Causality 11: Flint Michigan

3 July, 2016


For decades Flint Michigan derived safe drinking water from Detroit. When the supply was switched to save money a series of events unfolded and their supply became undrinkable. How could this happen?

Transcript available
Chain of events, cause and effect. We analyse what went right, and what went wrong, as we discover that many outcomes can be predicted, planned for, and even prevented. I'm John Chidgey and this is Causality. Causality is part of The Engineered Network. To support our shows including this one, head over to our Patreon page and for other great shows visit today. Flint Michigan. Some people described what's happened and is still happening with the water supply in Flint, as being a case of the first world country with a third world water supply. It's a bit harsh, but the fact is we all need water. Before we get into exactly what happened at Flint and as I say what is still happening, I need to start a little bit about the importance of water. I've worked on numerous Water Treatment Plants and dams, fresh water pipelines in my career, and if there's one thing I've learned is that you have to take it seriously: very seriously! Clean, fresh, safe drinking water is the cornerstone of life and in order for our basic needs to be met, in order to survive as an animal we require oxygen, water and food in that order of importance. With oxygen, without it our brains will suffer permanent damage within minutes and we'll die within an hour or so without oxygen. Water's next. We die without water after three days on average although some have been shown to survive up to 12 days without water but that's pretty unusual. That's water deprivation of course but, bad water can cause all sorts of illnesses and may not kill you as quickly, but it can still kill you. For water, we can survive but without food we can go for about three weeks on average provided we have water and obviously those with more "storage" if you'd like will last longer than those without and of course local conditions will affect the end result. Assuming that someone doesn't come along to the planet and suck up all the air then it all starts with water. Now in my observation people have become accustomed to having it: it's always there, it's always clean and it's safe to drink, and most people in Western culture haven't walked miles to the nearest well and then brought that water home or even pushed and pulled a lever up and down to pump water out of a well, or ever owned a rainwater tank. Water just comes out of the tap (or faucet depending what country you live in) and when I was a kid bottled water wasn't even a thing. Now town planners knew that running water from the tap was a critical part of our society 100 if not hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago, they built water towers to maintain water pressure, they built dams to store rainwater. They built barrages across flowing rivers to separate tidal flows. Built Water Treatment Plants to ensure the water was safe to drink and built huge, enormous networks of pipework under the ground into people's homes to ensure they had fresh water to drink, clean and wash with. The people that we put in charge of our drinking water supplies take it very seriously. They have done for many years and they will for years to come, but in many ways it's become a commodity. One that's being traded and bargained for despite the fact that is technically an essential service that we all require. It's being outsourced: the dollar costs are getting driven down all the time, and when you're in management the need to cut down those costs to get the cheapest bidder in to run the treatment plant or whatever it might be, well that pressure can lead to compromises. Sometimes there are different water sources that you can choose from, some cases not, but not all sources are created equally. Some will come from aquifers of varying degrees of quality, others from dams, others from rivers, and each will have their own unique water quality profile. Some will require more treatment than others and some require long pipelines to bring them to where the waters actually needed to be used and all of this will affect the final cost. The cost of the water and a cheaper source upfront may not always be cheaper in the end once you've treated it, but in the search for cutting costs, they cut corners and ultimately in the case of Flint they cut one corner too many and things started to go wrong. So let's talk specifically about Flint Michigan. Now for many years the water supply was sourced from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department but they were considered to be too expensive and the city was in tough times and looking for alternatives that were cheaper. On April the 16th, 2013, the city decided to sign up with the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA for short) and they decided it would be cheaper to build a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint to source their water from there. The proposal and recommendation came from the infrastructure development director Howard Croft and the Utilities Administrator Daugherty Johnson III. It was signed off by the then emergency manager Ed Kurtz. The pipeline was due for completion during 2016 (this year). However the agreement with Detroit water was up for renewal at that point. Now Detroit offered a short-term contract to see them through until the pipeline was ready but the cost was considered to be too high and the Flint officials decided that a temporary water source would be used instead and that water source that they chose was to be the Flint River. The water source for Flint was switched in March of 2014. Some