Michigan officials on Wednesday wouldn’t estimate whether it would take weeks, months, or longer before Flint residents’ water would be safe to drink, and there are no current plans to replace the corroded lead pipes at the heart of the crisis.
“It’s not based on chronology. It’s based on having good test results that show it’s safe,” Gov. Rick Snyder said at a press conference.
Water testing by experts earlier in the crisis was questioned by state regulators, who maintained Flint’s water was safe more than a year after lead contamination began. On Wednesday, the state’s new interim environmental quality director said no longer would his department ignore the work of outside experts.
“We are on the same page, and we’ll make sure we’re on the same page,” said Director Keith Creagh. “There is no excuse...We’ll make sure the data is accurate, vetted, and transparent.”
Officials gathered Wednesday to lay out short-term plans for addressing the lead contamination crisis as well as talk of their commitment for longer term fixes.
Among the short-term actions would be continuing to supply bottled water and filters to residents, as well as asking the federal government to extend Medicaid eligibility to all children under the age of 21. Water testing would also continue, and a team of experts will be working with state and local officials to determine its safety.
“This is about working together to address the issue,” Snyder said.
Lead from old pipes began leaching into water after the city’s water source was switched from Detroit to the more corrosive Flint River in 2014. Residents complained of their water’s brownish color, taste, and smell, and testing by outside experts confirmed a high presence of lead.
For months, however, officials questioned the accuracy of the tests. Emails showed blame being shifted between state and local leaders, and residents concerns being dismissed. A task force later found fault with state environmental regulators, and earlier this month, Snyder apologized for the state response and declared a state of emergency. The regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency also resigned.
The acknowledgements came far too late, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union also on Wednesday.
“Public trust has been eroded by government officials’ efforts to evade responsibility in this crisis,” the suit said. “The damage done to city pipes from the Flint River water means that lead will continue to contaminate Flint’s drinking water. This contamination poses an ongoing health risk to the city’s residents, especially young children, who are most vulnerable to the effects of lead.”
Snyder said the state’s first priority remained getting clean water to Flint.
“Our goal is to get the water coming out of the tap safe as soon as possible,” Snyder said Wednesday.
To do that most quickly, Snyder said officials would be working to recoat the interior of Flint’s lead pipes. Clean water is again coming into the city from Detroit, but the corroded lead pipes remain beneath Flint’s surface.
Conversations about replacing lead pipes — and even identifying their location — is a longer term issue, Snyder said.
“Where they are, we’re still mapping all that,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done there.”
There are between 3 million and 6 million miles of lead pipes in the U.S., but records are often murky about exactly where they are, said Chris Sellers, a history professor at Stony Brook University.
“There’s certainly not much transparency from the water authorities or the EPA,” he said
Lead was prominently used in water systems in the early 20th century until the 1940s, but the material wasn’t outlawed from new construction until 1986. Lead pipes are more commonly found in cities in the Midwest and Northeast, but any city built during that timeframe could potentially face a situation like Flint.
“These problems are going to turn up again and again,” Sellers said.
Standards for the amount of lead in water systems were established only after campaigns against its use in paint in the 1970s and an EPA study that showed the extent of high lead levels in U.S. water systems. Sellers said the Flint crisis could be a turning point for a new type of environmental movement against lead.
Some richer cities have made it a priority to replace lead pipes, but few infrastructure upgrades have been achieved in cities that like Flint are struggling economically, Sellers said.
“The really fair solution is to have some kind of federal program,” he said. “It might require legislation. They might be able to do it by executive order… Certainly we need to be talking about the level of problem that is out there.”