Flint Michigan – Water

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.


Organization: Flint Michigan Municipality
Project type : Municipal water supply
Date : Apr 2014 to May 2016 (ongoing at time of writing)
Cost :
 Unknown for now, but potentially in the billions.

Synopsis :
In the most powerful nation on earth you would assume that if you’re in a major city, it would be safe to drink the tap water. If you’re in Flint Michigan, you’d be wrong. Flint Michigan once a manufacturing powerhouse has struggled in recent years. The decline in manufacturing left the city of Flint with a shrinking population, high unemployment and the host of social issues that arise when jobs are scarce. By 2011 the city was in dire financial straights. In accordance with Michigan law, the state took over control of the city and appointed an “emergency manager” with responsibility to administer the city’s finances.

As the process of restructuring the city’s costs moved forward every possible cost was analysed. As part of that process a decision was made to switch the city’s supply of water from its longer term supplier (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department who sourced their water supplies from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Karegnondi Water Authority who sourced their water from the Flint River. The move was intended to save $5M per year, which on paper looked good. However, the failure to analysis the full implications of the move resulted in lead leaching into the water supply exposing many residents to hazardous levels of the poisonous metal.

As for many older cities, Flint has aging water pipes, many of which do not fully comply with modern standards. In order to maintain the safety of the water supply system, corrosion inhibitors need to be added into the the water treatment process. Those inhibitors allow the water to flow through older water infrastructure without causing metals in the pipes to leach. Where leaching does occur, water supplies can be poisoned resulting in potentially serious health consequences for those consuming the water.

On moving to the new water supply the city officials should have validated that the appropriate inhibitors would be used. Unfortunately for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the inhibitors were not used and as a result the water supply taken from the Flint River caused corrosion damage to many of the city’s water pipes.

Reports of the problem surface soon after the water supply was switched. Residents started to report discoloured water and a change in the water’s taste.  Initially government officials insisted there was no problem, however over time evidence began to grow that there was indeed a problem. Testing of the water supply indicated increasing levels of both iron and lead in the water supply in some homes and neighbourhoods. Government officials continued to downplay the severity of the problem until it broke as a national level story thanks to investigative journalists who picked up on the story.

Stepping in where the government failed, private citizens and groups started shipping water supplies in themselves. Holding impromptu water distribution events, residents in affected homes had to collect and use bottled water. Ultimately, following increasing pressure from residents and journalists, combined with increasingly clear warnings from water testing, Flint switch back to their original water supply a full 18 months after they made the original switch. While the switch back may help stop further damage, many pipes are already damaged and hence the crisis is still ongoing. In January 2016 both state and federal levels declared Flint an official disaster area allowing additional funds to be channeled into fixing the damaged pipes. For some homes and districts the problems may well continue until roads and paths are ripped up so that water lines can be physically replaced.

This is a project that has harmed real people and a reminder of the safety concerns that some classes or project carry. Any project that does have safety risks needs to include an appropriate review of all such risks by appropriately trained people. The cavalier attitude towards safety risks in this particular project is shocking to read about and illustrates what happens when budgetary concerns are allowed to trump safety and quality concerns.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Cost cutting (putting money ahead of quality).  Failure to apply appropriate quality standards.  Cavalier attitude towards safety risks. Failure to head warnings from stakeholders. Lack of effective governance.  Leadership failures.

Links:

  1. Flint water crisis
  2. Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis
  3. Flint’s water crisis: What does the future hold for a poisoned city?