customers in Flint could tell the difference immediately with the taste and the NDS (that's Non- Dissolved Solids), as well as the odour being very different from the Detroit water. And it was on the 8th of September, 2014 that Flint city officials advised their customers to begin boiling their water after several cases of Escherichia-coli surfaced in the community. Of note also on the 13th of October, General Motors issued a notice to stop using the water supply from the council because it was corroding steel components in their manufacturing plant. Further testing of the water quality within a few weeks of that determined that there were dangerous levels of Tri-Halo-Methanes (TTHM for short) present in the water and these are, they're a by-product of over- chlorination. In January of 2015, news leaked from Virginia Tech University, in their studies they detected unsafe levels of lead in the water samples they'd taken on campus. It was initially thought to be an isolated case however Virginia Tech continued to investigate, irrespective. On the 10th of February, 2015 Veolia Water were engaged to independently assess the situation. Veolia run multiple Water Treatment Facilities around the world (including some here) On the 18th of March, 2015 they delivered their report recommending $3M USD be invested with improvements to the Water Treatment Facility. There was no mention of lead levels at that time. By September the same Virginia Tech team that had earlier in the year reported lead detected at their campus, had sampled water now from 252 individual premises and they found that the city's 90th percentile lead level was in fact 25ppb and this exceeded the 15ppb EPA action threshold. On the 15th of September, 2015 these figures were officially released to the public and there was somewhat of an outcry. Further tests over subsequent weeks found that several end customer premises had lead levels 3 times that legal limit. On the 2nd of October, 2015 it was officially acknowledged and an action plan was released to address the problem by Flint officials. For the blood testing of the children from Flint showed levels of 2.5% before the switch, rising to 6.3% approximately one year after the switch of water supply. Three major schools were some of the highest lead level areas that were measured in Flint. One school tested at 6 times the legal limit. On the 16th of October, 2015 Flint officials switched the water back to Detroit water, and on the 10th of November, 2015 the United States Environmental Protection Agency became officially involved. On the 14th of December that year, a state of emergency was declared in Flint, Michigan. At this point in time it seems like a very crazy idea, that a country like America, with so many people, access to all the technology that they could ever want, could have something like this happen. It's an interesting chain of events that led us to the lead poisoning, and to where we are today. And understanding exactly where it went wrong, need to explain a few things first. I guess whenever I've looked into this, I had to ask where was the Chemist? Where were the Engineers? The corrosion specialists? See Corrosion Control Plans (or CCPs) they're standard pretty much for all Water Treatment systems I've ever seen, that I've ever worked on and frankly not just in Australia but around the world including America but Flint didn't have one. Now I'd suggest maybe they didn't think they needed one since their water when they were sourcing it from Detroit at least, didn't have any adverse effect on the reticulation system. I'm not sure, it seems bizarre to me that they wouldn't have one. Certainly in the end lead was the biggest problem but like I said it was like, Flint's issues like pulling a thread and all the actions and reactions created the next set of actions and reactions and the worst problem of all, end up being the lead but, where did it go wrong? So the EPA's lead and copper rules require water utilities serving more than 50,000 people to establish a plan to monitor and control corrosion. Now that, in my opinion is even that number is ridiculous there should be a CCP for any sized water reticulation system, not just 50,000. The excuse given by the Flint officials was that they'd mistakenly suggested they were set up for a city of 50,000 not 100,000 which was the actual population of Flint, in a statement on the 10th of October, 2015 that was when Howard Croft resigned. To me that's such a ridiculous cop-out I can't get my head around it. Anyway irrespective of that, how do we protect pipes from corrosion, in non- Flint reticulation systems? Well, what I've typically seen used is ORP which is an abbreviation for Orthophosphate. We add Orthophosphate at the Water Treatment Plant and plants I've worked on, and it's used as a corrosion inhibitor. Now since Detroit had been adding that for years into the water supply and then pumping that out to Flint for nearly 50 years, their own Water Treatment Plant didn't have any ORP dosing system installed. Well they didn't need it...until they switched! Now the ORP, how it works is it creates a thin film and they call it a Passivation Layer and it chemically insulates the pipe wall from the chlorine disinfectant. I know it's not technically an insulator... I'm an Electrical Engineer so I prefer to think of things like an insulator okay, but it's a protective layer: think of it like that. It separates the Chlorine that would otherwise react with the metal, be it Iron, Lead or Copper inner walls of the pipes. Now many countries around the world still have Lead pipes in use today and millions of people aren't dying from lead poisoning. So it can't be that simple. The thing with ORP is it's always under attack just from particulate erosion. So suspended particles not dissolved solids but suspended particles, as the water travels through the pipe. Kind of like a very gentle sandblasting and an erosive effect. So we keep dosing it to ensure there's a healthy protection layer, but it's not just particulate erosion, the chemistry of the water will deteriorate it as well and without any Phosphate at all in the water, the passivation layer is ever so gradually eroded as time passes. The water from the river in addition to that was a more acidic pH, than the water from Detroit, and rather than correcting it, it was allowed into the reticulation system which further dissolved the protective layer slowly released the pipes' metal back into the water supply. Quick lesson on pH: pH of 1 is highly acidic and 14 is highly basic. 