
    .

    – co-operation between epa and state deq and epa and the governor to suppress criticism of flint water safety.
    .

    – what epa got or expected in return for co-operating in water quality coverup.
    .

    – who insisted epa administrator susan hedman be fired and why?
    .

  15. bmaz says:

    To WayOutWest at 44: Well, you are in luck, I know a little about this. First off, your framing as partisanship conservative versus “liberal Obama” is idiotic. Secondly, the question is as to actual crimes and personal liability for them. And, no, that does not create an expense for taxpayers. Your kind of nebulous “shit, there is nothing we can do” attitude is the reason this shit happens. But, hey, thanks for playing.

    • wayoutwest says:

      I escaped the Motor City in ’70 but according to you my ‘attitude’ is what poisoned the poor people of Flint? There is some nebulous warping of reality!

      Who are these ‘we’ you refer to that can do something about bankrupt cities such as Flint? If you mean the government you haven’t been paying attention for some decades, our leaders are in bipartisan agreement on neoliberal economic goals and the austerity they require. Our bipartisan ruling class only prints money for war and Bankster gambling not for sparkle pony ideas of resurrecting collapsed inner-city economies that will never regain the economies they were built from.

      The decisions and trends that have doomed cities such as Flint and much of the Mid-West are not confined to those geographic areas. I have been watching the same folding up of the economy and growth here just south of Albuquerque. Tech businesses, local building supply and cement contractors shutting down with the only new employers being a chain Tractor Supply, discount liquor store and more Bankster owned payday/title loan rip-off joints. Albuquerque had 13,000 people leave the area last year and is facing the crushing blow of Intel shutting down their huge operation throwing thousands of employees under the bus.

      I borrowed this phrase from someone who still believes in the ‘we’ but it is an appropriate lesson to learn from recent events.

      ‘Flint Is Our Future’

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