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Debate is raging on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers seek to assign blame for the crisis in Flint, Mich., that allowed lead-contaminated water to flow to thousands of residents.
The situation, says the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is “a failure of epic proportions.”
“Everything unfortunate happened at the same time,” he says. “It’s sad. In my class, I teach students that American people are protected by policy.”
Shibata, and other NIU faculty in the multi-disciplinary Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, are closely following the issue, using it to demonstrate to students the important roles government, scientists and public health officials play in protecting society.
A breakdown in management
Eric Zeemering is an associate professor in NIU’s nationally respected Master of Public Administration program. In that role, he teaches future city managers and professional government administrators about the fundamental role they will play in society.
Part of the blame for the crisis in Flint, he says, can be attributed to a breakdown in basic management structures.
From 2011 to 2015, the city was under state control because of the former manufacturing community’s economic collapse. The city was run by a rapidly churning succession of emergency managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
Had the emergency managers not left their positions so quickly, and had someone with more institutional knowledge been in charge, the problem in Flint might have never happened, Zeemering says.
In 2014, one of those emergency managers tasked with saving money made the move to switch Flint’s supply from water pumped in from Lake Huron via Detroit, to water directly from the Flint River.
That decision proved disastrous. According to one recent study, the Flint River water is naturally 19 times more corrosive than the Lake Huron water.
There are simple treatments to address that issue, but they were not put into practice. Consequently, while the water was safe when it left the treatment plant, as it traveled through lead pipes leading to (and often in) homes, the corrosive water leached the deadly metal from the pipes and became contaminated.
For Shibata, that is one of the most frightening things about the situation in Flint. “This could happen anywhere in the U.S. because many households made before 1986 have lead piping,” he says.
Laws demand that state and local agencies test for lead at taps in areas likely to have older piping. That testing was not being done in Flint, where many of the homes were built before lead plumbing was banned.
Under that law, communities are required to test tap water and take action if 10 percent of these tests find lead at 15 parts per billion. In Flint, researchers from Virginia Tech University responding to resident complaints about water quality found lead levels up to 397 parts per billion in some homes. According to the EPA, the only safe level of lead is zero.
As recently as 2011 a study advised communities to employ anti-corrosive additives before using Flint River water. The State of Michigan could have had access to that study, but allegedly did not pursue it.
“They made an economic decision without doing any of the scientific investigation needed,” says Melissa Lenczewski, an associate professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences who leads NIU’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy.
Lenczewski is hopeful that a potential solution to help avoid similar problems in the future might be on the horizon. The proposed Groundwater Monitoring Network, a data-sharing program, that is the subject of debate in Washington, D.C., would provide policymakers with hard data to guide decisions. Information to guide decisions such as whether to switch a city to river water would be more easily available.
“The United States Geological Survey publishes some data on certain parts, the state has some, the local communities have some,” Lenczewski says. “But they haven’t been linked.”
Connecting all of the nation’s data through the Groundwater Monitoring Network would be difficult, but Lenczewski says having the science ready for policymakers would be an important step toward avoiding situations like what happened in Flint.
“Management can be boring. The day-to-day oversight of programs does not receive the same interest, although it can be instrumental for a municipality,” he says. “We count on our public infrastructure every day for tasks integral to our lives.”
Zeemering worries the current attention to the crisis in Flint will bring brief furor to the issue of water quality, but no lasting changes, similar to how the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota (which killed 13), brought no real change to the issue of crumbling bridges and roads.
“Attention to infrastructure problems is very episodic,” Zeemering says. “When a bridge collapses in Minnesota, we’ll have a round of attention on bridges. We’ll have a round of attention on groundwater now.”