7 is what we refer to as a neutral solution. In water treatment we always keep the pH a minimum buffer amount on the basic side of neutral. 7.5 to 8.5 pH is typical enough. The amount of Acid Lime dosing in place for pH correction is relative to the water source and the cost to dose in order to trim the pH. We dose with 1 chemical to treat one problem it will affect the pH usually, so we'll trim with another chemical to bring the pH back again. Now when Flint switched from Detroit's water it went from about 8 (a pH of 8) in December of 2014, and it slid down to about 7.3 by the August of 2015 and that's very odd because they should have been trimming that pH to a set point. They should have a target value either fixed rate flow-paced however they want a dose, but irrespective they should have had some kind of a target, but it says to me that either they weren't trying to trim it or they didn't think it was a problem or it was a fixed rate dose or they weren't paying much attention. I guess that's probably worse, if they weren't paying attention. Irrespective it was not controlled by any stretch the imagination. Now Chlorine concentration is another one that's worth considering as well. The Detroits' waters' average Chlorination (or Chlorine concentration I should say) was 11.4ppm, that was in 2014 as it arrived at the plant, however in August of 2015, it was measured in Flint at 85ppm and it's no wonder it smelled. Rather strong concentration of chlorine. Now that occurs to me that it was probably an overcorrection and that was a reaction to the e-coli contamination problem from mid-2014. So what they did is they increase their dosage of Ferric Chloride which is a coagulant for organic particulates and that makes them flocculate and makes them easier to remove, but this increased the Chloride concentration as a direct result. Flocculation's simply a process whereby smaller suspended solids will clump together and group allowing them to be more easily filtered out by sand filters or different kinds of filters. So as you add more Ferric Chloride you then need to trim something else, so you one thing, you need to trim another. The water chemistry, it's not as straightforward as you'd like it to be. Now multiple studies showed that the corrosive rates of Lead increase when Chloride:Sulfide ratio is greater than 0.58. Now to compare Detroit's water had a ratio of 0.45 which was less than that, but the Flint River treated water, at its worst was measured at 1.6. That ratio: 1.6 more: nearly 3 times as much. Not just a bit worse...a lot worse! The worst part of it for me though is that the first sign of trouble was there was discolouration of the water in mid-2014, only a few months after they switched to the river water source. Now that was caused by the breakdown the passivation layer that we previously discussed, and that discoloration was actually caused by rust: the Iron pipes were the first ones to show damage, and that was that rust colouration. That should have been the first sign that something was seriously wrong. The thing that a lot of people don't realize about Chlorine though, is that Chlorine is essential to protecting us from bacteria and there's only a very, very small number of bacteria and viruses in existence that can survive when dosed with Chlorine, which is why it's used for water disinfection. It's very effective. Chlorine concentration though, it deteriorates over time, they call it the Chlorine Residual as in residual level, and you can't stop it, and we measure Free Chlorine levels in water, post-treatment to ensure that the minimum is retained at the outlet of the Water Treatment Plant so that by the time it reaches your place, it's traveled through the pipelines, reservoirs, towers, it has to be a minimum Chlorine Residual presence at the delivery point, and when I say "delivery point" I mean the tap (or the faucet) whatever you want to call it. So we want that Chlorine to be in the water because if it isn't, it can't kill the bacteria that it could pick up along the way as it passes through the whole reticulation network on its way to your door and to the point of delivery. Problem was, once the passivation layer had eroded, the Chlorine Residual in the lines, it began to react with the metal directly: specifically the Iron in this case, and that reaction, started to consume a lot of the Chlorine that was in the solution. And I say the solution: I mean the water of course, and that meant that the e-coli bacteria could grow, leading to people getting sick because the Chlorine that was supposed to kill it off and keep it at bay had been consumed by a chemical reaction with the Iron in the pipe because there was no passivation layer. So what did the Flint officials do at the Water Treatment Facility to fight that? They added more Chlorine! So that then accelerated that reaction with the Iron and the Lead and that