This case with Flint is egregious, in terms of violating good water quality engineering practice norms, trust and common sense.
Nancy Love, P.E.
There is one question I’ve asked myself every single day since the story of Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water made headlines: Where were the engineers?
Everyone, I imagine, knows the story by now: Flint, Michigan, decided to draw its water from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from Detroit, in order to save money. The Flint River water is acidic and, absent corrosion control, it ate through the scale lining the inside of the distribution pipes, and then went to work on the pipes themselves — which are made of, among other things, lead. There is also a suspicion that the water is responsible for a spike in Legionnaires disease.
This happened while the city was under the control of an emergency manager appointed by the governor, a legal device by which the state seizes control of failing cities and, if things go well, returns them to sound management. The emergency manager has near-dictatorial powers; he can summarily terminate contracts, hire and fire personnel at will, without the ordinary constraints, and ignore elected officials. Thanks to declining revenues associated with the loss of its manufacturing base, several cities in Michigan, most notably Detroit, have found themselves operated by an emergency manager.
The emergency manager law is wildly unpopular, and short-circuits the ordinary give-and-take of democracy, with the result that attention has focused on the governor who appointed the emergency manager on whose watch the water catastrophe began. Worse, the state reacted dismissively when residents began complaining about the water.
The emergency manager law can be debated till the sun burns out, and probably will be; I’m not interested in that conversation. What I want to know is, Where were the engineers? There should have been ranks of engineers and chemists between the Flint River intake and Joe Citizen’s tap, all of them charged with assuring that Mr. Citizen, and his children, weren’t poisoned when they brushed their teeth.
Where were they?
The title may vary from place-to-place, but every water treatment plant has a person who is designated the operator-of-record, the individual who is responsible, and legally accountable, for assuring that the water delivered to consumers is safe. Generally, that person is licensed by the state, upon examination, and has a technical background in engineering or chemistry. That person, in turn, directs a staff of engineers, chemists, and technicians who operate the plant day-to-day.
It isn’t believable that those people didn’t hear the complaints about the water, and it isn’t believable that they knew so little about the city’s distribution system — Could they have been unaware of the presence of lead pipes? — that they couldn’t figure-out that the lack of corrosion control was causing the pipes to be eaten away. It just isn’t believable.
No hyperbole there: I don’t believe that.
I can think of only two possible explanations.
The emergency manager somehow cut them out of the loop and was, himself, the de facto plant operator.
The technical people in Flint’s water plant are a pack of cowed weenies whose licenses need to be taken away — like, yesterday.
Undoubtedly, the governor believed he had competent people overseeing things, and believes that he was bushwhacked by the people who failed so miserably and then dismissed the complaints and covered-up their inactivity; he is right, too. He is responsible in only the narrow sense that he’s the guy at the top of the pyramid and responsible for everything. It is enough, though; he will have to go.
The greatest failure, though, lies with the technical people who either didn’t know their distribution system, or who ignored their ethical duty to the public and allowed themselves to be shoved aside.