Flint, Michigan and the Fate of American Utility Infrastructure

By Emma Bailey

Michigan is defined by its proximity to five of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The state’s geographic placement makes it ideally suited to benefit from clean, glacial lake water for drinking as well as industry, agriculture, recreation tourism and power generation. These waters are a precious nonrenewable resource.


In the last few weeks, the crisis in Flint has highlighted the danger of taking our water for granted. Hidden underground, ageing pipe infrastructure is often ignored – but unless we act fast to upgrade pipeline systems across the country, Flint’s water problems could easily become widespread. Throughout the United States, pipes old enough to be your grandfather frequently bear the responsibility of carrying resources both valuable and volatile.


The catalyst for what has now become a national conversation – Flint’s ongoing water fiasco – began back on April 25, 2014, when state officials switched the source of the city's water supply. Having previously been pumped through Detroit from Lake Huron, it was now to be sourced straight from the Flint River. Darnell Earley, a State Emergency Manager, initiated the change in order to save the city money. It took nearly two years for the public to understand the full magnitude of this decision.  


In early summer of 2014, residents began to complain of headaches and abdominal pains after drinking the water. There were also reports of rashes and hair loss from bathing in the water, which was discolored and had an unpleasant smell. Still, then-Mayor Dayne Walling maintained in a June 12, 2014 story in the Flint Journal that “It’s a quality, safe product,” and people purchasing bottled water were “wasting their money.” In October, General Motors complained that the water was corroding metal auto parts in their factory; the company received an exemption from using the new system and was reconnected to the original water supply from Lake Huron. In January 2015, Detroit authorities offered to reconnect the Flint water supply to its original source at no cost to the city. Unbelievably, Emergency manager Darnell Earley turned the offer down.


The EPA was contacted by Flint residents in February. The agency found that there were irregularities in the city's water sampling practices, including flushing pipes for up to five minutes before taking samples to be tested. After being instructed to retest the water, the same methods were once again used. Throughout the spring and summer, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to stonewall and dismiss residents' concerns, despite one case of lead poisoning and several cases of lead exposure in children living in Flint.


In September 2015, lead contamination was discovered in drinking fountain water at three schools in Flint, and children were told to bring bottled water with them to class. Studies from Virginia Tech soon discovered that the percentage of children 5 years old and younger with more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood increased from 2.1 percent while Flint purchased Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit to 4 percent (and as high as 6.3 percent in some areas) after the switch to the Flint River. Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech spoke out saying, "This (higher blood lead levels in children) is exactly what you would expect to see when you put highly corrosive water into a city with so much lead plumbing and pipes.”


After these findings went public, Governor Snyder “reversed his position” on the issue and agreed to reconnect Flint to the original Detroit water supply from Lake Huron. But of course, by then his efforts and apology were little, far too late. Now, a class action suit has been initiated by residents of Flint against Snyder, the state, the city, and various officials. Separately, the family of a two year old who tested high for lead levels has filed a federal suit due to her exposure to the toxic water. There have been resignations at the state and national levels, including high-ranking officials like Susan Hedman, director of the EPA's Midwest division. The crisis remains ongoing, and as recently as February 8th, Snyder declined an invitation to testify at a hearing before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about children affected by lead in the water - reflecting his sustained ambivalence towards both the human and environmental costs of this disaster.


While lawmakers point fingers over who is ultimately to blame for the water catastrophe in Flint, others have been quick to point out that this event should be treated as the “canary in the coalmine” when it comes to the issue of ageing utility infrastructure both in Michigan and throughout the country. In addition to extensive water pipelines, Michigan has more active underground natural gas storage reservoirs than any other state in the country – facilities which are similar to type that’s been leaking methane gas in California since October 23rd. According to Amy Townsend-Small, assistant geology professor at the University of Cincinnati, "The natural gas storage wells in Michigan are the same type as the one that is leaking in California, so yes, it could happen in your state, too."


According to Natural Gas Ohio, utility companies are poised to spend upwards of $90 billion dollars on infrastructure over the next few years. Certain urban areas, including the city of Washington, D.C., are currently in the process of replacing all lead plumbing in the city in order to avert potential crises. Many cities have the same aging plumbing problems, and there have been other reports of high lead counts found in water from lead pipes installed decades ago throughout the U.S. Findings from the American Water Works Association put that cost of overhauling America’s water infrastructure alone at an estimated $1 trillion.



The crisis in Flint could have been avoided. Not only were there a number of opportunities to fix the problem early on, but they were disregarded by the revolving city managers appointed by Governor Snyder. There are still many unresolved questions regarding how and why this situation was allowed to get to the level of severity it is today. Yet it’s clear that utility infrastructure is the first place to look for what to do to avoid future issues down the pipeline.