released more into the water system. So we know Lead is nasty stuff. "Something, something, Roman reference," right? I mean the debate goes on if there was actual a cause of illness in Roman times, but we well know the effects of lead poisoning from modern medicine. Some of the symptoms include partial or full blindness. Can cause hallucinations and hearing loss. Slurred speech, kidney failure which leads to dialysis. Insomnia, depression, short-term memory loss, infertility. Tingling pains in the fingers and toes, constant fatigue, the list goes on and on. It's actually pretty terrible. But the effect of Lead on children in particular, it's horrible. Because it leads to learning difficulties, permanent life-long disabilities. Now we don't use Lead pipes anymore, but in 1990 the American Water Works Association estimated that there were millions of Lead service lines in the United States alone. The obvious question is: why do we use metal pipes at all? They're cheap, they're easy at work, they last a long, long time basically. Polymer pipes (or Poly-pipes for short) they're great, but they're a relatively new thing and they don't have the same longevity. Retrofitting pipe- work with non-metallic pipes is normally done on a failure/replacement basis, because replacing all of that infrastructure would bankrupt most local governments. It always comes back to money. Always. So even now they're back on Detroit water. It could take many, many years to re-passivate or re-line the pipes, however you want to think about it, and as this is being recorded some locations in Flint are still seeing unacceptable levels of Lead in their water at the delivery point. I wonder also though, just how rigorous water testing is in other parts of the country and the world for that matter as a direct result of this incident? You can never, ever take your eye off the ball not for a second. So what actually went wrong here besides the chemistry of the water? Who we really is to blame, and what are we learn from this? Well I suppose, don't use metal pipes wherever you can and especially not Lead! Got it. But honestly the problem I guess I have is well, where were the Engineers? The Chemists and the Biologists in all of this, at the Flint Water Treatment Plant? I spent a decade in water and wastewater and periodic sampling at treatment plants, that happens daily, weekly, monthly and at reservoirs. There are key sample points in the network: customer premises, you name it they test it! Originally every plant I worked at had its own laboratory, and they would test their own water samples from their own local reticulation network and reservoirs and in one plant we had a SCADA client in the corner of the lab and I remember the sound of the centrifuge spinning up and down as they ran tests on that water. They've centralized them now so they could afford better test equipment, and they've cut the number of Chemists on the payroll I'm sure, but hopefully not too few. But to not understand something like corrosion that's fundamental. Absolutely fundamental. To switch water sources are not to understand the balance the water needs to have in its chemistry in order not to destroy your pipe-work infrastructure that you need to deliver your water to your customers is frankly, it's ridiculous. It's criminal. You're entrusted not just with taking care of an asset. That pipe in the ground is an expensive asset and beyond that the entire city's population depends on that to survive. Their health, their well-being. And in an effort to save money it's cost an immeasurable amount more than that in the long run. Let's not even think about the lawsuits and the class actions that's gonna cost them dearly in months and years to come, but beyond the money, it comes back to supervision and putting the right people in charge. There are people that blame Kurtz, Croft and Johnson in varying degrees. There are others as well that are implicated, but with so much of that still under wraps and being closely guarded it's difficult to know at least today for sure who was pushing for the river water solution maybe we'll never know. Maybe there's enough hands in the ring that we won't be able to single out any one individual. But in the end I suppose to me it doesn't matter so much as about the individual but it's clear though to me that the people that were entrusted to run the Flint Water Treatment Plant and the water quality testing, weren't qualified to do so and if they tried to fix the dosing issues at the plant there's been no evidence presented that I can find that they ever even tried. The wrong people were running the system. Clearly they weren't supervised by the right people either the wrong people were put in charge and it didn't take very long at all for everything to completely fall apart. If you're enjoying Causality and want to support the show you can, like one of our backers, Chris Stone. He and many others are Patrons of the show via Patreon and you can find it at Don't forget if you're enjoying Causality you may enjoy other shows on The Engineered Network such as Neutrium, Pragmatic and a new show, Analytical. Be sure to check them out too. This was Causality. I'm John Chidgey. Thanks for listening.
Duration 26 minutes and 45 seconds Direct Download

Show Notes

Links of potential interest:

Episode Gold Producer: 'r'.
Episode Silver Producer: Chris Stone.
Premium supporters have access to high-quality, early released episodes with a full back-catalogues of previous episodes


John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

Described as the David Attenborough of disasters, and a Dreamy Narrator with Great Pipes by the Podfather Adam Curry.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.